The refugee crisis & Christian hope: A response

Recently Reformation 21 posted an article by Alistair Roberts on the refugee crisis and while it contained many good things, there were a few things that I thought needed further discussion. In a similar vein, a recent post by Ian Paul also expressed unease about the general naive response of the general public. This is in some sense a response to both posts but primarily to Alistair’s article.

Areas of disagreement.

I should begin with taking issue with the title of Alistair’s article and of course the general approach in the media which calls this a refugee crisis for Europe. No, it’s not. Not really. Syria is in crisis with 6.5 million displaced people. Turkey which has two million Syrians and Lebanon which has more than a million refugees, have a refugee crisis. The 28 member states of Europe with a current collective 250,000-300,000 Syrians do not have a crisis given that Germany alone says it can accommodate 500,000 a year for several years. Yet we have managed to make a crisis out of it.

In his brief roll call of biblical refugees, Alistair fails to mention that the Old Testament in particular is not just framed by individual economic migrants like Ruth or Jacob, or political refugees like David but is fundamentally shaped by the mass migration of the people of God. The themes of Exodus and Exile are stories of mass migration. The Bible while dealing with the stories of individuals is set within the rise and fall of nations, and when we witness the fall of a nation like Syria, and that sheer numbers do not change the nature of our response. The call to Israel to love the stranger in Deut 10:19 is rooted in the memory that Israel was once a nation of aliens.

In addition the Old Testament gives us clear indication that Israel was familiar with significant immigration. Dewi Hughes again notes (p.153) that,

When Solomon took a census when he was making final preparations to build the temple he found that there were 153,600 people of non-Israelite origin living in Israel (2 Chr 2:17)

Just to put that in perspective – it was likely that Israel had a higher percentage of foreign-born residents than the UK at present.

Alistair complains about the ‘immense waves of collective emotion’ amongst the public in response to a picture of a dead child and the cry that we should simply ‘let them in’ misses the fact that the problem is a bit more complicated than that. Well yes and no.

In the 1984 Ethiopian famine, a picture of a skeletal child to weak to ward off the flies prompted a massive outpouring of generosity on behalf of the public. Was the problem more complicated than Bob Geldof suggested ‘just give us the money, now’? Well, yes and no.

The long-term problem to Syria is not going to be solved by opening the borders just as the famine in Ethiopia was not going to be solved by Live Aid. Yet, the response to people dying then and fleeing now, was simple. Give them food, give them homes. Now, rightly, public policy and foreign policy shouldn’t be at the whim of social media – we could do with a better form of leadership than that, but what social media tells it’s leaders is that the people want some form of action. It is in one sense a profoundly democratic way of making ones voice heard in an age where that seems to make little difference at the ballot box.

That our compassion is inconsistent, that it ebbs and flows and that we don’t care about the dying and persecuted in dozens of other places doesn’t mean that when our compassion is aroused from our consumerist stupor, that this is anyway a bad thing.

Both Alistair and Ian Paul refer to MEP Daniel Hannan, and Ian Paul draws out this quote,

In truth, children are drowning because their parents believe that reaching the EU by water is the surest way of being allowed to stay there. If we want to stop the horrors, we need to stop the boats…When people say, “the migrants have been through hell, and we should welcome them,” what they’re actually saying, if you think about it, is that we should contract out our immigration policy to people smugglers.

Yet his analysis is faulty – as Hans Rosling points out it is not that we should contract out immigration to people smugglers but that we should stop contracting it out to airline check-in staff and that the best way to stop the boats is to let them get on planes and trains instead. Indeed, we should stop calling them smugglers – our laws say that they have the right to claim asylum and protection once they get here, but that it is our governments who are making it impossible to get here. They’re not smuggling drugs, weapons or contraband, they’re bringing children who want a safe place to live.

After Alistair spends some time hand-wringing over ‘the exhaustion of Europe’s cultural spirit’ he then argues that ‘prudence requires of us a more discriminating approach to the welcoming of displaced persons.’

As I understand it Alistair’s ‘discriminating’ approach tackles several familiar concerns.

  1. These refugees are not going to be temporary but permanent
  2. They’re coming to the richer north because the prospects are better there
  3. It’s a problem because they’re mostly men
  4. Once they get accepted their families will come
  5. Our naivety means that ‘ugly cultural pathologies are taking root on our continent with many of these asylum seekers’ and they’re going to rape our women.
  6. ‘we are at incredible risk of creating an angry and powerful underclass that is resolutely hostile to Europe and its values’ and many will ‘manifest an attitude of angry entitlement to and hostility towards Europe’s places, people, customs, and societies.’

Here are my quick responses to each of those points.

  1. Yes that’s probably true. America is decent & historically recent evidence that the permanent migration of millions of Swedes, Irish, British, Hispanic and making a nation out of them is neither impossible nor entirely undesirable.
  2. Recently at our weekly time of prayer, we heard from a Syrian muslim woman who fled to Greece before making her way to Sweden. Her relatives in Damascus have no work, little food, intermittent & electricity water supply and their children can’t go to school. They are amongst the better off in Syria. As Mark Urban notes, people want a better life and though they may get physical security in Turkey and Lebanon or Greece, they won’t get a better life. In Europe, their children have a chance. Who can blame them for that?
  3. I find Alistair’s mention of this curious given his well-known views on the need for a tougher masculinity. It’s not simply that these men are fleeing because they are afraid but because, no longer unable to provide for their families in Syria they are doing what is necessary – they are doing what men have done for centuries when work & food dried up – they are doing what Jacob and his sons did – they left in search of food and work. They’re actually attempting to fulfil their roles as men, to find jobs, work hard and send money to provide for and ultimately reunite their families. Remittances last year meant $109 billion earned in Europe was sent to support families in poorer nations, the money sent by people working in Britain amounted to twice our annual aid budget.
  4. Quite right.
  5. I was disappointed by this, I understand his broader point that fear of challenging immigrant communities about evil behaviours is foolish & weak. A better discussion is needed. Yet it’s lazy to link child abuse scandals in Rotheram to the current crisis. Child & sexual abuse, sadly and tragically, transcends cultures – and our culture is no exception. Ugly cultural pathologies affect every culture. To even associate in the UK a pitifully small increase in the number of Syrians with the potential for another Rotheram is unwise and unhelpful.
  6. This is because we are not welcoming enough. I am sure that many refugees over-estimate the prospects of life in Europe and underestimate how dispiriting it will prove, to be treated badly, be unemployed and consistently treated as an object of suspicion. The majority come with the intention of working, living a quiet life and getting on with it, and with a greater effort to reach out to them and welcome them, to educate and to employ them – this ‘incredible risk’ may not be either incredible or all that risky.

It’s all worth noting that as far as Syria is concerned that it’s not just Muslims on the move and as many as 700,000 Syrian Christians have been displaced.

 areas of agreement

Alistair offers four areas of action for churches as a response and they are very good. He, rightly, affirms that this is an opportunity for churches to practice Christian love and to share the gospel with people previously hard to reach:

In many respects, this vast influx of refugees provides openings for the gospel to people to whom Christian missionaries formerly had little access. …we have a distinct identity as the Church and, as our societies experience new waves of refugees and immigrants, we must pray for and minister to our new neighbours, serving them in Christian love, even on the occasions when these neighbours may be our enemies.

He also notes that welcoming not just individuals but a community of people, means,

we should recognize the potential for cultural difference–if it is welcomed wisely and with discernment–to be an enriching gift for our own communities.

As Dewi Hughes notes in his book Castrating Culture (p.158)

The key question here is whether our neighbourly love of the ethnic strangers implies respecting their insistence on clinging to their separate identity. It seems to me it would be very difficult to claim to love them without doing so.

Thirdly, Christian motivations for actions are different, to some measure, form those of the surrounding culture.

As people redeemed by a gospel of free forgiveness, our charity should not be self-less and guilt-driven, but the loving and generous outward movement of a culturally confident people who have been set free from spiritual bondage.

His fourth point is worth mentioning in full:

Fourth, we need to commit ourselves to the works of mercy as integral to the life of the people of God. We must practice various forms of solidarity with the displaced. We should support and assist the various agencies that practically address their immediate needs. We should ensure that the Church itself is prominently represented among these. We should keep them in our prayers. We should draw international attention to their plight. We should advocate for their needs to our governments, encouraging them to devote considerable resources to helping them and the regional governments currently providing them with asylum. We should do what we can to encourage a healthy process of public deliberation concerning how best to ameliorate their condition–especially the most dependent among them–and how wisely to allocate resources and direct action in order to make a difference.

So, by and large I am supportive of the actions that Alistair calls for in his prescription even if I think he has diagnosed the problem badly.

Photo by John Englart (Takver)

One thought on “The refugee crisis & Christian hope: A response”

  1. Alastair J Roberts says:

    Thanks for the interaction, Phil. I don’t have time for a very extensive discussion of this, so this will probably be my only comment here. However, the following are some remarks that might clarify my position.

    1. The fact that Syria is facing an immense crisis of displaced people and that some other countries in the region are facing an extreme crisis as they seek to accommodate vast numbers of refugees doesn’t mean that Europe isn’t facing a crisis of its own, albeit of a lesser degree and of a rather different shape and character. The crisis that Europe faces is a moral crisis, a crisis of self-understanding, a political crisis (as support for extremist parties increases), and a social crisis (as communities fracture and tensions between groups rise). I am also far from unusual among Europeans in seeing things this way. There is a sense of this among many in Germany, even among Merkel’s political allies. Things don’t seem to be going so swimmingly in Sweden either.

    2. The fact that countries like Germany have the financial means and the space to accommodate half a million more refugees every year for the next several years doesn’t really address the social questions, which is where my primary concern lies. The actual reality of multicultural society is often a very ugly and problematic one and those who bear its greatest burdens are typically the poor and their communities.

    3. Numbers should shape our response. Our duty to hospitality is not open-ended but proportionate, and always shaped by our primary obligations to those for whom a country is their first and long-term home, and the site of the intergenerational investment of their families.

    4. Israel certainly had plenty of people of non-Israelite origin living there. However, they did not just become naturalized citizens, were distinguished from Israelites in many ways in their identity, rights, and privileges, and were not really able to make Israel into a multicultural society. There were prohibitions on intermarriage. There were laws to prevent land from being alienated from Israelite owners. There were restrictions on the practice of other religions and strangers had to abide by practices such as that of the Sabbath, the removal of leaven, abstaining from blood. They could suffer the death penalty for blasphemy. Resident aliens were particularly subject to conscription for the construction of public works and for the most manual of labour, as we see in the verse after the one Hughes quotes, where Solomon calls up every one of the resident aliens to bear burdens and hew stones to construct the temple. Strangers were also typically menial workers (Deuteronomy 29:11). While there are some parallels, this is a rather different sort of situation from that of European multiculturalism and from a situation of large scale resettlement.

    5. The idea that refugees should just be allowed to get on planes and trains and go to the country of their choice, which is then duty-bound to receive them is neither just nor sensible (and, for that matter, isn’t that consistent with biblical principles of hospitality and its reception, which focus duty upon immediate neighbours). Seeking asylum in the nearest safe country which is equipped to receive them—from which one can apply for resettlement, should you so choose—is the more appropriate way. When refugees bypass their neighbours—in culture, in faith, and in geography—to go countries much further afield, we are dealing with something much more complex than simple asylum-seeking. While Syrian Christians facing growing persecution in Arab countries and subject to appalling treatment in some of the places where they might seek refuge have more of a claim to asylum outside of the region, this isn’t the case for most of the refugees.

    6. America is a unique case, very different from Europe in many ways. It is far from a good precedent, especially not for the current form of immigration facing Europe and the societies into which they would be included. Here are a few key factors to bear in mind:

    a. America has been unusually a ‘nation by design’, fashioned purposefully as a nation, rather than one that developed more organically over centuries or millennia of history of shared ways of life of particular peoples in a given region. America is the New World, virgin soil—crucially, once the Native Americans were removed from their lands—for the construction of a socially engineered nation of people who all started off as recent immigrants.

    b. The diversity of origins in American society has meant that no one group typically has a strong peculiar claim to ownership of its places. The situation is different in Europe, where places have typically been established predominantly by particular groups over centuries and other groups entering into them are entering into a place that is powerfully bound up with that people’s identity. The dynamics of hospitality are quite different in such a case, as a much sharper asymmetry between parties exists. Of course, once groups had settled in the US and made it their home over a few generations, this asymmetry became more pronounced and, unsurprisingly, nativist anti-immigration movements had a significant political effect as a result.

    c. America’s places are typically relatively shallow places, not deeply lived-in and storied, as European places almost invariably are.

    d. America has had a much more internally mobile population than Europe and the development of the nation and the ordering of its places have been very much shaped the railroad, the automobile, and the plane. It is a culture that has been drawn with long sweeping brushstrokes on an immense canvas. By contrast, most European places were much more powerfully locally differentiated and locations far less shaped by modern transport.

    e. Despite the popular national myth of open welcome to immigrants, America has always had plenty of immigration controls in practice, even when they didn’t exist in principle. It has also had them on the state level, even when they didn’t exist on the federal level. Let’s not forget things such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, Mexican Repatriation, or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

    f. America is huge, giving ethnic groups lots of room to spread out and have regions with their own distinct flavour, to create a home from home. Different ethnic groups historically tended to cluster in particular regions, rather than spreading out evenly across the nation. Germans, Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish, etc. in the Midwest. Irish in places like Boston and New York. French in New England and Louisiana. Italians in places like New Jersey and New York. Mexicans and Hispanics in the Southwest (in regions that used to belong to Mexico). English in New England.

    g. At the time of independence, the US was formed of immigrants from overwhelmingly Northern European and Protestant countries. In later immigration Catholic countries were more represented, but immigration to the US was still primarily a European and Christian phenomenon (with Chinese for a period of time). Large scale immigration from Asia, Africa (apart from slavery), and the Middle East (earlier immigrants from the Middle East were largely Christian) is much more recent development: we’re pretty much talking about the last fifty years. Jewish immigrants were largely of European origin, who, while not assimilated to it, were already strongly integrated in European society.

    h. America had a fairly articulated Christian character from the outset: while there was regional texturing, the country by the nineteenth century was defined by a sort of public pan-Protestantism, with immigrants assimilating to some degree or other to that. This was especially true in American public (i.e. state) schools, which were used as an instrument to shape both immigrant and native children in this religio-cultural mould. Integration was more complicated in many contexts in the case of Catholics, who were discriminated against. Mass immigration of Muslims poses very distinct challenges.

    i. America was once called a melting pot, but now the favoured analogy is more that of a tossed salad. The melting pot doesn’t work so well when pan-Protestantism, European and Christian heritage, the English language, and other such things no longer function to the same degree as effective cultural solvents.

    j. The Atlantic Ocean plays an important role in framing the US’s identity. It gives it more of a buffer and detachment from other nations. The US’s immigration problems chiefly occur on its southern border (and there are historically complicating factors there too, as a number of the southwestern states used to belong to Mexico). If immigration were such an unqualified success story in the US, it is worth questioning why building a wall across the Mexican-American border has been such a live political issue and popular proposal.

    k. The American Dream was held out to immigrants to the US, but the life of the new immigrant was typically a bitter and difficult one. There was the possibility of thriving, but it was a possibility that the immigrants had to strive to achieve to a degree that new immigrants to Europe typically do not.

    l. America is not a European-style welfare state.

    m. America hasn’t had the same experiences of invasion and occupation as many European countries have, nor has it faced the same existential crises from without.

    n. America still has considerably more faith in its identity and civilization than Europe does.

    For all of these, among other reasons, I find the comparison of America to Europe unhelpful. They are extremely different sorts of situations. Also, if, even despite all of the unusual factors playing in its favour, America’s practice and national experience of immigration has been such an uneven one, its example really does not provide reassurance to those of us in a European situation.

    7. It is completely understandable that people should seek a better life for themselves and their children. People have the right to migrate from their countries to seek such opportunities for themselves. In their situation, I am sure that most of us would seek to move to countries where we stand the best chance of succeeding. However, countries don’t have a corresponding duty to take such persons in. The difference between the two is not always clear, but there is a clear tendency away from asylum-seeking towards economic migration in cases where ‘refugees’ are trampling over other countries in the rush to get to places such as Germany and Sweden.

    8. First off, where have I argued for the ‘need for a tougher masculinity’? I’ve argued for the need for strong masculinity in the office of the pastor, but that is a very specific situation, and is quite different from a general argument for tougher masculinity. As for the issue with men predominating among asylum-seekers, there are a number of issues here.

    a. The extreme predominance of adult men among these asylum-seekers, as Hannan observes, is suggestive more of economic migration than of asylum-seeking. While these men will doubtless be sending money back to support their families, this is a rather different thing from our providing for those most in need of asylum. Leaving to one side the question of the number of people admitted, Britain’s focus upon going to the refugee camps and inviting children and the most vulnerable to the UK seems to be a much more commendable as a policy for providing asylum. Christian relief begins with abandoned dependents, with people such as orphans and widows without others to care for them.

    b. When asylum-seekers are overwhelmingly able-bodied, comparatively well-off, agentic and resourceful males we should ask who are being pushed to the back of the queue. If we are truly running an asylum policy, rather than seeking an influx of cheap manpower that would be potentially beneficial for us too, it seems to me that different policies, yielding very different demographics, should be pursued.

    c. Such male-dominated groups are far more prone to violent and extremist dynamics.

    d. An influx of cheap manpower from overseas is great for capitalists and can benefit governments too. It is far less beneficial for the working classes of a country, whose communities, jobs, wages, and solidarity as labour is placed in some jeopardy. The history of immigration in our countries involves rather too many cases of the working poor bearing the unpleasant externalities of the ruling classes’ welcome to immigrants. Our duty to the marginal and vulnerable in our own countries takes priority over our duty to people coming to us as economic migrants. Where the concerns of such groups are lightly dismissed as xenophobia and racism, it is easy for our immigration and asylum policies to involve significant injustices.

    e. Recognizing that many of these men will seek to bring over their families after them is important too. We need our eyes open to the scale of the social commitment we make by admitting such persons.

    9. Child and sexual abuse isn’t independent of cultural factors. The situation in Rotherham has similarities to other cases of systematic abuse of white girls by British Pakistani or Muslim gangs in places such as Rochdale, Derby, Bristol, Oxfordshire, Telford, and Aylesbury. There is a pattern here, the clear signs of a deep pathology that is peculiarly accentuated by a particular culture. Syria has huge issues on these fronts too. The following remarks are taken from the comment I left on Ian Paul’s post:

    My girlfriend (who has edited and added a few sentences to this paragraph of my comment) spent a couple of months in Syria, largely alone, which utterly destroyed any sentimental notions she might have had about the country and its population. On the occasions when she wasn’t accompanied by a male, practically every male she met, pretty much without exception, groped, propositioned, objectified, or otherwise tried to take sexual advantage of her, although she was uniformly dressed in modest loose clothing. It wasn’t just a few occasions: it was relentless. It wasn’t just a few bad apples, but culturally typical. Riding in a taxi, the taxi driver would put money into her lap for a sexual favour, while travelling at 80mph. At Palmyra, while on a camel ride, the camel driver got up behind her on the camel, ostensibly to prevent her from falling, and groped her the whole way. She went to buy an Islamic headscarf in order to be able to dress with more modesty, and even the guy selling her the headscarf was propositioning her, offering her a 20% discount on the hijab in exchange for sex. These are just a few examples of what occurred for her many times a day there.

    There is a peculiarly virulent and ugly misogyny directed towards Western women that is widespread among the Muslim men of certain countries. Radical Islam is another pathology that threatens us too. Recognizing the existence of these pathologies, we should treat certain cultures with caution and discriminate a little more between groups.

    10. Believing that just being more welcoming will remove the threat of creating an angry underclass that is hostile to Europe and its values strikes me as very naïve. There are certain parties that are unprepared to make compromises or settle for mutualist arrangements. Accommodation and appeasement will never be a viable way of treating such parties, as they won’t reach a point where they are satisfied. Empathy and welcome will backfire with such persons, as they will regard these things as weaknesses to be preyed upon and turned to their advantage (I strongly advise that you read Edwin Friedman on the general dynamic here). We have already seen a number of examples of violent Islamic extremism coming with these refugees. It is worth taking the time to acquaint ourselves with the teaching of Islamic leaders on the subject of migration to non-Muslim countries; it can be disquieting. If we think that such groups will just quietly integrate, we probably haven’t been paying much attention. Many quarters of Islam have very different accounts of immigration than Western liberals and views about the appropriate attitude to unbelieving host countries. ISIS has declared that they are using the mass movement of refugees to Europe for their purposes. We should ask why Saudi Arabia, which has done little to provide refuge to the Syrians, is so eager to fund the building of new mosques in Germany. While a hostility to host countries and a desire to take them over for Islam certainly isn’t universal to Muslims—and perhaps may not true be true of more than a relatively small minority—it is widespread and dangerous enough to be of very legitimate concern. The strength of hostility to the West is certainly shaped by such things as relative deprivation, but this can be a cultural, not just a matter of an individual’s economic status. Western niceness may even make this sting even more, as extreme Muslims feel keenly the relative weakness, dependency, and failure of Islamic culture when compared with the West’s and feel the West must be to blame. We need to understand why Muslims who have prospered in our country join ISIS too.

    Anyway, thank you for the interaction. I won’t have time to follow-up, but I hope this lengthy comment covers the main points.

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