Having talked in my last post about our immediate response to the situation of refugees from Syria in Europe, some other issues have challenged me to engage mind as well as heart. There have been several things about the reporting and comment over the last few days that puzzled me.
First was the tragic story of Aylan Kurdi, the little boy who had drowned. A clip has been posted up on YouTube from Sky News, with the comment:
According to news reports, the father had been kidnapped and tortured during the siege of Kobani by Islamic State or another jihadist group, and it’s claimed that all of his teeth had been pulled or knocked out. (I am seeking verification of these reports)…
Abdullah’s sister living in Canada, Tima Kurdi, sent money to him so traffickers could be paid to arrange the perilous boat journey for the family to escape from Turkey to Greece – a ‘good deed’ she now greatly regrets.
She explained in a BBC interview why she sent the money, “I was doing it for their better future, for the kids, for him, for the whole family”. In another interview published by Canada’s Huffington Post she said, “I am the one who should be at blame. I blame myself because my brother does not have money. I sent him the money to pay the smuggler. If I didn’t send him the money, those people still (would be) alive.”
Daniel Hannan, a Conservative MEP, offers a powerful analysis of this:
In truth, children are drowning because their parents believe that reaching the EU by water is the surest way of being allowed to stay there. If we want to stop the horrors, we need to stop the boats…When people say, “the migrants have been through hell, and we should welcome them,” what they’re actually saying, if you think about it, is that we should contract out our immigration policy to people smugglers.
This highlights the need to actually have a policy—yes, a policy that is shaped by compassion, but one that is also informed by a careful analysis of the (possibly unintended) consequences of our action. Peter Ould commented on the response of Austria (where he has family) and Germany:
I’m proud that Austria took the migrants from Hungary, no questions asked, fed them, gave them somewhere to sleep and helped them move on (if they wanted to). At the same time, we should all stop and ponder those three words – “no questions asked”. Did Austria and Germany just tear up EU immigration policy and the Geneva Convention? What happened to the principle of registration at first safe port? I can completely understand the frustration of the Hungarian Government when Germany insists the rest of Europe follows the law when it suits Germany, but tears up the law when it doesn’t suit Germany. As I wrote this week, the issue facing Europe is not migration but rather sovereignty.
What not many people noted in the story about Aylan and his family was that they were already in Turkey—they had not just arrived there from Syria.
Daniel Hannan goes on to offer some big hints about the problems with the media coverage, and the way our response is shaped by it.
Last week, for example, a BBC researcher called me, wanting to discuss the migration crisis. Would I talk by phone to her programme? Yes, I told her. In fact, I was at that moment volunteering in a hostel for underage migrants in Italy, so it would have a certain aptness. The moment I mentioned the hostel, I sensed the interest draining from her voice. She was after someone who would be, as it were, uncomplicatedly anti-immigrant. She wanted no nuance, no dash of humanity.
I suppose broadcasters have to simplify everything for the listeners. But the trouble with treating immigration policy as a test of decency is that it quickly becomes all about you. The welfare of the migrants is pushed aside by your determination to flaunt your kindness.
One of the other things that puzzled me about the coverage of those trying to leave Hungary was why a number of the refugees had smart phones with GPS which allowed them to plan their route to Germany. If my experience is anything to go by, you need money to have a smart phone. And why were so many of the refugees young men? Hannan has been involved in organising a social action programme to meet the needs of migrants, and so he has first-hand experience to draw from:
While we were in Messina, an Italian coastguard vessel put in with 693 boat people on board, mainly Eritreans. I have seen refugee columns before, and they tend to be made up disproportionately of women and children. But more than 80 per cent of the people disembarking here were young men – the classic indicator of economic migration.
Of course, those fleeing squalor deserve our fellow-feeling no less than those fleeing persecution. These young men are guilty of nothing worse than courage, resourcefulness and optimism. But if we plan to open our doors to anyone who wants to get away from a hardscrabble life, we are inviting hundreds of millions of people to settle here.
Fraser Nelson in the Telegraph has done some sobering analysis of the current situation of migration into the UK. It is massive, and rising, and the majority are not coming from the EU—though return migration of Britons returning from abroad is contributing to the numbers as well. The surprising thing is that the growth in migration is a result of the reduction in global poverty:
When a poor country becomes richer, its emigration rate rises until it becomes as wealthy as Albania or Armenia are today. This process usually takes decades, and only afterwards does wealth subdue emigration. War is a catalyst. If conflict strikes, and the country isn’t quite as poor as it once was, more of those affected now have the means to cross the world. The digital age means they also have the information.
If he is right, then we are going to see the kind of thing that has been in the news many more times over the next few years.
All this demands that we think through the issues carefully. Alastair Roberts offered some challenging reflections in response to my last post:
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…
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…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.
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… Perhaps we could start by boycotting the Qatar World Cup and having an alternative event in one of the other recent host nations.
Alastair’s final complaint is about the poor level of reflection by many in the church.
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.
I have to confess to sharing much of this frustration. The most common text that I have seen flying around is Matt 25.40: ‘Whenever you did this for the least of these my brothers, you did it for me’. But, read properly in context, this parable of Jesus has absolutely nothing to do with helping refugees—at least not in the way we are being challenged today. Jesus uses the term ‘brothers’ and ‘the least of these’ to refer to his disciples (see Matt 12.48–50); since the ‘Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Matt 8.20), Jesus expects his followers to experience at least something of the same; and the notion of reward for those who care for Jesus’ followers has been introduced previously, in the context of facing pressure and persecution (Matt 10.42, where the recipient of kindness is referred to as ‘one of these little ones who is my disciple’). Rob Dalrymple offers an extended study of the correct meaning of this passage. The daft thing is that there are plenty of other places to go to shape our response to those in need—not least the parable of the Jericho road in Luke 10.
Giles Fraser offers another example of this sloppy thinking.
For the moral imagination of the Hebrew scriptures was determined by a battered refugee people, fleeing political oppression in north Africa, and seeking a new life for themselves safe from violence and poverty. Time and again, the books of the Hebrew scriptures remind its readers not to forget that they too were once in this situation and their ethics must be structured around practical help driven by fellow-feeling.
The only slight drawback to this analysis is that, in the biblical narrative, God effects the rescue by raining down judgement not only the nation that has enslaved his people, but also on the people whose land they were going to enter. If you only read Loose Canon, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Hebrew Bible was a socialist’s charter—but it isn’t. The ‘practical help driven by fellow-feeling’ that Fraser refers to includes imposing their own values and beliefs on those they are commanded to help.
Justin Welby was quite right to cite the command ‘to break down barriers, to welcome the stranger and love them as ourselves (Leviticus 19:34), and to seek the peace and justice of our God, in our world, today.’ But he won’t have forgotten that this is part of the distinctive ‘Holiness Code’ of chapters 17–26—and that all who entered the land had to leave their own culture at the border, and live like one of God’s people, adopting their beliefs as well as their customs. This is precisely why, in the moving personal commitment of Ruth to Naomi, she makes the comment ‘Your God will be my God’ (Ruth 1.16). As Alastair Roberts concludes:
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.
These are the issues we need to wrestle with as we formulate our response.
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