I woke up this morning, looked at my phone, and saw social media flooded with the growing storm over asylum seekers’ children being taken from their families in the USA and detained in cages.
Opening my email, I found a second response from my MP to my letter about the treatment of detainees in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre here in the UK; he sent me the response of the Immigration Minister, in which she claims the government’s good intentions to treat people fairly and respectfully are in fact reality, contrary to the evidence pouring in from the detainees themselves.
We’re also in the middle of a campaign, spearheaded by Lord Dubs who himself came to the UK as a child refugee in the second world war, to persuade the UK government to do more for today’s vulnerable unaccompanied child refugees and take in 10,000 of them over the coming decade, echoing our wartime response.
Meanwhile, thousands of desperate people are still piling into unsafe boats and attempting the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean to try to find safety in Europe, many dying in the attempt.
My Bible reading plan this morning happened to bring me to Matthew 2, in which I read how Joseph had to get up in the night and flee over the border into Egypt with the baby Jesus and his mother Mary to escape king Herod’s attempt to kill the child, and how the young family had to remain in the foreign country’s sanctuary until after Herod’s death before being able to return. Like so many today, they wouldn’t have been able to fill in a visa application first…
And it happens to be World Refugee Day. This year it seems a bigger global issue than ever.
According to Safe Passage this week, there are currently 68 million displaced people in the world, of whom 24 million are refugees. 82% are in developing countries. Over half of these people are children.
Refugees are those who have had to flee for their lives due to some form of fear of persecution. Asylum is an international process whereby those who have to escape their country can claim protection from that persecution in another country. Usually, this is the neighbouring country to their own. Because, like Jesus’ family, people are often having to flee in an emergency, it is not only legal under international law but vital that they are able to enter that other country for the sole purpose of claiming asylum without the necessary documentation that would otherwise be required, and they must claim asylum on arrival. There is then a process within that country to determine if asylum should be granted.
In addition, many people emigrate from their home countries. This happens for a variety of reasons, including for work, family or a simple change of scene, but many are also in desperate circumstances such as crushing poverty.
Probably my biggest fear when it comes to climate change is not that we may lose iconic species like polar bears, as appalling as that would be. No, my biggest fear has long been the borders going up, as more and more people find themselves under pressure to move, either directly because of resource wars or increasing natural disasters, or indirectly as the world becomes more unstable or they find their livelihoods less profitable. I fear this becoming an increased driver of refugees and migration, and that the response of countries like ours that are less affected by these pressures will be to close our borders. Alas, I’m seeing it happening already, along with rising xenophobia and fracturing of non-military international cooperation. I fear the sort of world this will create, where desperate people will have to be kept at bay by force, and will likely respond with terrorism, as desperate people so often do, fuelling a hateful vicious cycle. It’s not a world I want to live in.
Although the vast majority of displaced people are either moving within their own countries or to neighbouring countries, the figures are still shocking. The default position when faced with increasing numbers of people attempting to enter the country either as refugees or migrants seems to be ‘How do we keep numbers down? How do we keep them out? How can we get rid of them?’
What about if we took the time to ask why they come?
I can understand that we on the ‘right’ side of a border want to hang on to the benefits of our position. We feel entitled to the privileges we experience as a result of being born in a safe and prosperous country, despite our place of birth being pure serendipity, not something we have earned ourselves. That entitlement is strange framed like that – but then, a desire for safety and prosperity is no bad thing, and when we have it, it’s no bad thing to want to hang onto it. It only becomes problematic when we don’t want to extend that to others.
I suspect we have more capacity to help than we think we do, but we are still not infinite. We can’t take in the world. But surely the real solution is not to harden our hearts and strengthen our borders, clinging to what we have and shutting out anyone else, but to extend humanity and generosity as far as possible whilst working to tackle the causes of movement, the war, persecution, poverty, that drives it?
As long as we live in an unequal world there will be net movement from more disadvantaged and dangerous places to places of safety and opportunity, either because people have to flee for their lives from the former, or because they will choose to migrate to the latter. Not many will be moving the opposite way.
I dream of a more equal world. For now, we really need to extend mercy, compassion, fairness and kindness to those who come to us and treat them with human dignity, even if some must be turned away, especially considering the horrors and hardships so many have endured and escaped to get here. But long term, I dream of a truly free world. We need to work to understand and end the things that are forcing people from their homes, the war, poverty, persecution and climate change, and work towards a world where all countries are equally safe and prosperous, where people can be free to move as they please, where there is no net movement of people because as many people are moving in one direction as in the other, and there are no refugees. We need to build other countries up, rather than shutting our doors and building up ourselves. That’s ambitious, but surely we are capable of that if we try? Wouldn’t that be what true progress looks like?
Meanwhile, Jesus stands on the ‘wrong’ side of all our borders – with the poor, the refugee, the persecuted, and with those working for them, suffering with them. When we welcome others, we welcome God. Is God truly welcome here, or are we ‘full’? Can we expand our hearts’ borders? I fear that if we don’t, as well as seeing an increasingly dangerous and divided world, it is Christ Himself we will be shutting out.