Mass violence is ranked as one of the main reasons behind human moving stories. Immediately, the likes of Syria come to mind. Desperate to crush the protesters involved in the Arab Spring (an autonomous pro-democracy uprising that started in Tunisia), the mainly young Syrians unwittingly kick-started a war in Syria that has seen at least 11 million Syrians displaced, as the Government crushed with impunity those who had the audacity to hope of an alternative reality.
Those who live in Afghanistan and Somalia have also experienced violence on a grand scale, precipitating a forced departure from their homelands. The most recent collapses into mass violence and flight are from South Sudan, Sudan, Myanmar and Eritrea. State violence, followed by a search for security in foreign lands, are just some of the commonalities binding these countries.
A further likely factor in the rise of people’s stories of moving from their homes to a foreign land has been the spread of democracy. Autocratic regimes seek to suppress – and ideally prevent – protests. It is too risky to wait until your opponents have acted; they might just succeed. Act on suspicion, they argue. Albeit this requires punishing the innocent along with the guilty; however, the spread of global democracy has emboldened some societies living even under the most oppressive regimes to protest against the absence of their human rights.
Iraq and Libya are examples in question. I’m guessing that social media, with its capacity to provide people with a knowledge of the potential power of a well-established democracy with its inbuilt checks and balances, motivates societies to protest “Yes, we can” in the public square. It should come as no surprise that fleeing voices that are being crushed, even from their beloved countries, will attempt to find listeners in a foreign land. That we have been created in the image of God, who is liberating and life-giving, presupposes that those who bear His image, like refugees, aspire to be simultaneously liberated and liberator.
As certain as I am that poverty, alongside other factors, is responsible for mass violence and autocratic regimes, I’m also certain that the need for the most basic human rights (such as food and shelter) drives those who are trapped in the cycle of poverty in their home countries to access resources elsewhere. Poverty is a killer. It can destroy individual souls and communities. Poverty and economic disempowerment are frequently inextricably bound; two sides of the same coin.
In some cultures, the absence of state support forces the eldest child to provide for their hungry family, reinforcing the need for flight to secure employment elsewhere. It is for this reason that some of the poorer communities join their meagre resources, and designate the eldest, and most able, from among their clan or tribe to embark upon the most perilous journey to a developed country, in the hope of providing provision for their families.
Until recently, the world could be accused of turning a blind eye to the plight of refugees. Countries simply waited for an emergency to rear its head, before responding and then contributing money to the United Nations humanitarian system. This money was spent on establishing refugee camps providing food and shelter. But then something unexpected happened, which kind of shook nonchalant attitudes. In 2015, vast numbers of people moved from the poorest parts of the world to the richest. For the first time in a long time, Europe experienced a movement of people from outside of the European Union. In 2015, over a million asylum seekers would come to Europe, the majority from Syria and other fragile states. But despite these unprecedented figures, it took a crisis to lead the Media to highlight the refugee situation. For in April of the same year, 700 people died crossing to Lampedusa. This eventually resulted in the press calling it out for what it was: ‘a refugee crisis.’
You would have thought that this heartbreaking situation might have compelled the European Union to put together a coherent strategic plan to support the displaced communities. Instead, their responses are shaped by unilateral panic decisions, rather than a search for collective solutions.
This lack of compassion should not be solely attributed to the EU and similar bodies. Yes, they continue to fail. But would I be right in saying that many of our diaspora churches remain indifferent to the plight of refugees too?
In a famous moral thought experiment, students are asked to imagine themselves alone by a pond into which a child has fallen by accident and is crying for help. In other words, you are a bystander and not at all responsible for the accident. You are not a good swimmer. Is it legitimate for you to ignore that urgent cry for rescue?
Refugees forced to leave their homes, because of unprecedented levels of violence, are analogous to the drowning child. Like the bystander, we have a responsibility to rescue.
Our faith is undermined – and rightly open to severe criticism – when we fail to show practical compassion to migrants and refugees eking out an existence in exile. Lest we forget: our stories have also been marred by hostility in a ‘strange land’.