It is an ancient pre-Christian and early Christian tradition to grant asylum to refugees in holy places.
In Europe, this tradition was revived by the Charter of Groningen, passed in 1987 by religious communities and grass-roots church initiatives. It says: “When we have good reason to assume that a refugee or asylum seeker, threatened with deportation, is not being given humanitarian treatment, or that decisions are being taken that may seriously affect the quality of his or her existence, we pledge ourselves to take in and protect him or her until a solution has been found that is acceptable to all parties concerned. We will not avoid open confrontation with our governments or direct action of solidarity and protest when in our opinion the situation requires it.”
In Germany, the concept of church asylum is based on the same conviction. It is not enshrined in law, but is largely tolerated as church intervention by the German state. There is not a single paragraph in German law concerning this, but discussions have been held, as well as non-binding agreements between the government and the churches. Experience tells us that the German authorities usually refrain from having the police remove refugees from church premises – although they would be able to.
If a community takes in a refugee in order to protect them from deportation, the authorities are duly informed. The aim of church asylum is to prompt them to re-examine their deportation decision, having regard to the individual’s circumstances and their particular hardships. Every instance of church asylum results from a personal encounter: someone sees an individual, is moved by their need and acts accordingly, in the hope that the state will also recognise these grounds if the person’s case is examined more closely.
Many cases of church asylum would be unnecessary if the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) made a greater number of appropriate decisions in favour of asylum seekers. At present most cases of church asylum are to prevent deportation to another European country. According to the Dublin Regulation, the state responsible for the asylum application is the state in which the asylum seeker arrives in Europe, unless another state voluntarily takes over the asylum case. In 2017, according to the German federal government, 1561 church asylum cases related to the Dublin Regulation, with a further 972 in the first half of 2018.
The decision to grant church asylum is never made lightly by local or religious communities. The loneliness and cramped, restricted conditions of church asylum often weigh heavily on refugees, and every case of church asylum requires a huge voluntary, financial and organisational commitment.
Deportation within Europe may not on the face of it sound like a serious threat, but in fact, in some countries where people enjoy carefree holidays, the situation faced by refugees can be dreadful. In Greece and Italy, tens of thousands of people are homeless, without any shelter, and there are numerous reports of ill-treatment from Bulgaria and Hungary. Sometimes there are family-related reasons for wanting a case heard in Germany; this was the case, for example, with a Yazidi who managed to escape the IS massacres. The fact that this young man
had found a stable place of refuge with his (excellently integrated) uncle in Munich was not considered by the Federal Office – but it was by the local municipality. A similarly moving case was that of a woman on her own, who was the sole survivor of a boat that capsized. After arriving in Italy, she was forced by violence into prostitution. She escaped and continued her flight.
Everyone makes mistakes, and those who process asylum and residence cases are no exception. The difference is that here, such errors can have life-threatening consequences. We do not know the criteria by which the Federal Office decides on church asylum cases, and thus whether to deport an individual or allow them to stay, and the notice of decision – often composed of stock paragraphs – rarely reveals the grounds. In some cases, if their application is refused again, some refugees return to church asylum out of fear of deportation, until such time as the responsibility for the asylum case passes legally to Germany. At present, the period for this is six months. But for refugees whose applications have been refused a second time, and for all whose cases are not considered reasonably quickly, in future it will take around a year and a half before Germany takes over the asylum case. The churches have protested against this worsening of the situation, because in accordance with the EU regulations, an extension of this period would only be legal if a refugee has gone into hiding or absconded. But this is not true of church asylum cases, since the authorities know who is living where.
Taking action to help fellow human beings in need is at the heart of the Christian identity. In church asylum cases, this action is taken in the hope of a decision that is both legal and humanitarian. Church asylum demonstrates a definite commitment to a humanitarian state of affairs, something that is sadly lacking in current asylum policies. (Claus Pfuff SJ. Head of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Germany)