There are currently four countries at the forefront of the problem: Syria (2011) and northern Iraq in the Middle East, Nigeria and Eritrea in Africa.
The problems of the Middle East have been comprehensively covered over the past few weeks and months and, without becoming overly political it is fairly clear that the various interventions by Western nations to eliminate despotic leaders in the two regions have obviously contributed to the present situation (see ref to Libya below). There are voices that are far more critical of western intervention, and if you want to explore that discussion then Googling ‘constructive chaos’ produces some disturbing accusations.
The last UNHCR report estimated 4 million people have already fled to Turkey, Lebanon & Jordon. 10.8 million are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 6.5 million internally displaced people. The present European refugee crisis is partly due to the inability of these three countries to cope with the numbers crossing their borders and a wider hopelessness, particulalrly in Syria, that the war will ever end.
In the meantime the refugee crisis in Africa has, to some extent, become sidelined. However Nigerian refugees continue to flee the Boko Haran insurgency and a deeply corrupt culture in which the poorest have nothing to live for. In Eritrea the refugee problem dates back at least 20 years – chiefly the result of an unspeakably repressive regime. In both cases the present upsurge refugee movement is connected with the fall of the Libyan regime, which previously acted as an impenetrable buffer zone to the Mediterranean.
How are we responding? Well, it’s mixed. There is a welling up of goodwill and generosity by many, leading to practical help, for migrants already in Europe and aid for those that have not moved or who are in transit camps. At national level countries like the UK are stronger on aid than they are on welcome, compared, for instance with German and Austria (though it is uncertain how long the latter might continue).
Germany’s reputation has been enhanced by its welcoming attitude and that is to be warmly welcomed as the events of the twentieth century recede further into history. The UK, on the other hand, is probably not currently held in high regard, and the fact that we have a referendum on Europe in the next 18 months or so, may be a significant factor in the government’s present approach. However the danger is that we will pander to isolationist and even closet racism.
Individually, many of us are anxious about what mass migration would do for our lifestyle – that is quite natural, but our sense of shared humanity and Christianity must surely make us fight these instincts.
It is easy for us to fall prey to double speak: To think that a significant proportion of refugees are in fact ‘economic migrants’ is to be naïve. The vast majority are risking their lives and leaving so much that they hold dear. It is also deeply worrying that the present situation could tip the balance and have us sleepwalk into isolationism and even latent racism.
At the same time, those who are naturally generous and less fearful would do well to remember that it is often the people in the poorest areas whose jobs and security are most at risk. In plain speak, its unlikely that our local surgery will be overwhelmed with a queue of migrants at it door.
Is the Christian perspective different from the human? In part. A relationship with God gives that individual a particular responsibility to neighbour, and accompanying resources.
The first reading draws your attention to the relationship between faith and works – what you do as a professed Christian has an effect on those around you – your words and actions contribute to the reputation of the church and to its mission – our not. This is not to say that you can work your way into heaven – but that loving actions are a mark of faith.
It is vital that you join your personal prayers with others for all leaders: national, local, tribal, church. They, too, are vulnerable humans who need God’s support. What we do pales into insignificance alongside the burdens they bear on our behalf. When an African tribal leader suggests to his own people that they be generous with folk from different tribes they are being enormously courageous – and truly mirror the sacrificial ministry of Jesus. Sometimes their greatest problem will be the outrage that is generated amongst their own supporters. Don’t forget, in today’s gospel it’s Peter whom Jesus has the argument.
I’ve put at the back of church is a list of resources you can use, and actions to take. Corporately we could decide to donate the whole of this year’s Carols in the Square to one of the aid agencies, alongside the individual things we do.
In the time that is left to you on earth you have the opportunity to mirror God’s love to those with fewer resources than yours. And remember, at the end of your life you will face God as a refugee. You will have nothing – he will have everything. I have no doubt he will be generous and loving with you. Go and do likewise.
Revd Canon Nick Whitehead