When the migrant crisis gets personal

When we close the books on 2015 and look at the big stories of the year, one of them will surely be the migration of millions of people from the Middle East and Africa to Europe. It is, I think, no exaggeration to say that we are witnessing a demographic shift that is going to significantly affect all three regions for generations to come.

Europe is by and large a rich continent surrounded by poverty and chaos – Yemen, Syria, Libya, Ukraine, Iraq and then further away the tragedy of grinding poverty, endemic corruption and persecution of many places in from Eritrea to Afghanistan – it’s not surprising that people in their millions would risk their lives to seek a better life. Although of course it’s not just Europe that is feeling the pinch from migrants – it’s a global issue too.

But it’s not just a global issue dealt with by graphs, charts and soundbites. It’s people and specifically it’s the 19-year-old younger sister of a member of our church currently making a dangerous journey because life had become ‘unbearable’. 

Increasing migration is forcing a reaction from host nations and then politicians. Border fences are being built, the Schengen agreement could be suspendedstates of emergency are declared as the sheer numbers of migrants overwhelm countries ability to cope. Even for wealthy Germany, taking on board around 800,000 extra people in a year is a significant challenge.

As a result right-wing anti-immigration parties are on the rise all over Europe, shaping national politics, and making this issue one of the most pressing current issues.

Yet we bow our heads in prayer and ask God to protect a young woman who can’t go back to Syria and who unless she moves few hopes for the future.

Yet James O’Malley makes the point that “the immigration debate in Britain is essentially viewed in terms of them coming over here with little consideration given to the places they’re leaving behind.”

In the Baltic regions the population has dropped 20% since 1990, Christian communities are disappearing from the Middle East, especially in nations fighting ISIS. These nations from Syria to Somalia are suffering in ways that few in Europe can remember. Time has reduced our collective memory of war and destruction, of hardship and death to almost nothing. Consumerism and individualism has eroded our sense of solidarity.

A few years ago I wrote the following in a book review on Asylum & immigration:

Then there are issues that face Christians who seek asylum. What of the church and the gospel in the country they’ve fled from? Those who can escape often have more means than most and so the church in the homeland is deprived of desperately needed leadership and resources as families seek a safer, better life in the West. Fleeing a country and entering a new one almost invariably involves deception and lies to leave one country and stay in a new one. How does a Christian honour their authorities in either country, how does a Christian speak truth in such cases? And if lies have been told, what does it mean to repent? How do you pastor and lead people in such circumstances.

We pray, we call the church to prayer – we make ourselves available to offer support, encourgament and we wait. 

The issues are complex but I was thoroughly disheartened by reading Nathan Busenitz Pastoral Perspective on Illegal Immigration. Viewing illegal immigrants simply as law-breakers and therefore as in constant sin until legalized, and even suggesting that they should leave the country is, frankly, quite astonishing. Without considering or mentioning the suffering and poverty, or the injustice or impossibility of legal means, or contemplating whether the immigration policy of a host nation is in itself sinful, or whether a parent has a responsibility before God to keep their family alive renders that perspective neither particularly pastoral, nor especially helpful. A simple proof-texting of Romans 13:1 is inadequate in the face of the complexities of modern migration.

It’s worth remembering a few things about the Biblical story:

Ancient Israel was commanded to care for the vulnerable alien and that in the Bible, they often take centre stage. Jacob and family became economic migrants to Egypt, from which they later needed rescuing from slavery. The book of Ruth is the story of an economic migrant into Israel. Mary, Joseph and Jesus were asylum seekers back in Egypt. The early church was founded with an incredible diversity on the day of Pentecost and so on.

We can be confident that Mary & Joseph neither asked for nor received permission to leave Israel nor enter Egypt. The Bible has countless stories of economic migrants seeking a better life, to refugees and those fleeing from persecution.

In each case invariably this is a movement from poorer less secure nations to safer, richer ones and it’s worth asking the question what responsibilities do these richer nations have towards their poorer neighbours? Especially when we consider that the countries that have the most refugees are some of the world’s poorest countries.

In the meantime for those that pray consider this prayer, written about the situation in Calais but applicable to everywhere struggling with the migrant crisis.

The boat hasn’t come, the journey won’t be made tonight, the wait continues.

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