Seeking the good life

On Sunday when our church gathered to worship we did so as a church mostly made of people from elsewhere. There were those in Sweden because they married a Swede giving them the right to stay. There were those who moved for work – educated, employable, desirable – giving them the right to stay. There were those from Syria who have fled hardship, some from Malaysia fleeing religious persecution and then there were a few who just wanted to find a better life than the one on offer in their home country. Those in the last category are seen as a big problem.

In 2017 there were a record 68.5 million people worldwide fleeing war or persecution (The majority of those people (40 million) haven’t crossed a border and so count as internally displaced) which given that is a figure higher than the entire population of the UK is a significant number of people need safety and home.

In theory the nations of the world have a system to help the refugee. The United Nations declaration of human rights has at number 14 the right to asylum.

A refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country … ”

– The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees

The Christian case for refugees is remarkably simple. David Robertson sums it up as ‘We are to do whatever we can to help’. Over a million Syrians are now setting up residence in Europe and that sort of influx won’t come problem free but it is hard to deny that people caught up in war between frankly no good options should find somewhere where they can live in peace.

The far bigger problem is what should a nation do with those who move just to leave poverty, violence, corruption behind? What are their responsibilities to them? The EU estimates there in 2015 around 2 million people were living in Europe illegally, what about them?

In the US this issue came to a head in June when the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions said,

The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes – such as domestic violence or gang violence – or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim…Asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems, even all serious problems, that people face every day all over the world.

Here’s the thing, he’s technically right. The asylum & refugee system was never designed (and still isn’t) intended to cover people who just face serious hardship. People facing serious hardship shouldn’t be blamed for wanting a way out either and there in the middle between empathy and government is the problem.

We know someone from Latin America who left her country because of the criminal violence she was a victim of. Having the resources to leave, she left. I don’t blame her and have a great deal of sympathy for her and I hope Sweden gives her permission to stay but international law isn’t necessarily on her side.

Even though she used up all her resources to leave our friend in educated and has a passport. Tens of millions are not nearly so fortunate. Our current system of visas and passports is a system weighted against the poor. Consider this statement:

The right to mobility is granted not by the individual but by the state, and access to that right is dictated largely along class lines. The poor, unwanted abroad and unable to pay for the required visas, transit costs, and even basic documentation, stay trapped, while the rich can come and go as they please. In 2016, a record 82,000 millionaires moved to a new country thanks to immigration policies designed to attract the ultra-rich, essentially by selling citizenship and residence permits. That year also, populist politicians around the world, from Austria to the Philippines, won over large numbers of voters by promising to keep the riff-raff out.

Passports, in other words, were invented not to let us roam freely, but to keep us in place—and in check.

The system is designed to keep people who do face incredible hardship away from countries where they might arrive but never leave. A German can visit 177 countries visa-free; an American, 173; an Afghan, just 24. A German might be reasonably expected to return to Germany because by and large it’s a great place to live, Afghanistan not so much. Two members of our church were denied visitors visa to the UK because they were, as low-income individuals from Syria and India, deemed unlikely to leave the UK at the end of their Christian conference. There is, as usual, one law for the rich and another for the poor.

The disruption the sheer number of people (often termed economic migrants) coming to Europe in addition to those fleeing the war in Syria created a crisis. The crisis was first organisational but now it has become political and also existential. It has created a crisis of identity across Europe.

Germany has been racked by political turmoil because of this issue the EU continues to face serious tests to its handling of the issue. It has also exposed an ugliness at the heart of much of the rich west. Denmark is a case study as it doubles down on Its ‘Ghetto List’.

The proposed measures, reported in Monday’s New York Times, are draconian. From the age of one, children living in one of 30 government-defined “ghettoes” would have to spend at least 25 hours a week away from their families—naps excluded—in government preschools to receive mandatory exposure to “Danish values,” or their families may have welfare benefits stopped.

Tyler Cowen notes

 I would note that asylum rights seem to be creating major political problems for Europe.  Partially for non-rational reasons, many voters view asylum-linked immigration as “more out of control” than other kinds of migration.  And the EU arguably has poorly designed institutions for handling asylum, and doling out relative responsibilities to member nations.  Plus Europe is very close to the Middle East and Africa.  Reforming the treatment of asylum in Europe might well improve the functioning of democracy there and actually put immigration on a more stable path.

Europe is close to the basket cases of the Middle East and Africa, the US is close to the chaos of Mexico and Venezuela, China is close to the problem of North Korea – most prosperous countries are close to less prosperous ones which is why poor people move.

In today’s world it matters where you are born. As Rana Dasgupta writes in her essay The demise of the nation-state

97% of citizenship is inherited, which means that the essential horizons of life on this planet are already determined at birth.

If you are born Finnish, your legal protections and economic expectations are of such a different order to those of a Somalian or Syrian that even mutual understanding is difficult. Your mobility – as a Finn – is also very different. But in a world system – rather than a system of nations – there can be no justification for such radical divergences in mobility. Deregulating human movement is an essential corollary of the deregulation of capital: it is unjust to preserve the freedom to move capital out of a place and simultaneously forbid people from following.

What are to make of all this as Christians? Firstly, we should be very careful of making value judgements about people who are seeking a better life in countries that are prosperous, where the rule of law functions and where their children can get an education or medical treatment. Wanting that opportunity and those freedoms just makes them exactly the same as us.

The difference between Burundi and Sweden is a difference between life and death or heaven and hell and no one wants to live in hell. It is so hard for people to understand what life amidst grinding poverty, horrific violence and corruption where the authorities will not protect you is like. It is hard to imagine what it must be like to live with little or no hope of that ever changing and perhaps your one hope is that if you survived a long and risky journey you could get to a country where there are menial jobs that pay more in a day than they could earn in a month.

We should also be aware that migration is revitalising churches across the secular west. While Islam is also growing in these places, migration is helping sustain Christian communities just not in their countries of origin. We may look back on the history of faith in Europe in 50 years time and realise that one of the main reasons Europe did NOT remain secular was because believers migrated here. 

We also need to recognise that most wealthy nations have a demographic problem with more people living longer and populations and workforces shrinking.

There aren’t easy answers to this because the numbers of people wanting a better life far outweigh the countries willing to take them in. As a result they try their hand at asylum hoping to play the system because that’s the only chance they have.

In the long run the only sustainable solution is for these countries to become places where people are happy to live and reluctant to leave. In the short-term, I don’t believe it is beyond the wit of man to design a better refugee system nor to design a better system to manage migration than the chaos we currently have.


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