Here's why tolerance for German churches that offer asylum to refugees is dwindling

By Agency

Reguees prepare their sleeping spots at a church in Germany. Photo: Axel Heimken/dpa

If she is deported to Italy, she will be forced into prostitution. And the young woman from Eritrea fears that she will fall right back into the hands of those who smuggled her in.

"That's very common in Italy, through Mafia-like organisations that are located in Nigeria, Eritrea or elsewhere," says Dieter Mueller, coordinator of the Jesuit refugee service in Bavaria, Germany.

According to the European Union's Dublin regulations, the woman would have to return to Italy to undergo her asylum procedure because that's the country where she first entered the EU and registered.

But the police would probably not protect her from forced sex work.

"She can't get personal security protection," Mueller says. "And then they will probably tell her to go someplace else in Italy where the people smuggler or her pimp won't find her. Which is also absurd."

Her last hope is church sanctuary. It is a Christian tradition "to prevent special humanitarian hardship", according to a definition by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) in Germany.

Church congregations seek to shelter migrants deemed especially vulnerable and in need of protection from deportation. But this practice has become increasingly difficult to uphold in Bavaria.

According to BAMF, up until Nov 2020, 298 people had claimed church sanctuary in Germany.

"Special, extraordinary hardship was acknowledged in five cases," a spokesperson said. In those five cases, the person was allowed to leave the property of the church or the monastery that took them in.

Most of the others are still waiting. They wait until the deadline for the foreigners' office to deport them to the country of first entry is passed. After six months, the law says they are then entitled to an asylum procedure in Germany.

However, in many cases, this deadline is stretched to 18 months, resulting in a number of lawsuits, says Mueller.

Priests and churches are also increasingly being sued for aiding and abetting illegal stay.

"In Bavaria, this started in 2017 on a large scale," says Mueller, pointing to hundreds of lawsuits, most of which were ultimately thrown out due to negligibility.

It is increasingly common that those lawsuits are only abandoned against a sum of money.

Mueller recalls half a dozen cases, for instance of a Protestant priest in south Bavaria who paid €3,000 (RM14,788) after taking in an Afghan migrant in the parish community centre.

Abbess Mechthild Thuermer does not want to pay.

She was fined €2,500 (RM12,323) for protecting a woman from Eritrea from being deported to Italy. Thuermer is facing charges in three cases, which could lead to one year in prison for her.

"If I am helping someone in a desperate situation, that can't be a crime," she says.

Her case has drawn nationwide attention. "I would never have thought that I would be admired for that," Thuermer says. "My mother would have done the same thing if someone asked for help. Help in a way that is possible – here it is church sanctuary," Thuermer adds.

The abbess is not the only person facing these charges.

A nun from the Oberzell monastery in Bavaria also refused to pay. "This is about two Dublin cases," says lawyer Franz Bethaeuser, who represents both women. Both trials are scheduled to begin this year.

However, these cases are not discouraging the churches.

"The case of Abbess Mechthild Thuermer is rather motivating people," says Thomas Schmitt, consultant on asylum for the Protestant state church.

Schmitt believes the church can use this motivation to take in more people, while critics say this is the responsibility of the state.

The number of people taken in has declined recently, mainly due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mueller estimates. Many counselling centres are closed or operating remotely, and some congregations are reluctant due to infection risk.

"It is not as easy for refugees to find out: Who can help me now? How can I be helped?" Mueller says.

Thuermer sees her work as much more than help for refugees.

"Chancellor (Angela Merkel) said: 'We can do it.' And I only want to help her," she says. "I never thought: I want to revolt against the state or any kind of laws."

Meanwhile, the abbess has received an offer for asylum herself – from supporters in the United States. – dpa

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refugees , asylum , church protection


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