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Responding to refugees

11221703_1041404699205694_2482957666187571418_nCompassion. Surely that is the only legitimate response to seeing a three-year-old boy, drowned and washed up on a Turkish beach, fleeing with his family from the way in Syria. It was especially poignant yesterday, since it mingled on my Facebook feed with photographs of other boys, dressing in a red top, ready for the first day at school. Andy Walton offers a very helpful short summary of Five Things YOU Can Do To Help on Christian Today.


The first is to petition; I have signed two petitions on Change.Org and encouraged others to do the same. Andy also mentions the official Parliamentary petition, which now has enough signatures to trigger a debate in the chamber. The second action is to lobby. Simon Butler offers this text of the letter he wrote to his MP:

This just sent to my MP, the Public Health Minister

Dear Jane

I write in the briefest terms to urge Her Majesty’s Government to drastically improve its response to the unfolding refugee crisis. This is simply a matter of humanitarian compassion and should stand apart from longer term strategic or political considerations.

The unfortunate language of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor in recent days has focused on long term solutions to a long term problem. Be that as it may, people are dying in significant numbers in a simple attempt to flee from war and violence, and Britain has a long-standing tradition of receiving such people with open-handed generosity. Such generosity has been significantly absent from the words and actions of ministers in recent weeks and this something I believe the Government should change with immediate effect.

I urge you to advocate such a change in policy in the strongest terms. Human dignity and Christian compassion demand it.

With very best wishes

Canon Simon Butler
Vicar of St Mary’s Battersea

Thirdly, Andy suggests the radical challenge to offer hospitality. This was reinforced by Justin Welby in his statement:

The Church has always been a place of sanctuary for those in need, and Churches in the UK and across Europe have been meeting the need they are presented with. I reaffirm our commitment to the principle of sanctuary for those who require our help and love. The people of these islands have a long and wonderful history of offering shelter and refuge, going back centuries – whether it be Huguenot Christians, Jewish refugees, Ugandan Asians, Vietnamese boat people or many, many more.

Finally, Andy suggests donation and prayer.


But it is worth asking: why the UK has been so poor in its response?

In Austria, 20,000 people, horrified by the plight of the refugees, marched in favour of taking more. Iceland, with a population of 330,000, offered to take 50; its government was shamed by the response of its people, 10,000 of whom offered to open their homes to people in need. Germany has offered to take 800,000. Greece and Italy are being overwhelmed. Hungary is building a fence to keep refugees out. Britain took around 10,000 last year; on a per capita basis this makes it one of the meanest countries in Europe. Its answer to the migrants at Calais is more dogs and razor wire.

I think there are multiple reasons, and some of them are deep-seated. It doesn’t help that our political discourse has been so superficial—which accounts for part of the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest.

Blair wounded Labour long before Iraq. He converted it to the cult of inauthenticity, of spin over substance. Blandness was god; political correctness the liturgy. Under Blair, centrism became associated with an absence of both principle and personality – to the point that voters confused being intelligent and moderate with being fake and duplicitous.

If that was true of Tony Blair, it has continued to be true of those who followed him into power.

This has masked a deeper bankruptcy in UK foreign policy—quite apart from our responsibility for fomenting this crisis, not least in the reckless policy of intervention in Libya. For many years now, our policy has been to defend ‘whatever maintains our national interest’; in other words, we should make friends with whoever will support us, regardless of their own internal or foreign policies. This is neatly illustrated by the picture above, courtesy of Jeremy Moodey, the CEO of Embrace ME. As someone commented by way of explanation:

I think it’s important to point out that the image above represents the nations of Saudi, Qatar, Bahrain etc, who are taking no refugees, but who have helped fund and create the crisis and those who are terrorising the region. But hang on, they are also our close allies in the war which we too are perpetuating and helping to arm….


Thirdly, the refugee crisis (as the BBC are now beginning to call it) has been overlaid on a much larger and longer term migration ‘crisis’. The EU policy of free movement of labour assumes that we have a shared culture across Europe (which we don’t) and that no member state will be bothered about the influx of economic migrants (which we are). This is going to be a crucial issue in the forthcoming referendum on membership of the EU.

Nick Spencer is rightly critical of the response of the Hungarian PM to the immediate crisis:

“Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture,” Mr Orban has said. “Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims.” This is relevant, apparently, because “Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity. Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian? There is no alternative, and we have no option but to defend our borders.”

Such sentiments, as the saying goes, invent whole new ways of being wrong. It is difficult to know how Mr Orban understands Christianity but it doesn’t appear to be the way Jesus does.

(See also the response from the Coptic Bishop Angaelos). But Orban is highlighting one very important thing: migration changes countries and cultures. And we have not even begun to discuss this. One of the most significant recent migrations to the UK has been from rural Pakistan in the 1970s and 80s. It was an economic migration—but invited from this end to remedy the labour shortages in manufacturing. It transformed many inner cities, especially in the north. The problem is that no-one asked the residents of Bradford whether they wanted this change; similarly no-one asked the residents of Leicester whether they wanted it to become the largest Asian city in the Western world. Whether this change is judged to be challenging or enriching, it is change, and it is usually change that no-one wants to talk about and certainly that no-one has had the foresight to plan for.

As Adrian Hilton points out, the most popular name for babies for many years has not been Oliver, Jack or Harry, but Mohammed. But this reality is disguised, not least because such social changes don’t affect the middle classes as much as they affect the working classes—and they don’t affect the political classes at all. Only a couple of years ago, one prominent MP expressed surprise to discover that immigrant communities tended to stick together. When I was the only manager at Mars Confectionery actually living in Slough (rather than Windsor or the Burnham Beeches) in the 1980s, I knew you could draw a line around the different Sikh, Muslim and Hindu communities. You could name the ethnic identity of individual streets.

Our response to the refugee crisis must be compassion now. But when this crisis passes (assuming it does) there are some much bigger questions we must tackle.


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5 Responses to Responding to refugees

  1. Alastair Roberts September 4, 2015 at 6:14 pm #

    Some thoughts:

    1. Compassion is the natural and human reaction, but fetishizing it as the ‘only legitimate response’ is unhelpful. The kneejerk of compassion is a very dangerous guide for policy in such cases, as it can easily encourage well-meaning approaches that exacerbate our problems. The most important response right now is one that avoids sentimentalism’s rush of mentally obfuscating feeling and devotes itself to the difficult task of level-headed deliberation about prudential and effective policy. Daniel Hannan has some very important things to say here, I think. Sentimentalism is a dangerous poison and a threat to the actual wise practice of justice and charity (which might require a bit more political nerve and level-headedness). Sentimental ‘humanitarianism’ often helps to create these problems in the first place. And sentimentalism tends to be more concerned with fuzzy feelings about its own virtue than with actually making a concrete difference, which is far less rewarding in terms of feeling morally good about ourselves and far more demanding of difficult effort in actual practice and thought.

    2. One of the points that Hannan makes is that the overwhelming majority of “refugees” in many contexts are young men. This is the distinct demographic of economic migrants, not refugees. Perhaps their families are left behind in refugee camps, perhaps to be brought over at some later point. Let’s take on more refugees, but let’s prioritize women and children and dependents, rather than giving encouragement to the young men who have the resourcefulness and willingness to assume the risks required to jump the queues.

    3. There seems to be a blurring of the line between refugees and economic migrants. The fact that the refugees are gravitating towards countries like Germany, rather than staying in places like Turkey or Hungary suggests that refugees are not just looking for refugee, but looking to skip the long queues to prime locations for economic migrants. Although one can hardly blame them for this opportunism, I don’t think it is healthy to provide inducements to such behaviour.

    4. Pictures of a drowned child are shocking, but we need to think about the complex story that lies behind them. In particular, we need to ask about the role of people smugglers and whether welcoming refugees who come to Europe in such a manner isn’t just going to create perverse incentives to people smuggling, leading to more dead bodies in the Mediterranean. People breaking our laws to get to our shores isn’t something we should be rewarding. Britain’s current policies actually seem pretty good, focusing on channeling aid to the region of the problem, rather than upon sentimental humanitarian gestures that may produce more dead bodies on beaches in the long run.

    5. The cultural questions are huge and need to be addressed. My girlfriend (who has edited and added a few sentences to this paragraph of my comment) spent a couple of months in Syria, largely alone, which utterly destroyed any sentimental notions she might have had about the country and its population. On the occasions when she wasn’t accompanied by a male, practically every male she met, pretty much without exception, groped, propositioned, objectified, or otherwise tried to take sexual advantage of her, although she was uniformly dressed in modest loose clothing. It wasn’t just a few occasions: it was relentless. It wasn’t just a few bad apples, but culturally typical. Riding in a taxi, the taxi driver would put money into her lap for a sexual favour, while travelling at 80mph. At Palmyra, while on a camel ride, the camel driver got up behind her on the horse, ostensibly to prevent her from falling, and groped her the whole way. She went to buy an Islamic headscarf in order to be able to dress with more modesty, and even the guy selling her the headscarf was propositioning her, offering her a 20% discount on the hijab in exchange for sex. These are just a few examples of what occurred for her many times a day there. This is the sort of depraved culture that we risk allowing to take root in our shores. Speaking as someone who grew up in a house where needy people were always being taken in, often for months at a time (Irish and new age travelers, recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, homeless people, prostitutes, etc.), sentimentality will really put us at risk. I have a number of friends who were sexually abused by people their parents tried to help in such a manner. Similar principles apply in the case of cultures. Let’s not be deluded: welcoming lots of Syrian refugees may come at the cost of another Rotherham or two. Or more events like this. Many of these disproportionately male refugees aren’t choirboys by any stretch of the imagination. For instance, here’s a news report of twelve Christians thrown overboard by Muslims on one of these migrant ships.

    6. Not all groups culturally assimilate to the same degree. For the most part, multiculturalism has been a failure. Successful melting pots tend to be discriminating in the groups they accept, as certain groups do not accommodate to the wider culture well. Indiscriminate welcoming of migrant populations serves the interests of the capitalist (cheap and mobile labour, with little internal solidarity and power) and ruling classes (the breaking down of grassroots solidarities, creating more dependence upon and thus more power for government), but tends to produce underclasses and a breaking down of society at the margins.

    7. Sentimental humanitarian liberals can be very generous with other people’s neighbourhoods and communities. However, this might be a good way for them to make a more direct commitment.

    8. Syrian Muslims would culturally assimilate best in other regional states. Of course, the oil-rich Gulf states aren’t doing anything much at all to help. Qatar, for instance, is currently investing hundreds of billions in throwing a lavish World Cup party, at the cost of over sixty deaths per game, while taking in no refugees. Let’s start putting some serious international pressure on these countries to step up and do their bit. Syrian Muslim refugees might stand a chance of assimilating into these countries, rather than becoming a long term problematic dependent underclass within our own. Perhaps we could start by boycotting the Qatar World Cup and having an alternative event in one of the other recent host nations. The Arabian peninsula nations have immense investment in construction on a megalomaniac scale, Saudi Arabia has incredible expertise at supporting vast temporary population influxes from managing the Hajj, they have silly amounts of wealth, and they have done much to create and fund the problem of ISIS in the region: why don’t they do their bit to pick up some of the pieces?

    9. So much of the Christian reflection I have encountered on this subject has been remarkably poor, with lots of sentimentalism and virtue signaling, but remarkably little prudence and sensible deliberation. Facile WWJD style arguments almost invariably rely upon romanticized projections of our values onto Jesus, drawing upon highly selective prooftexting, rather than arising from rigorous exploration of relevant theological principles or from recognition of the difference between the good—the values that should inform our practice—and the right—the actual actions that we should prudentially take in light of the good. We need to be hospitable as Christians, and open-handed to those in need. However, this doesn’t mean that we have a duty to let those in need dictate the shape of our charity. It doesn’t mean that we bear an indiscriminate responsibility to everyone in need, irrespective of their location relative to us. It doesn’t mean that we are in ordinary circumstances obligated to surrender the character of our own places in order to welcome outsiders. Hospitality has a logic to it, one that does not alienate the site of hospitality from the party extending hospitality. Hospitality almost always entails assuming upon ourselves a degree of openness to disruption, but not to the radical erosion of our cultural customs, solidarities, institutions, economy, religious character, historic identity, and linguistic unity.

    • Ian Paul September 6, 2015 at 9:58 pm #

      Thanks Alastair. I would like to repost some of your comments in a follow-up post if that is ok…

      • Alastair Roberts September 6, 2015 at 10:10 pm #

        I will actually be writing a piece on the subject tomorrow, which should be a more careful and considered articulation of my position. You may find it a more helpful argument to interact with. I can send you a link when it is done.

        • Ian Paul September 6, 2015 at 11:02 pm #

          I’ll publish something tomorrow morning—happy to link to yours when it is up.

  2. pk September 4, 2015 at 7:01 pm #

    I would also want to add the Operation Safe Havens petition and campaign of Barnabas Fund (supported by Justin Welby and George Carey) which aims to urge our government to grant refuge to Christians fleeing Iraq and Syria.
    Whatever the Hungarian PM’s particular thinking behind his comments, I do feel that it is important for believers here to ensure that priority is given to fellow members of the household of faith. Indeed, it is rather suspicious that certain Muslim countries are doing nothing to take in refugees. No doubt they are wanting more Muslims to take up residence in western countries to further the process of ‘dawa.

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