Caring for refugees

September 8th, 2015
by Chris

My facebook feed is full of Syrian refugees. Ian Everett’s piece of beat poetry runs along the same lines as an article by Giles Fraser. Very different approaches, but the same message – welcome them all.

It wasn’t full of this prior to a picture of a drowned toddler. I’m wondering what it is about this particular picture sparked peoples’ compassion, given that there have been plenty of previous photographs of drowned migrants, some of them assuredly from Syria. I wonder why similar levels of compassion haven’t been sparked by other photos of dead children – Palestinian, for instance, Nigerian, Eritrean, Sudanese, Iraqui… the list could go on for a while.

Thousands of refugees have travelled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, and been wholly unwelcome in each of them – well, apart from Turkey, which is currently host to nearly 2 million Syrians anyhow; recently some thousands have been let through Austria to Germany, and Germany has welcomed them with open arms.

Germany? That should produce a bit of cognitive dissonance in a lot of Britons, whose stereotype of Germans emphatically doesn’t include welcoming strangers, particularly if they’re of a slightly darker hue than the Aryan ideal. They don’t have to look back 70 years to find justification for that stereotype, either – Germany has not been a bed of roses for its substantial population of Turkish migrant workers for many years much more recently than that, and it still has a fairly strong xenophobic streak in some of the population.

I do not criticise Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia or Hungary for lack of  compassion – none of them are rich countries, and Greece, Macedonia and Serbia rank as poor. Listening to interviews with the migrants, they don’t want to stay in those countries anyhow; they don’t see opportunity there, and they’re probably right. Almost universally, they have set their sights on Germany as their promised land.

Austria, however, is not poor. It’s just unwelcoming.

And, frankly, so has been the UK so far. Cameron has just announced that we will take a significant number of refugees, though we’ll take them from the UN camps just outside the Syrian borders, and we’ll take families, rather than single men. I think he has the right attitude apart from the number – 20,000 (and that over 5 years!) isn’t remotely as many as I think we could or should take, particularly compared with Germany’s position – Angela Merkel expects to welcome 800,000 refugees this year. This is probably a first for me, approving of any aspect of any policy which Cameron expresses – and yes, I do ask myself how he will equate a willingness to take even a few thousand Syrian refugees when his Secretary of State for Work and Pensions doesn’t think our current unemployed need to be fed, clothed or housed adequately. Of course, my answer is that we should look after both.

Cameron suggests that we are a Christian nation as reason to do this. Admittedly, we have an established church, and “Church of England” is the default religious designation, but on that I think he’s wrong. A Christian nation wouldn’t have elected him in the first place, given his attitude to the poor, disabled and needy. Under 5% of us attend church on an average Sunday; that doesn’t look like a “Christian nation” to me. However, there is, particularly among the 60% or so who voted for someone else, a residual undercurrent of Christian values, so perhaps he isn’t completely wrong.

Now, I like Giles Fraser’s writing, but I have to take issue with this article. Yes, it is true that ancient Israel were enjoined to treat the sojourner in their land as they would a native, and that they were also enjoined to leave a margin to provide food for the poor (not especially the sojourner), but none of that refers to whether you invite foreigners into your land to sojourn in the first place. On that point, the Old Testament is at best silent – and at worst, it has a very dim view of citizens of neighbouring countries such as Amelekites, Canaanites, Phonecians, Moabites, Ammonites – and again, this list could go on substantially. Appropriate action in their cases ranged from extermination of every last member of the nation to merely approving taking them as slaves…

I think that in order to make his case, he needed to go New Testament. Love your neighbour as yourself (Matt. 22:39) is the start point; the parable of the Good Samaritan goes on to define as your neighbour someone of another nation (and at that one considered an enemy, and a set of dangerous heretics at that), and we may extend that by considering Jesus’ treatment of the Centurion (an officer of an occupying enemy force) or the Syrophonecian woman (a member of a nation which Israel had had a mandate to wipe out) – that last was a lectionary reading for at least some people at the weekend. Our neighbour is anyone, and probably someone different from us – maybe an enemy, maybe someone we are brought up to despise, maybe just one of those people we don’t notice, like (in Biblical times) women or children.

So yes, the Syrian refugees are our neighbours, and perhaps especially the drowned toddler.

The snag is, it’s not that simple. The homeless in our own country are also our neighbours, and if we haven’t helped them, why are we thinking of helping someone whose own nearer neighbours haven’t? Isn’t our neighbour supremely the person in need who is actually next to us now?

They’re also not that simple because of something I keep noticing in the pictures of multitudes of migrants, at Calais, at a Budapest station, at the Macedonian border, in boats crossing the Mediterranean. By and large, what I’m seeing isn’t women or children, it’s young men between, maybe, 18 and 35. Where are the women and children, the old? Why are they leaving the more vulnerable members of their families behind? I listen to interviews with them, and too many times, slipped in among the dangers and uncertainties of living in a war-torn society, is the statement that they don’t want to be conscripted to fight themselves (though many of them seem happy to be threatening to border guards or transport drivers). Are we looking at a collection of draft dodgers, and does that mean they aren’t legitimate? (I have a certain amount of sympathy with draft dodgers, as I believe the witness of the Gospels is hugely in favour of non-violence, though for me that might not hold up in the face of armed struggle in my own country – at the least, I’d want to stay and assist as a noncombatant).

I add to that the concern of a former Army intelligence officer with whom I was chatting recently about this; he pointed out that were he an organiser for Al Quaeda or Isis, he’d be slipping some committed fighters in among the refugees, as there would be no easier way to get them into the country to stir up trouble later. I don’t think there’s any chance that this isn’t something which has occurred to those organisers, so it’s almost certainly happening.

That’s where I think that on this occasion, Cameron is perhaps being really far sighted – if we take first orphans and families, we are probably not taking the draft dodger or the undercover terrorist.

But we should be doing far more. We should particularly be doing more in the light of the fact that even were the armed struggle to be resolved tomorrow (in whichever direction and however that were achieved), there seems strong evidence that the origins of the struggle in Syria lie in the fact that the country started being affected by drought around 2006, and by 2011 there were over 1.5 million internally displaced people who could no longer exist farming. It seems likely both that this is the result of climate change and that it is not going to improve in the forseeable future, and therefore Syria has a significant surplus population problem in any event. Neighbouring countries are similarly somewhat affected by the drought, so moving there is not a long term solution.

We should not merely welcome refugees for the duration of the struggle, therefore, we should welcome them as prospective citizens.

 

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