Welcome to Italy!

Arrival at Fiumicino airport (Rome). Photo: NEV press agency
Arrival at Fiumicino airport (Rome). Photo: NEV press agency

Humanitarian corridors – an ecumenical initiative to help refugees

(LWI) “The humanitarian corridors work! That became clear to us when, on 4 February 2016, we welcomed 6-year-old Falak from Homs in Syria to Italy, with her parents and brother,” says Christiane Groeben, vice-president of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy. “A dream had come true for all of us - after many negotiations, talks, hopes, interviews and even more paperwork.”

The humanitarian corridors are the product of ecumenical cooperation between the Union of Waldensian and Methodist Churches, the Community of Sant’ Egidio and the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy (FPCI). The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Italy (ELCI), an LWF member church, is one of the founding members  of the FPCI in 1967. Each did their part to provide resources, contacts, ideas, patience and personal commitment, so that an agreement could be signed on 15 December 2015 with the relevant department of the Italian foreign and interior ministries.

This agreement benefits Falak’s family and many others. Her family was the first to cross the Mediterranean on a scheduled flight with regular visas. They came from Beirut, where they had lived in a refugee camp for a few years. It was urgent for Falak; she was at risk of losing her second eye to cancer. Meanwhile she and her family are doing well and have adapted to life in Rome.

A dream had come true for all of us - after many negotiations, talks, hopes, interviews and even more paperwork.
Christiane Groeben, vice-president of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy

Providing protection, accommodation and help

The agreement with the Italian government was intended to enable 1,000 vulnerable persons, independent of their religion or ethnic background, to enter Italy in the following two years. It was decided that the Italian consulates in the relevant states could issue “visas with limited territorial validity” (according to Art. 25 of Regulation (EC) 810/2009 of 13 July 2009). Local organizations compile the lists of eligible persons, which are carefully checked before the issuance of a visa. This allays fears of undesired immigrants. The program is based on two years (2016-2017).

The sponsoring organizations commit to giving legal support with the application for international protection, to accommodating and accompanying the migrants during the initial period, covering transport costs to Italy and affording financial support during their integration in Italy. The state therefore has no expenses at all.

One thousand people seem very few, in view of the masses currently fleeing and seeking security and shelter. The humanitarian corridors are one way of helping the most vulnerable people who, more than others, need to be healed of their internal and external wounds.

Meanwhile over 500 people have arrived in Italy, above all from Syria: extended families, mothers with children, young single people. They file their application for asylum at the airport and are accompanied to safe places in Italy, on the way into a life in freedom, independence and refuge.

Spared a nightmare

Everyone brings memories of home. Everyone also brings things that are part of their history and their home – pictures, favorite toys, a musical instrument. Suitcases, shoulder-bags and carrier bags are full to bursting. Holding on to a bit of home – also in the new home. The refugees arriving on boats cannot do that. Instead they have memories of a cruel, dangerous route to Europe, that will haunt them all their lives. At least those who come via humanitarian corridors are spared this nightmare.

Soon others will be received a similar ”Welcome to France”. On 14 February 2017 an agreement was signed between the French government and five ecumenical partner organizations, on the same legal basis as in Italy. How great it would be if even more people could be “Welcomed to …”!

By Christiane Groeben, vice-president of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy and a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Italy. Edited and translated by the Office for Communication Services.