Thursday, 3 September 2015

Europe’s Shame: The Migrant and Refugee Crisis

The heartbreaking and profoundly disturbing image of a dead three-year-old boy washed up on a beach may prove to be the defining image of the migrant and refugee crisis that Europe is struggling to deal with. The Independent newspaper made a brave decision to put this graphic image on their front page this morning. It isn’t pleasant but it does help to reframe the debate. Instead of seeing migrants and refugees as a faceless ‘swarm’ this image demonstrates the terrible human cost of this crisis. 

Sadly this crisis is not new. Two years ago, Pope Francis visited the island of Lampedusa and condemned what he saw as ‘global indifference’ to the plight of migrants drowning while trying to cross the Mediterranean. A colossal failure in leadership by European leaders and indifference and even hostility by European populations has exacerbated the crisis. Certain sections of the media are also to blame for stoking hostility. The Daily Express front page on 11 August which criticised the BBC’s Songs of Praise programme for wasting tax payers’ money by filming at the migrant camp in Calais was just barely concealed racism.

Irish Naval personnel from the LÉ Eithne (P31)
rescuing migrants as part of Operation Triton.

Copyright Irish Defence Force under 
Creative Commons Licence
On this morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4, the former Cabinet minister, Baroness Warsi, spoke with compassion when she highlighted Britain’s history in offering refuge to people fleeing war and persecution. England offered many Huguenots asylum during the sixteenth century, and Edward VI even gave them the whole of the western crypt of Canterbury Cathedral for their worship. They still worship there to this day. Then in the twentieth century, the Kindertransport organised before the outbreak of World War II saw Britain take in nearly 10,000 Jewish children. To me it is sad that Britain is not living up to the hospitality offered by our ancestors.

Baroness Warsi was also right to point out that Britain is already a major supplier of humanitarian aid to the Syrian crisis, but I feel that however laudable our aid contribution is it there is still more that can be done. Last summer, Britain was slow to act as Islamic State seized control of Mosul and forced Yazidis and Christians to flee. In being slow to act and in refusing to take in refugees arriving in Europe, we are making the same mistake over this crisis, which of course is partly caused by the chaos in Syria and northern Iraq.

David Cameron and other European leaders now need to show both leadership and compassion in this crisis. The British Government needs to take a lead and not be swayed by xenophobic and isolationist views on immigration. It would be naive to say that immigration is always benign and doesn’t present challenges to the United Kingdom. Immigration often comes with profound dilemmas for both immigrant and indigenous communities. However, from a Christian perspective, ignoring the plight of these migrants and refugees is untenable and goes against the grain of scripture and Christian tradition. Jesus’ parables of the Good Samaritan, Lazarus and the Rich Man, and the Sheep and the Goats* mean that for Christians we do not have the luxury of being able to walk on by on the other side (read them if you don't believe me). Jesus simply does not allow us to be indifferent to the suffering of others.

However, hospitality is by nature a costly enterprise. Just as, in the parable, the Good Samaritan paid for the injured man to be cared for at an inn, hospitality costs us something. Dealing with the migrant and refugee crisis will be costly, but I guarantee that that the cost will be less to us than it was for that dead three-year-old on the beach.

* Luke 10:29-37, Luke 16:19-31, Matthew 25:31-36