We must show Christian compassion to refugees
Regular columnist Mark Fairweather-Tall presents a Christian response to the current refugee crisis.
Has one heart-breaking picture of a three-year-old boy changed the response of our nation towards the refugee crisis that is impacting Europe?
Earlier on in the summer we were hearing about the ‘migrant problem’. Views expressed in some of the national newspapers included ‘Send in the army’, with illegal immigrants threatening to ‘invade’ the country. The language in government was of ‘marauding migrants’ and ‘Europe needing to protect itself to preserve its standard of living and social infrastructure.’ David Cameron was criticised for his language as he described the crisis as “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain" We were more likely to read about the plight of Euro tunnel travellers and hours of delay, than the plight of migrants.
Then on September 2nd everything changed when a picture was published of a policeman lifting the dead body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi from the beach where he had been washed up. It is a tragic and heart-breaking picture. As the picture was shared widely on Facebook and Twitter the mood of the nation seems to have changed: A petition calling for Britain to accept more migrants has gained over 400,000 signatures. Nicola Sturgeon attacked David Cameron for his “walk by on the other side” approach to the refugees fleeing Syria.
The Prime Minister spoke about how deeply moved he was by the picture and declared, “Britain is a moral nation and we will fulfil our moral responsibilities." In the last four years Britain has accepted just 216 Syrians under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (Separately, some 5000 have been granted asylum since 2011). The government has made a pledge to take 20,000 refugees from Syria by 2020.
One picture has changed the response to the refugee crisis. We moved from concern about numbers to recognising narrative – in other words there are stories, reasons why people are in such desperate situations.
And as images, stories and opinions bombard us day by day, it is important to take some time to reflect from a Christian perspective. There are many avenues we can go down as we do this. Here are a few things that have struck me over recent days.
1) We need to welcome refugees who come to this country.
Jesus was a refugee! In Matthew’s gospel we are told that after the birth of Jesus, King Herod was greatly disturbed by the birth of a new king and he decided to kill Jesus. The Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, warning him of the threat and the family fled to Egypt. They remained there until after Herod died and it was safe to return. Yes, Jesus was a refugee.
And my mind turns to the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. As they are separated, the King says to the righteous, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:34-36). The righteous never remember seeing the King in such need but the he replies, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (v40)
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, highlighted Leviticus 19:34 which says, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” As the Archbishop says, we are called to welcome the stranger, love them and seek peace for them. Perhaps we can learn something from those in Germany who have been holding up banners saying “Refugees welcome”.
2) We need to remember individual stories
Alan Kurdi’s death alongside his brother and his mother are by no means the first deaths. Alan is not the first child to have died during the crisis. The total number of deaths in the Mediterranean this year is over 2500. Last year over 3500 died. In June and July alone, nine people died in separate incidents whilst trying to make the journey from Calais to Dover.
The contrast in attitude was never starker than when two news stories ran at similar times. In one we were simply told that a Sudanese man aged between 25 and 30 had been killed as more than 1500 migrants stormed the channel tunnel. In the other outrage was expressed at the killing of Cecil the lion from Zimbabwe by an American dentist. Within 24 hours over 264,000 people tweeted about Cecil compared to the 3700 who did about the Calais incident. In my opinion, the killing of Cecil was senseless and should never have happened. However, the migrant had a story as well.
God cares enormously about every individual. There are times we need to look beyond media reporting, be touched and respond with compassion. We shouldn’t have to wait for a tragic picture. The individual matters.
3) We need to pray for the government and hold it to account
This is huge crisis and there are no easy solutions. We need to stay engaged, both praying for the government and holding it to account. Let us remember to praise as well as challenge. Archbishop Welby said, “I commend the UK government for its strong commitment to the world’s poorest people through the delivery of the aid budget. It has shown global leadership by providing £900 million in aid since 2012 to the crisis in Syria. It has shown moral leadership in using Royal Navy ships to save the lives of hundreds who have tried to make the dangerous crossing across the Mediterranean.”
However, we also need to hold it to account. The last few days have shown that public opinion does change government policy. The figure of 20,000 refugees to be accepted over the next five years is welcome. However, we will need to continue to ask the question, “is this enough?” Since 2013, Germany has accepted 35,000 refugees, Jordan 650,000, Lebanon 1.2 million and Turkey 1.9 million.
Another question: How will they be treated when they get here? As I write this, I have just become aware of Paddy Ashdown’s tweet highlighting that vulnerable children will only be given the right to stay in the UK until they are 18. Surely it can’t be fair for a child who spends their formative years in the UK to be uprooted and sent back to a country they may have long since lost affinity with? So we need to keep an eye on how things go in the future. And all the time we recognise that this is a difficult issue and our leaders need to be prayed for again and again.
Has the death of one refugee changed the attitudes of a nation? Only time will tell! Maybe, but I confess to being sceptical. I wonder how long it will be before the pricked consciences and the softened hearts return to worry about whether it will affect our lifestyle.
However, the death of another refugee – the one whom we follow – should change us not for a moment but a lifetime. His compassion, love for the individual and generosity beyond measure should continue to inspire and inform us during this refugee crisis.
Above image is by Haeferl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Rev Mark Fairweather Tall is a Minister of Norwich Central Baptist Church.
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