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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 97, April 2005



Exodus Meeting ON “Non-Access, 

Refoulement and Deportation in

Europe’s Airports”


Rev. Fr. Frans THOOLEN, S.M.A., 

Official of the Pontifical Council for the 

Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People 


The meeting was attended by 35 persons, of whom nine were speakers, with average attendance being around 25 persons, including speakers. The participants work in chaplaincies or are social workers or offer legal services in airports. Eight representatives of chaplaincies were present, of which four were Catholic (London, Brussels, Munich, and Stuttgart). Our Dicastery was represented by Father Frans Thoolen, SMA, because Rev. Msgr. Anthony Chirayath, in charge of the corresponding Sector in our Pontifical Council, was unable to attend. 

The Conference dealt with the treatment of asylum seekers and deportees (undocumented migrants and rejected asylum seekers) at airports, though its main objective was to create an official structure for the Exodus Network as an NGO with statutes, a board, and perhaps a secretariat. 

I. The Questionnaire

On Thursday afternoon the Conference started with the results of the questionnaire on the airports. This gave an impression of what is happening. The figures presented were not absolute, since they only indicate the persons encountered or those whom one got to know about. The general attitude of the governments is to reduce migration. Entering a country has become more difficult by introducing different measures like visa regimes for countries with serious internal problems, carrier sanctions, detention, the application of “safe third countries” rules, and denying appeal procedures. Deportations are nowadays quite normal. However the questionnaire did not make a distinction between deportation of undocumented persons and of rejected asylum seekers, whose legal position is quite different, including also the possibility to appeal against the deportation. In most countries asylum seekers end up in detention centers or are obliged to remain in transit zones of airports, which, according to UNHCR, should also be considered as detention. In a number of airports no legal assistance is provided for asylum-seekers; furthermore no appeal can be made against forcible return and / or deportation, sometimes by special charter flights. These measures restrict the protection rights of asylum seekers. As an increasing number of passengers appeal for assistance, some are sent from airport to airport. 

The question raised was what ministry the airport chaplain could exercise in all this.

This survey was followed by the reports of the different airports, which confirmed these results and added some more information.

* In some airports, chaplains, legal advisors and social workers have access to the transit zones; in others this is not possible. In others only social workers (as in Vienna) have this possibility.

* Some airports do not have different facilities for men and women. Brussels Airport, for example, does not have showers.

* Paris Airport has a kind of shelter with 174 places. Officially these people have access to a chaplain, but they are not informed about this possibility. 

* Chaplains are seen as fellow workers in the airport, who facilitate contact with police/border control and, informally, may lead to improvements of conditions. Chaplains should use their influence.

* Social work is distinguished from pastoral work and the accompaniment of people.

* Increasing numbers of people are sent from one country to another country. A functioning network could prevent such transferring of people, that sometimes separates family members and draw attention to psychiatric cases. 

2. The Talks

On Friday the participants in the Conference listened to nine talks, half of which explained only the structure of their organization. They are summarized below.

Mr. Michael Nyinah, Deputy UNHCR Representative for the United Kingdom stated that:

1. States have the primary responsibility for refugees. They need to work together, and borders need to remain open for those people in need. The reality however is different and those who need protection do not always get access to it. He expressed his preoccupation with the attitude of the recent position of the European Union. Officially the Union presents itself as a continent of humane values, including solidarity and diversity. However, the EU is a “political project, not a humanitarian one”. Seven million pounds have been used for improving the asylum regime, while 145 million pounds were used for strengthening the borders. A real risk exists that the European identity will be achieved by excluding people who need protection. “Asylum” has to fight for its place in the matrix of interests.

2. The global asylum system is imperfect and in need of reform. Asylum seekers need admission to a safe territory, but no orderly structures exist for that. The question remains how to get ‘in’.

3. The present legal and political environment is extremely harsh and portrays a grim picture, resulting in the introduction of restrictive measures for reception in the EU, border control, carrier sanctions, visa regimes, detention, safe third countries, denying appeal procedures. This all can lead to refoulement. 

Mr. Nyinah sees opportunities especially in the interpretation of texts, jurisprudence and providing examples of good practice. This requires sharing information about harsh procedures which lead to impossible situations. Attention should also be given to the needs of the individual.  

Ms. Satu Suikkari represented the Office of the Commissioner of Human Rights of the Council of Europe. The Commissioner’s mandate has three key aspects: promoting education in and awareness of human rights, contributing to the effective observance of human rights in their legislation and practice, and supporting national human rights bodies.

She stated that the situation of immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees is an area where human rights are undoubtedly at particular risk throughout Europe, since governments are adopting increasingly restrictive measures that do not always properly respect the dignity and fundamental rights of the individuals concerned.

She recalled the 2001 Recommendation concerning deportation. This reflects the commitment of the 45 member states, though it is not legally binding. She also stressed article 3 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, which prohibits torture, and returning someone to a place where there is a risk of persecution or ill treatment. The jurisprudence on this matter is extremely important. Moreover, art. 5 guarantees liberty, while art. 13 requires that during group deportation each individual be interviewed separately. 

Rev. Bill Hopkinson on the Harmondsworth Detention Centre.

He explained that three companies offer custodian services to the UK immigration services. The one running the Harmondsworth Detention Center has strong moral values and works with ethical strategies. The people working in the Center support these values of equality, respect, justice and compassion.

The people in the Center arrive after their claim for asylum has failed and stay for the period given to appeal or till their deportation. Another category are people with visa problems who are waiting till they are removed. The total population varies between 380 and 530 persons.  

The activities of the Religious Department of the Harmondsworth Detention Center are:

1. Allowing people to worship. Colleagues of the Rev. Hopkinson (Anglican priest) are imams, Sikhs, Hindu, Pentecostal ministries and Catholic priests. 65% of the people will worship one way or another during the day. 

2. Promoting that people leave as better people, with increased knowledge about themselves and by having learned new spiritual ideas and some techniques.

3. Involving people in outreaching activities by encouraging them to take part in activities, cleaning rooms, hygienic measures. In tense or extreme situations the chaplains will intervene. 

4. Promoting values which everybody has: respect, equality, care.  

People also become spiritually richer as is evident with Pentecostal Africans and with Muslims.

The sad thing is the need for this detention. The chaplains has a particular ministry to exercise. Though they cannot question the officers, they can chase them and draw attention to the fact that necessary action have not been undertaken. 

Sometimes they assist and teach people how to pray. 

Since working in the center is not allowed, they have some short training and educational courses (arts, computer, English as a second language, cleaning, food handling). This offers possibilities to get jobs whenever they will be allowed to stay in the United Kingdom. 

Ms. Monika Lueke, represented the Churches Committee on Migrants in Europe (CCME) explained that this is an organization of 42 Churches and ecumenical councils in Europe. Its mandate covers the whole area of migration and integration, refugees, and asylum, racism and xenophobia.

As a general rule, CCME is against deportation of foreigners. If exceptionally necessary, deportation has to be carried out according to the rule of law and respecting international human rights standards. Deportation should be avoided as it runs the danger of violating the rights of returnees and often is not cost-effective. 

CCME encourages its member churches to increase their work in the field of deportation and to establish some form of deportation monitoring at the airports, as is already functioning at Dusseldorf Airport (Germany). 

The Jesuit Refugee Service, Caritas Internationalis, Migreurop, and Bail for Detained Refugees presented in a general way their respective organizations. 

3. Expectations for Exodus

Saturday and Sunday morning were devoted to the expectations of the participants concerning Exodus and how the organization should function in the future. The following ideas were presented: 

* to know what is happening by being linked with the different airports

* to get in contact with resource persons within the European Union

* to know where cooperation of the European Union is leading 

* to be better prepared for trauma and crisis intervention

* to be connected to other networks without doubling their activities (Catholic airport chaplains and airport chaplains)

* to get to know how chaplains are working

* to be present as Churches among asylum seekers at airports and give the voiceless a voice. 

It requires that the pastoral concept of refugee and the ministry of chaplains be more discussed. What is the specificity of the chaplaincy and which work should be done by social workers? The chaplains need to understand the role of lawyers and social workers and vice-versa. 

Some people expressed as their view that there was the risk that Exodus could become too “churchy” and dependent on church structures. 

Possible action to be undertaken include:

* information exchange, leading to advocacy in relation with existing structures 

* sharing experiences, leading to good practices

* more contact during the year

* professional exchange of chaplains, social workers and legal advisers working in airports

* case by case contact in different airports

* an active presence of the Churches

* becoming a platform for different professions working in airports so that refugees get the utmost out of it.

The Statutes of the Exodus Network Association were, after a lengthy discussion concerning article one and two, adopted. The diversity of the group became quite visible during this discussion. Some participants insisted on ecumenical relations or faith based groups, while others did not want to have any relation to religious groups. Partly this is due to the ‘democratic’ structure of Exodus, where people, even attending for the first time, without knowing anything about its history, can forward their personal opinions and determine the discussion about the future.

Four persons were chosen to start the Network: Mr. Michel Ottet, from the NGO Elisa, Geneva, Switzerland; Rev. Jean-Luc Martin, French Reformed Church from Sweden; Ms. Maria de Donato, CIR, from Italy; and Mr. Shahram Aghil, from the Refugee Arrivals Project, Great Britain. The last two persons still had to consult their respective organisation.

The meeting next year will take place in Rome and will be organized by CIR. 


A tendency exists in the group to become an independent network, operating outside ecumenical structures. This is partly due to organizations not yet being represented and to some individuals strongly expressing their own views.

A real possibility exists that in the near future conflicts will arise in the Exodus Network when a change in policy needs to be made, transforming it from a small volunteer organization depending on individuals to a more professional organization supported by NGOs and individuals. 

It seems that airport chaplains are frightened by the legal and social aspects introduced by the partners in the Exodus Network, and by the inability to sufficiently realize a positive pastoral presence with asylum seekers who stay for longer periods in airports. If this group of persons is excluded from their care, it will be a limitation of the concept of pastoral care. 

* London, 6 - 9 May 2004