from the world's troubles
by Gary MacEoin
BERNE, Switzerland: Presbyterian pastor John Fife of Tucson, Arizona, was honoured here last week at a Republican Banquet by 250 sympathisers from the nine Catholic and Protestant churches of Berne that have joined in declaring sanctuary for Tamils from Sri Lanka threatened with expulsion by the Swiss authorities. Mr Fife is one of eight church workers (they include two priests and a nun) found guilty last June of violating US immigration laws by giving sanctuary to Central American refugees. The verdicts are being appealed.
During more than 20 speeches we learned a lot about Republican banquets and about church-related sanctuary movements in Europe today. The Republican Banquet is a Swiss tradition going back to the years following the Congress of Vienna (1815) when all dissident political opinion was ruthlessly suppressed. The people came together under church sponsorship for social events, using the toasts to express their political views. Everyone was entitled to offer a toast, as all participants still are.
In this way, we learned that significant groups in several European countries oppose the current policy of their governments of restricting the right of of political asylum and using many administrative devices to negate the rights conferred by the UN Convention on Refugees and other international agreements.
We learned of their eagerness for more information about the sanctuary movement in the United States. We met more than half a dozen who have visited the United States to study the techniques used there. Others have recently attended a meeting in Amsterdam of 12 activities from the United States (including Mr Fife) and 24 from Europe who laid the groundwork for a worldwide liaison committee. The European Committee for the Defence of Refugees and Immigrants is already active in France, Switzerland, Austria and West Germany.
Grandfather of the movement in Europe is Abbe Cornelius Koch, a Catholic priest from Geneva. He told us how, after the overthrow of President Allende in Chile in 1973, thousands of Chileans fled to Argentina. When the Swiss government refused to accept more than a token number, they smuggled some 50 in through Italy, then appealed publicly for sponsors, quickly got several thousand. Today, said Fr Koch happily, we have more than 3,000 Chileans living in Switzerland.
It was relatively easy then. Europe's economy was buoyant and "guest workers" were welcome. All that has changed. The laws still recognise the right of asylum. In West Germany it is written into the Constitution. But bureaucrats have found ways to negate the clear legal provisions. Germany is today the most hostile European country toward foreigners. Politicians win votes by denouncing the threat of racial
mongrelisation, drug-pushing and terrorism that comes from the presence of undesirable nonEuropeans. A similar zenophobia is spreading in Switzerland and France.
Some of the trends in France were reviewed at a conference in Paris in late October, under UNESCO auspices, on the right of asylum. It took place just as it was revealed that France had flown 1,700 persons back to Mali during the previous ten weeks. The Administration claimed they were lawbreakers and drug pushers, but it was determined that only a few of them had any criminal record.
What did emerge from the various conferences was the enormity of the problem. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, whose definition is very restrictive, says the world has 12 million refugees, of whom 700,000 are in Europe, 170,000 in France. Most refugees stay close to the country from which they flee. Somalia, Sudan and Pakistan shelter more than 4 million refugees from Ethiopia, Uganda, Zaire, Chad and Afghanistan.
From these figures it is clear that poor countries accept the overwhelming majority of refugees. Western Europe has one refugee for each 710 inhabitants, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan, one for every 24.