European migrant crisis influenced by faith groups pursuing 'alternative justice'

Churches and other faith-based organizations play a distinctive role, according to Dean Katharyne Mitchell.

Katharyne Mitchell

"After World War II, when millions of refugees were displaced, Europe said 'Never again,' and yet, it's happening again," says Katharyne Mitchell. "Faith-based communities are saying, 'Not on my watch.' " (Photo by Melissa De Witte.)

Photo of migrants crawling under barbed wire in Hungary
Hundreds of thousands of migrants fled to Europe in 2015, prompting a humanitarian crisis that activated faith-based communities and organizations.

The influx of millions of immigrants to Europe since 2015 has activated aid organizations, strained governments, and given rise to nationalist movements.

In the midst of this tension, a small but dedicated band of faith-based organizations is doing what they consider God's work: protecting immigrants from detention and deportation.

The role of churches in the sanctuary movement is distinctive in three key ways, according to Katharyne Mitchell, a professor of sociology and dean of the Social Sciences Division at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who writes about them in the current issue of Space and Polity

  • Propelled by faith and a desire to help others, these groups provide enduring support that persists after others have moved on;
  • Many are willing to break the law to answer to a "higher calling;"
  • Their actions affect policy as, for example, police opt not to enter churches to remove people seeking sanctuary.

"Secular organizations have to play within the rules of the game, but churches don't operate under the same constraints," said Mitchell. "Providing church asylum is not legal. It turns out human values are important in everyday practices and forms of activism. These insurgent citizens are pushing the boundaries of democracy and liberalism."

Since 2012, faith-based organizations have become more prominent in migration relief work as churches, synagogues, and mosques provide sanctuary to those at risk of deportation, said Mitchell.

"I wanted to understand how faith-based assumptions and beliefs differ from secular norms—how they intertwine with secular governments and other organizations to shape what's happening on the ground," said Mitchell.

A geographer, Mitchell spent four months in Europe investigating the impact of the faith-based community on the migrant crisis. She interviewed more than 50 pastors, priests, church administrators, members of activist church networks, politicians, European Union bureaucrats, aid workers, migrants, and administrators of intergovernmental organizations. Her research took her to Geneva, Vienna, Berlin, Brussels, Athens, and Mytilene, a port city on the island of Lesbos.

Considered sacred space, churches are an important resource for immigrants. They provide sanctuary and are a gateway to additional support, including material assistance, medical attention, and physical refuge. Publicity and media coverage of church activities can shape public opinion, said Mitchell, adding that churches can "push policy" without fear because of their historical and cultural roles in society.

"For many people of faith, providing sanctuary is a necessary act that's in keeping with their beliefs and their commitment to care for their neighbors," said Mitchell. "Intervention, whether it's legal or not, is a moral duty. They invoke international law, as well as 'higher' law. They say, 'It's not just my job. It's who I am.'

"This level of engagement has political repercussions, as the sanctuary movement and associated politics of "alternative justice" grow, said Mitchell.

"In Europe, this movement was greatly energized by the Pope in 2015 when he encouraged every parish, church, and faith-based community to take in one person," she said. "This was just as the pushback against Syrian refugees and others was beginning. The Pope stood up at that critical moment, when governments were looking to get around international laws, established in the wake of World War II, governing refugee assistance and asylum."

Faith-based organizations providing sanctuary are "relatively small but symbolically important" players in the European migrant crisis, said Mitchell. As European Union nations turn their backs on the 1951 Refugee Convention that outlines the rights of the displaced, sending refugees back to so-called "safe spaces," faith communities are refusing to go along with policies they cannot support.

"They are stepping into the breach caused by the fracturing of national politics and the unwillingness of the EU to continue providing aid," she said. "After World War II, when millions of refugees were displaced, Europe said 'Never again,' and yet, it's happening again. Faith-based communities are saying, 'Not on my watch.' "