“My mother sold all her gold and other jewellery to help pay for my escape and, after about a month, I telephoned home only to be told that soldiers, not police, had arrested my mother and sister, and that they had been told they would rot in jail unless they revealed where I had escaped to.” Afraid he would be tracked down, Tesfaye ceased contact with friends and family, and he has not been in touch since. What he regrets most is the fact that he has never seen his child, who was born three months after he escaped. “I do not know if it is a boy or a girl. The child, if still alive, should now be six years old,” he says, his voice almost breaking.
The plight of migrants – particularly Africans – risking life and limb to make it to Europe’s shores concerns me greatly. 51 million people are currently displaced across the world. The number of people applying for asylum in developed countries doubled in a single year, and over 100,000 migrants were rescued at sea in Europe during the first half of 2015. In Europe, people are drowning within sight of our shores; surely this should be seen as inhumane and horrifying. Instead, Europe’s response to these desperate people is to close our borders, strengthen our security, and harden our hearts. At this rate, we will continue to witness the Mediterranean becoming a mass grave!
Crossing the Med is not the only ordeal that African migrants face. Once in Europe, they have to negotiate camps before they reach their final desired destination. One camp is in Calais. George Ola-Davies, from The New African magazine, spent 48 hours with the stranded migrants there. “I have come to Calais to see how it is to be an immigrant, desperately trying to get into the United Kingdom, which, as of this month, has tightened even further its already stringent immigration laws. The refugees come from faraway places like Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Somalia and Bangladesh, and there are a few from Eastern Europe. Their current abode is derogatorily referred to as ‘La Jungle’ (the jungle).
Conditions in ‘La Jungle’ are desperate; you would not wish them on your worst enemy. With no water, toilets or any other sanitary amenities to begin with, the camp would appear to be no place for the weak-hearted – yet it is ‘home’ to around 1,500 people. Many of these people have a goal to reach Britain, because they believe their lives will transform on arrival in the United Kingdom. They believe they will immediately find work or go to school. Too often the reality is very different.
Some of us are confused about who’s who. In other words, we don’t know our refugees from our illegal immigrants, or our asylum seekers from our economic migrants. Daily tabloids clump them all as ‘scroungers coming to take Britain’s resources’. In 2014, out of 29,914 applications for asylum in the UK, 41% were granted, according to The Refugee Council. People who are refused have a right of appeal, although only a small number of appeals are heard. Despite media-generated myths, asylum seekers in the UK are unable to claim benefits or work, and children under 18 are cared for by local authorities. Those over 18 can apply for a small amount of cash and accommodation support. People are generally relocated in undesirable areas, where they have no connections. Many are destitute and forced to rely on charities.
As Christians, we have a different lens to see, hear and feel the plight of suffering people who are called refugees and strangers. For example, Scriptures such as Exodus 23:9, ‘Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt’; Hebrews 13:2, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’, or Proverbs 31:8-9, ‘Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy’, are very clear in their messages.
Those who want to honour God and his Word should want to receive the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. The difficulty comes with the influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants and immigrants into a region, whose majority population is neither adequately equipped nor enthusiastic to receive them. These are real and tough issues, so let’s discuss them properly and with wisdom. Let’s leave behind the rhetoric and the labelling, and confront the hard task of discernment.
Christians are called to be with the oppressed, the marginalised and the excluded in their suffering, their struggles and their hopes. A ministry of accompaniment and advocacy with uprooted people upholds the principles of prophetic witness and service. We cannot desert the ‘needy’ nor set boundaries to compassion (Hebrews 13:2, Luke 10:25-37, Jeremiah 5-7). Our actions should and can follow our words of love.
The Golden Rule – ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Luke 6:31) – implies that we need to uphold each and every person’s dignity. Furthermore, the divine command – ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ – reminds us of the fact that the Kingdom of God knows no human-made barriers, no foreigners and no ‘others’. It provides a place for people who are ‘neighbours’ to one another, equally part of the Kingdom-community, equally gifted with talents.
We can act at local levels by ensuring our churches seek out those migrants who are in need, and we can also act nationally to remind our governments that a fortress mentality will not fix the problem, but that global leaders need to rethink how nations and governments look after their citizens, by becoming peacemakers, vision keepers and bridge builders.