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Thinking about migration

_85327668_gettyimages-486215226Having 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:

The poor boy drowned just because his father wanted new teeth paid for by europe. The parents are to blame!

 Former BBC reported Jon Danzig disputes this interpretation—though confirms some of the other complexities of this case.

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.


chartFraser 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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23 Responses to Thinking about migration

  1. Faye Booker September 7, 2015 at 8:50 am #

    I think our response as Christians should be informed by two principles firstly, compassion for the poor and dispossessed and secondly, justice. As well as being part of the humanitarian response towards refugees facing unimaginable choices, as Christians we need to take seriously our role as advocates to influence government policy on immigration and how it allocates its international development fund (which is currently 0.7% of GDP).

    While it is useful to read some of the diagnostic analysis given above, we must make sure that a discussion of “why” this is happening doesn’t distract us from thinking about “how” we should practically respond.

    • Ian Paul September 7, 2015 at 10:35 am #

      Thanks for commenting Faye. I entirely agree with you—but as Daniel Hannan says, the way to stop the drownings is to stop the boats. If we promise to take in anyone who reaches our shores that is a certain way to *encourage* the boats to keep coming, and the people traffickers to continue their evil business.

  2. Philip Whittall September 7, 2015 at 9:14 am #

    Ian,
    A number of points:

    I think Daniel Hannan is wrong in his comment about ‘contract[ing] out our immigration policy to people smugglers.’ The fact is you can only be an asylum seeker or refugee once you’ve left your country of origin, our immigration policy says you can only apply for asylum if you can get here. A policy that seeks to stop the boats or the smuggling is to say the only countries that can help are neighbouring countries and we won’t do anything to help – it’s essentially a washing of the hands of the problem for those furthest away, like Britain.

    Secondly, young men in Syria are often at greater risk, risk of conscription, kidnapping and being forced into the war or being treated as a combatant whatever they do. Comparing Syria & Eritrea is unhelpful.

    Your comment about the mobile phone is surprising, in that why would it surprise you they had a phone? smartphones are nearly ubiquituous all over the world, they’re not so expensive and essential to keep in contact with people and family. Plus it’s wrong to think Syrians are poor, they’re often spending tens of thousands of dollars to leave, they’re leaving not because they’re poor but because they’re not safe and no end in sight to the war.

    Mark Urban has a good article on the BBC http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-34158660 that shows the motivation for leaving is complex but what Giles Fraser is alluding to, is that a basic position of compassion should not be. The question of what to do is easier than the ‘how’ to do it.

    Of course it is wildly naive to assume that all refugees are honourable, kind, hardworking and decent just as it would be malicious to assume all were the opposite and the cultural challenges will be massive for a generation.

    But Alistair is wrong in thinking that radical hospitality in this will be as disruptive as he thinks, partly because those ships have already sailed. What common cultural identity in Leicester? Or lingustic unity in London? What common religious character in Marseille or Berlin? What historic identity in Hungary? Are we talking Ottaman Empire or only after the Turks were kicked out?

    Anyway, thanks again for a thought-provoking post

    • Ian Paul September 7, 2015 at 10:57 am #

      Thanks very much Philip. In brief:

      1. I think it is one thing to say that we will deal compassionately with asylum seekers who end up here. It is quite another to say that we will encourage tens of thousands to make the journey—which is what those countries are doing who are naming big numbers. There is already evidence that this is putting real pressure on social cohesion and political will.

      2. Hannan’s point about young men is well made, your observations notwithstanding. The horror of being in a war zone is difficult to imagine—but historically, we have treated as refugees those who are vulnerable and displaced. Reluctantly, I think Cameron is doing the right thing by seeking to help those displaced who are not as fit and well-resourced as the people we have seen on our screens. ‘They are not leaving because they are poor’ is accurate—but I am not sure that people have grasped this. It is the main point behind Fraser Nelson’s analysis—and it also means that this movement is sucking out of countries those who are more able and better resourced, and in the long term is impoverishing them further.

      3. There is plenty of historic identity in Hungary—part of which is the memory of being invaded by Islam in previous eras. I think you are partly right on the others—but this in itself it a big issue, and a problem. What shared values do we in fact have in the UK—except the belief that money matters more than anything?

    • Ian Paul September 7, 2015 at 11:08 am #

      I should just add: I am not sure Giles F is helping us at all. To cherry-pick the ideas from the OT which happen to chime with one’s own left-leaning agenda is not doing anyone any favours—and is certainly not offering a ‘Biblical’ response as he claims.

      • Philip Whittall September 9, 2015 at 6:54 am #

        The headline is slightly ruder than I would put it, so just to be clear, I’m NOT calling you an idiot! But still it makes the point…thanks again for a lively discussion.

  3. Vernon Ross September 7, 2015 at 9:24 am #

    Thank you for this well thought through and reflective piece on what is a complex and critical issue. I wrestle with several things on this.

    1) The media coverage: It is at best like a google search, pretty supeficial and lacking detail. It has focused on the migration of the relatively wealthy and male to Europe and forgotton about largely the poor and female in the refugee camps in countries surrounding Syria.

    2) The problem somehow has to be addressed at root cause and that is complicated. In Syria there is almost an ethnic civil war between two strands of Islam both backed by money from rich Nations Iran backs tone side and Saudi Arabia and the gulf states back the other.

    3) How can we respond collectively when the UN is controlled by the 5 permanant members of the secuirty council, any veto by one of these parylisis the international communities response.

    4) Our recent history is not good, the invasion of Iraq and the bombing of Lybia may have removed unpleasant dictators but has left in their place total chaos which has allowed ultra conservative Islamic groups to thrive and fill the power vacuum.

    5) The Bible , especially the Old Testament is clear that mercy and justice and compassion should be shown to the poor, vulnerable and refugees. The challenge is how? England is excluding island states like Signapore, the 7th most densely populated country in the world. So how do we balance the obvious environmental and suatainability challenges that a rising population brings and still care for migrants?

    6) How do we as Christian address the wide injustices in this world, in the west we live in what is almosted a gated community, and now that the world is pressing on our gates (literally and metaphorically), we are used to rising standards of living, (in fact it is a main driver in any election). Yet the reality is if everyone lived as we do, we would need 3 planets to resource it. So as an old TEAR FUND slogan said ‘How can we live more simply, so that others can simply live?

    • Ian Paul September 7, 2015 at 11:06 am #

      Thanks Vernon. I think there is some intersection between your comments and my interaction with Philip.

      There is one point I would question: the idea that we are almost a gated community. I think Fraser Nelson’s analysis shows that in fact there is more immigration to wealthy nations than before, and we live in a world of global movement. I think the past migration was less just because it was harder to move. So movement will only decrease if it is discouraged.

      • Philip Whittall September 8, 2015 at 8:59 am #

        That suggest that movement is something that should be discouraged but of course not for us – we wouldn’t want our freedom to live in the US, Australia, Spain or France curtailed and we should avoid double-standards. There are somewhere between 5 and 13 million British nationals living abroad. We’d have bigger problems if they were forced to come home than taking x number of Syrian refugees.

      • Philip Whittall September 8, 2015 at 8:59 am #

        That suggests that movement is something that should be discouraged but of course not for us – we wouldn’t want our freedom to live in the US, Australia, Spain or France curtailed and we should avoid double-standards. There are somewhere between 5 and 13 million British nationals living abroad. We’d have bigger problems if they were forced to come home than taking x number of Syrian refugees.

  4. Brian September 7, 2015 at 10:17 am #

    A well-thought and balanced discussion – thank you. Giles Fraser again shows his inability to read the Bible carefully, as Anglicans should.

  5. James Byron September 7, 2015 at 12:06 pm #

    Emotion can’t be allowed to dictate policy. My instinct’s to throw open the doors, but that’s just not practical, in Europe, America, Australia, or elsewhere.

    That being so, it’s essential that we maintain the distinction between asylum and immigration. Poverty is soul-destroying, but it isn’t grounds to grant asylum. Even living in a war zone isn’t, of itself, justification. Asylum’s strictly linked to protecting people from persecution.

    These policies are, undoubtedly, cruel, but it’s necessary cruelty; for nation states to function, they must control their borders, as Hungary is now doing, apparently on behalf of an entire continent. It’s also setting up processing centers: refugees motivated primarily by a desire to gain safe-haven will, surely, register there. Those who journey on are motivated by other concerns, concerns that, however sympathetic, must be treated differently from those of refugees.

    • Philip Whittall September 8, 2015 at 8:55 am #

      You forget about refugee – and war is a justification to be a refugee. They have a right to care if they can get here, but they can ONLY get here if they take a dangerous journey because we refuse to let them on planes and ferries or cross borders.

      I would take issue with your opening statement – who has decided that it’s ‘not practical’ and when has that ever been a good argument for not doing the right thing. Europe isn’t full, nor is anywhere in the West. If Turkey can take 2 million Syrians and Jordan can take 2 million Syrians, how come all of Europe can’t take 250,000 Syrians? (The numbers are bigger because they include Iraqis, Afghanis, Eritreans and everybody else wanting to come)

      • James Byron September 8, 2015 at 5:55 pm #

        Philip, the 1951 Refugee Convention (as amended) defines a refugee as:-

        “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

        I agree that, on compassionate grounds, Europe should take a substantial number of those fleeing Syria, which will be over a million when all’s said and done. What it can’t do is throw open its doors, and must ensure those admitted are either refugees in a strict sense, or are genuinely fleeing the conflict.

        As for practicality, it’s an inescapable component of ethics. If something doesn’t work, it isn’t doing good.

        • Philip Whittall September 9, 2015 at 6:48 am #

          Surely that definition applies to civilians fleeing civil war Syria, doesn’t it? Unless we don’t count bombing and shooting as a form of persecution, that is.

    • Ian Paul September 8, 2015 at 9:02 am #

      And throwing doors open has different effects in different place. See my next blog!

  6. Philip Whitehead September 7, 2015 at 2:33 pm #

    I’m glad you’ve put into words a lot of what I have been thinking regarding the recent bandwagon. There has been too much foolish talk (from a variety of positions) without any reference to the actual situation developing in Europe. “Open the borders” is clearly an extremist position, which entails the end of the nation state and the collapse of Western welfare systems. Likewise, the unedifying spectacle of politicians trying to “outbid” each other on how many refugees Britain should take is simply moral posturing, shorn from any discussion of the realities involved.

    I would like to know (because I don’t!) how many asylum-seekers the UK government can offer immediate accommodation and support to. This number should be a starting point for the question of “how many” because it simply isn’t virtuous to invite people to seek asylum here and then have to throw them out onto the streets or into the predatory arms of London’s beds-in-sheds landlords. Housing refugees in tents in Britain is not a good option considering the approaching British winter (and the only advantage over a tent in a Middle East refugee camp is salving our own consciences).

    • Ian Paul September 8, 2015 at 9:04 am #

      That’s a good question Philip. I don’t think we know the answer—but it would also raise questions about other aspect of housing policy.

  7. Gill September 7, 2015 at 4:03 pm #

    Thanks, Ian. I so often feel a lone ranger when I refuse to respond to media pressure to turn off thought and turn on compassion. The idea is to load us with guilt. As a mission partner I know that the issues are complex, that people are not perfect, and that what we need most with our compassion is some very down-to-earth wisdom.

  8. Sian September 8, 2015 at 12:52 pm #

    2 thoughts

    Firstly, the decision of the UK govt to accept refugees direct from camps in Lebanon and Jordan, is to be applauded, because it seems to be the most obvious way to a) stop the boats b) ensure that those people are refugees and the most vulnerable, as it is the least vulnerable and wealthiest (relatively) who are able to travel, since the war means that we are not going to stop the refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq for a while.

    However, the fact remains that hundreds of thousands have already made the journey, and need somewhere to go – even if they are ‘migrants’ they cannot be returned to their home countries Syria, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan, Somalia, CAR, northern Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan are all countries in conflict or dangerous turmoil, and it would be wrong morally, and probably legally, to send anyone back there. Eritrea has one of the most oppressive and tyrannical government on the planet, where prisons are mostly metal shipping containers in the desert, so I doubt it could be argued it would be humane to return anyone there, either. So the question is, where do they go? They can’t all stay in Italy, Serbia, Hungary or Greece where they are arriving.

    • Ian Paul September 8, 2015 at 5:17 pm #

      Thanks Sian, but the movement of refugees has been going on for a couple of years now—and how do we take into account the impact on future migration?

      There are indeed many wicked regimes in the world. Are we to offer sanctuary to all of them? In what is set to become the most populous and one of the most densely populated countries in Europe?

      I wonder if it might be more significant if we starting challenging the countries who are supporting and funding these regimes, mostly with money we gave them in the first place to buy oil.

  9. Alastair Roberts September 9, 2015 at 2:15 pm #

    An article of mine on the subject of the refugee crisis has just gone online over on Reformation 21.

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