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.
- These refugees are not going to be temporary but permanent
- They’re coming to the richer north because the prospects are better there
- It’s a problem because they’re mostly men
- Once they get accepted their families will come
- 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.
- ‘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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- Quite right.
- 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.
- 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.