World Council of Churches
Potsdam, Germany
29 January - 6 February 2001
Document No. PI 4



The WCC Central Committee adopted a major policy statement on uprooted people in 1995, emphasizing the increasingly grave plight of refugees and migrants in a time of escalating conflicts around the world. Over the past five years the situation has become much worse still. The pressures of globalization and the persistence of intractable conflicts are leading ever more people to leave their communities or their countries. Of the 150 million people living outside their country of origin, only about 17 million are recognized as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or by the UN Relief and Works Administration for Palestinian refugees. In fact, the number of recognized refugees has slightly declined in the past five years. However the number of people displaced within the borders of their own countries has increased dramatically as governments make it more difficult for refugees to find safety in other countries. Presently they number close to 35 million.

In every region around the world, racism and xenophobia are on the rise. Refugees and migrants are viewed more as threats than as human beings in need and are used as scapegoats by political leaders under pressure to protect jobs and national economies. Uprooted people often find borders closed when they manage to get to them, and are frequently expelled if they succeed in crossing them. Governments in all regions are increasingly putting asylum-seekers into detention, or prison, as a way of deterring others from coming. People who are desperate to leave their countries are victimized by traffickers and migrants are increasingly treated as criminals.

Assistance to refugees
Uprooted people very often turn to the churches for assistance, as they have for centuries. For more than six decades the World Council of Churches has provided a focal point for the churches’ response. Even before its formation in 1948 churches related to the WCC (in process of formation) worked together to help refugees escape German-Occupied Europe. Later, they played leadership roles in seeking solutions for those displaced in the aftermath of World War II and the 1948 war in Palestine. They advocated for the creation of and cooperated closely with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). By the late 1960s, WCC member churches responded to refugee crises throughout Africa as wars for independence and political conflicts generated new refugee flows. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the globalization of the refugee phenomena, with massive refugee outflows from Afghanistan, Indochina, Sri Lanka, Latin America and the Caribbean. In the 1990s, conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, and later in Chechnya, made it clear that refugee issues in Europe were far from solved. In all of these cases, many churches responded generously and often courageously to the needs of refugees. In these cases, as it did from the beginning, WCC’s service with uprooted people included a strong advocacy component.

Internally displaced people
At the same time, churches began to realize that the problems of displacement went far beyond traditional concerns for refugees. Growing numbers of people were uprooted because of violence but unable to leave their countries. They fled for the same reasons as refugees and often had greater protection and assistance needs, but there was no international institution like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to whom they could appeal for help. It was the WCC, in cooperation with the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), that first placed the issue of internally displaced people on the international agenda by documenting their needs to the UN Human Rights Commission.

The needs of migrants, most leaving their countries for "voluntary" economic reasons, were always considered differently from those of refugees fleeing persecution. Yet in a globalizing world of increasing inequality, growing numbers of marginalized people simply can no longer survive in their home countries. While international law draws a clear distinction between refugees, migrants, internally displaced people and returnees, the churches’ mandate is to reach out to all those in need. Thus in its 1995 statement the WCC referred to "uprooted people" to encompass everyone forced to leave their communities, regardless of the labels they are given by the international community.

At the international level, international protection standards are under attack on many fronts:

Other general trends regarding uprooted people are matters of serious concern: Convinced that the churches can and must support international initiatives underway to arrest these trends and to intensify their own ministries with uprooted people along the lines of the WCC 1995 policy statement:

The Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches, meeting in Berlin, Germany, 26-27 January 2001, Recalling and reaffirming the 1995 Statement of the Central Committee, A Moment to Choose: Risking to Be with Uprooted People;

Recognizing the growing complexity and severity of the situation confronted by uprooted people and by the churches seeking to accompany them;

Mindful of the importance of international legal standards for the protection and assistance for all uprooted people in need;

Aware of the serious and growing unmet protection needs for refugees, internally displaced people and migrants

Conscious of the growing racist and xenophobic climate in many countries of the world, and

Commending the actions of churches in many countries in solidarity with victims of acts of aggression against foreigners and their efforts to create a climate of hospitality for uprooted people

Reaffirms ministry to uprooted people as a central biblical mandate for the churches;

Renews its call upon the churches in all regions to offer support, solidarity and accompaniment to those who have been forced to leave their communities, and to strengthen their own churches’ and ecumenical ministries with uprooted people;

Welcomes and reaffirms the Executive Committee’s statement of September 2000 on the 50th Anniversary of UNHCR supporting its central mandate of protection;

Urges church and church-related agencies to review and increase their financial support for ecumenical work with uprooted people, especially in the most affected regions;

Encourages the churches to strengthen or to undertake advocacy with their own governments, with relevant regional inter-governmental bodies and with international bodies on behalf of refugees, migrants and internally displaced people, particularly with regard to:

Back to Central Committee 2001 homepage