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Migration, Human Dignity and Global Responsibility: On a recent publication of the Christian Churches in Germany

On 21st October 2021 the Christian Churches in Germany published their Joint Statement Migration menschenwürdig gestalten (Dealing with migration in a humane manner).[1] The public intervention launched by the German Bishops’ Conference and the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) in cooperation with the Council of Christian Churches in Germany (ACK) is the outcome of a nearly two year long discussion and working process by an expert group from different areas of academic and practical expertise. The churches intended to update their position on migration, refugee and asylum issues after a period of nearly 25 years. Their last joint statement on migration had been published in 1997.[2] Since then the worldwide migration dynamics underwent major changes as did the political attitude towards migration and asylum in Germany and on the EU level. At least three aspects of change need to be mentioned.

The Context

(1) Up to the end of the 20th century many German politicians were reluctant to accept that the country was an immigration country although evidence was beyond any doubt. Today the fact of immigration as an integral and constant dimension of the German society is no longer questioned but certain groups of the population, encouraged by populist political voices, loudly perform anti-migrant and anti-refugee attitudes, partly in a clearly racist manner.

(2) It was only at the dawn of the new millennium that the Common EU Asylum System (CEAS) was established (1999), when the EU was both expanding in terms of the number of member states and deepening its structures of national cooperation. Now, two decades later, centrifugal dynamics are at work of which Brexit represents only the most striking symbol. Disharmony about the goals of the EU and the mutual commitments of its member states weaken the power to take joint action that would be so urgent in favor of refugees and migrants seeking safety, security and the chance to find their livelihood in Europe. A reliable base of common values seems ever more precarious; in particular a common understanding of what solidarity means – both among the EU member states and with third parties – seems to be absent or is denied in favor of divergent national interests. Especially in the field of migration and asylum policies the weakness of common values seems to be decisive: If the unanimity to keep asylum seekers out and to fortify the external borders is revealed to be the lowest common denominator among the EU member states this would surely indicate the failure of the Union as a community of values. The recent aggressive strategy of Belarusian dictator Lukaschenko has changed the situation only for the worse. He brutally instrumentalizes thousands of migrants from middle Eastern countries to impose pressure on the EU as revenge for sanctions. By rightly refusing the dictator’s attempt to blackmail the EU its political authorities at the same time do not intervene against the pushbacks from the Polish territory which are clearly contradictory to the humanitarian law of the peoples. The migrants, twice instrumentalized and victimized, find themselves in a deadlock between Belarus and the EU territory in both a literally and a symbolic sense.

(3) A third challenge has to be addressed on the global level: During the last decade the world has witnessed a dramatic erosion of multilateralism, international solidarity and the political commitment for the global common good. Power dynamics are performed in a more and more aggressive manner, often driven by populist and racist nation-first ideologies, as during the Trump administration in the US or with Bolsonaro in Brazil. Major indicators of such aggressive political style are the exclusion of people on the move by raising fences and walls and the extractivism of natural resources which is ignorant of the common good, on the cost on poor people, on indigenous peoples and on the ecological integrity.


A Compass of Migration Ethics

Being aware of the tensions shaping today’s world the churches’ statement clearly takes sides for a humane and inclusive migration and refugee policy. It formulates an explicitly cosmopolitical approach towards the issues of refugees, forced migration and asylum and it intends to clearly differentiate the various kinds of involuntary migration caused by hunger, environmental devastation and other compelling reasons which are neither acknowledged as legitimate reasons for seeking asylum nor accepted as just causes for legal immigration. Since I cannot present the entire Statement in this short essay I will confine myself to the suggested compass of migration ethics and comment on the most important social-ethical landmarks suggested in the paper (chapter V).

Two preliminary remarks need to be made:

(1) The first one is on ethics and politics. It is necessary to clearly discern between the two fields of reasoning and acting: Political decision making follows genuine rules, as the necessity to balance needs and interests, to compromise on controversial issues and to pragmatically negotiate solutions within the limits of a given constitution. But the political field is not an empty or neutral space as to ethical orientation. On the contrary: Political negotiation, fair participation and the inclusion of the human rights and needs of persons and groups, including those who themselves have no chance to take part in deliberation processes touching their vital interests, are highly ethical challenges. Criteria of how to balance national interests with humanitarian needs and the global common good do not derive from the very issues at stake but from deep convictions and ethical options. Therefore, ethical reflection as a potential source of political orientation needs to go beyond the limit of what seems right now, realistic or feasible on a pragmatic political base.

(2) The second one is on how migration is grasped. It needs to be stated very clearly that migration in general is not seen as a problem. The mobility of people in the first place is a fact and an integral part of global dynamics. Migration reveals to be problematic if people need to leave their homeplace in order to survive or to find the elementary conditions of a humane and safe life. Therefore, the best migration policy would derive from international strategies to fight poverty, ecological devastation, violence and war. Inasmuch as those push factors of involuntary migration vanished migration would cease to create major political problems. From an ethical point of view the goal of migration policy is not to prevent migration, but to overcome the causes of involuntary migration driven by violence, poverty or the general lack of perspectives.

Biblical Calibration – Love and Dignity

Surely a Christian compass of migration ethics has to be calibrated biblically. The double (or rather triple) commandment of love – love of God, of one’s neighbor, and of oneself – is the strongest expression of the equal dignity of all human creatures. The commandment to love strangers (Lev 19, 34) overcomes the dichotomy of friend or foe. It approaches the – any – Other with the readiness to shelter and protect the injured and the vulnerables no matter from where they come and where they belong.

The Christian ethos and secular human rights converge in that equal dignity and universal fraternity are foundational of unconditioned mutual recognition. In terms of migration ethics that means: Human beings are on each side of all political borders. No border whatsoever may legitimise the disregard of human dignity and the refusal of protection for persons in acute danger. As the hotspots of migration in Europe – on the Greek islands, at Gibraltar, at the French coast near Calais, at the Croatian-Bosnian border, and at the Polish border to Belarus – painfully show this insight is not just a commonplace unnecessary to remind people of.

The Global Common Good

The principle of the common good implies the political claims to empower each and every person to participate in social goods and positions and to gain access to their livelihood. Both claims are necessary to realise human dignity and to put the right to personal development into practice. This is of vital interest especially for people whose citizenship and access to social participation are precarious. In our era of globally entangled societies the common good itself needs to be shaped globally. National and regional common good issues may, of course, be legitimate as such, but since they will compete with each other conflicts are unavoidable. With regard to the global common good political decisions on a national or continental level need balancing the competing interests and values on a global scale. Political decisions and strategies with broader external effects have to be legitimised in the face of those who are affected without being able to participate in the decision-making process. In this global context any categorical refinement of common good claims to a national or regional level appears as an ethically problematic provincialisation.

As indicated above in a social-ethical perspective the most important goal of a global migration order is to overcome forced migration. Being aware of the major push factors of involuntary migration for reasons of poverty, ecological devastation and the lack of perspectives (as reasons beyond the factors that define a refugee status in the Geneva Convention) it seems necessary to remember the principal of the common destination (Gemeinwidmung) of the created goods rooted in the biblical and Christian traditions. It claims the priority of the common destination over particular (private) claims. With regard to the dramatically unequal access to the necessities on both a global scale and within many societies of the world, this principle implies the further claim to define and secure differentiated citizenship rights as a means to guarantee fair access to the necessities for all people worldwide. Human mobility across borders requires an inclusive human rights-based order.

Two Guiding Principles

Beyond the already existing law of the peoples and beyond political realities the joint statement of the Churches suggests two principles of migration ethics: (1) No one should be forced to emigrate from his or her homeplace. (2) Each and every one should be free to immigrate into a new homeplace. In order to understand the meaning of the two sentences it is of major importance to remember the difference between the ethical and the political as explained above: The two principles do not serve as a political instruction, but as regulatory ideas. They shape an ethical horizon in which goals of a globally responsible migration politics should be identified and the necessary balancing of competing interests needs to be developed.

Limits of Migration Policy

One last point seems important: Migration policy must not be overstressed. The issues and challenges coming up with the presence of international migrants indicate a broad range of unsolved problems on national, regional, continental and global levels. Problems of war and violent power, problems of economic hegemony and exploitation of resources, the climate crisis, hunger and poverty, bad governance and the failure of states. All these factors (the list could be continued) push migration. But not all these issues indicated by international migration can be addressed not to mention solved by migration policy. Peacebuilding and international cooperation for good development, international economy and trade-policy, and above all serious efforts of the international community to mitigate the consequences of climate change are urgent preconditions to a migration policy in line with human dignity and human rights. What has been missed by the various political responsibilities cannot be compensated by migration policies alone – be it on national or continental levels. The huge unsolved problems of our world must not be packed on the migrants’ and refugees’ backs.

[1] Migration menschenwürdig gestalten [English working title: Dealing with migration in a humane manner], Joint Statement of the German Bishops’ Conference and the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) in cooperation with the Council of Christian Churches in Germany (ACK), Joint Texts 27, Bonn/Hannover 2021 [English translation forthcoming: Bonn/Hannover 2022]. Online: (2021-11-24).

[2] … und der Fremdling, der in deinen Toren ist. Gemeinsames Wort der Kirchen zu den Herausforderungen durch Migration und Flucht. Joint Statement of the German Bishops’ Conference and the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) in cooperation with the Council of Christian Churches in Germany (ACK), Joint Texts, 12), Bonn-Hannover 1997. Online (2021-11-24).