Fear the Walking Refugees?

September 2015

We are all witnesses to a seismic moment in modern history.  It is being called the greatest refugee crisis since World War II as hordes of desperate men, women, and children from lands of chaos and conflict seek safety and hope in Europe.  The news over the past weeks has been dominated by apocalyptic scenes of crowds swarming razor wire fences and overwhelmed police trying to contain the tens of thousands.  The haunting image of the little two year old boy, Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed up on Turkey’s coast, has become a symbol of the refugee’s desperation and the West’s inability to handle the crisis.

Of course, what is happening with migration in Europe now has been going on for many years around the world on a smaller scale.  Donald Trump, the surprise leading Republican candidate for the President of the United States, has been blasted by many for his stigmatizing comments on illegal migrants.  During his presidential announcement speech of June 16th he said:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you (pointing to the audience). They’re not sending you (pointing again). They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs.  They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people!

But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense. They’re sending us not the right people. It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably from the Middle East.”[1]

Despite his charged comments, his popularity continues to remain high despite his lack of political experience and civil service.  In fact, so far, among white Evangelical Republicans, Trump has garnered the most support even though he is twice divorced, a casino owner, and well-known for his personal attacks against others.

Therefore, it should not be surprising in the current political climate, that the United States, though often praised for its history of open arms towards the poor immigrant and refugee, has been slow to act in the face of this Syrian-Iraqi refugee emergency.  Even more, since the Al Qaeda attacks of 9-11 and the subsequent Islamist attacks against world citizens, the United States has made great strides to insulate itself from future violence.  In doing so, it has not only sealed itself off from the evil that may lurk outside its walls, it has also muted its national character of service and compassion.  Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, and despite ISIS’s highly publicized reign of terror, only 1500 Syrian refugees have been allowed in the United States.[2]  While some would argue that caution has built these walls, fear is the true culprit.

Israel has also faced its own refugee-migrant challenge over the last decade.  In the wake of the Darfur genocide of 2003 and civil war in Sudan, many thousands of Africans began crossing over the Sinai Peninsula seeking safety and a better future in Israel.  Later, Eritreans joined the migration from their abusive totalitarian homeland.  In 2013, Israel completed a security fence on the Egyptian border that has essentially stopped the arrival of refugee-migrants.  Today, there are around 46,000 African asylum seekers in Israel.  They are predominantly from Eritrea (73%) and Sudan (19%), while a small minority (8%) are from other countries.  Because of Israel’s desire to be a majority Jewish state, it does not want to add another group to its demographic balancing act.  Just as Israel has experienced this African influx, so too, a significant percentage of Europe’s refugee-migrants are coming from Africa—particularly Somalia, Nigeria, Eritrea, and a handful of West African countries.

Often there is an attempt to separate the sheep from the goats when defining a migrant versus a refugee.  But in reality, these theoretical lines that may help us distinguish between the desperate “having to move” and the aspiring “choosing to move” are lines that are blurred by real life situations.  Jørgen Carling, a scholar at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, recently explained:

The ‘two kinds of people’ argument is further undermined by the drawn-out trajectories of many current migrants. A Nigerian arriving in Italy might have left Nigeria for reasons other than a fear of persecution, but ended up fleeing extreme danger in Libya. Conversely, a Syrian might have crossed into Jordan and found safety from the war, but been prompted by the bleak prospects of indeterminate camp life to make the onward journey to Europe. Regardless of the legal status that each one obtains in Europe, they are both migrants who have made difficult decisions, who deserve our compassion, and whose rights need to be ensured.[3]

Now, the average person with a heart will see another person, like a refugee, who is suffering, and they will feel compassion towards them.  They might even try to help the refugees in some tangible way—donating money or goods, opening their home, or volunteering their time, but the average person with a mind will also realize that helping the refugees long-term logistically is a complex and difficult proposition.  It makes much more sense to deal with the root problems—in Syria’s case—the regime of Assad, the existence of ISIS, and the anarchy of rule, rather than forfeit the land of the Syrian people and transplant them to Europe or elsewhere.  Yet, right now, there is a political stalemate involving the powers of the United States, Russia, Europe, Turkey, and Iran who have the most influence in the region.

Conservative estimates foresee 850,000 refugees entering Europe by the end of 2016. Germany is expected to take over 800,000 in the coming months.  While most are crossing into Europe via Turkey, more than 600,000 have reached Europe since 2013 by the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean.  Nearly 3,000 have died at sea this year, equivalent to how many died in the 9-11 attacks.

Yet, Europe’s challenges are nothing compared to the countries that surround Syria.  Jordan, for example, officially houses 630,000 Syrians but the real number is closer to 1.3 million people which now makes up 21% of Jordan’s entire population.  Tensions are running high in the region, as money from the United Nations is running out due to donor nations not fulfilling their obligations.  There are worries that the destitution of the refugee situation—no home, no status, no jobs, and little food—will only fuel desperate, illicit actions on both sides.

So, what can we really do to help the refugee situation?  What can one follower of Jesus do?  This is a question many of us are asking.  I think however each one of us decides to help, we should respond with courage and not with fear.  Fear and conspiracy have no place in the Kingdom of God.  We should work on perfecting our love for all people so that it casts out all fear.[4]  Love is never easy; it’s a narrow gate, but if we walk with Jesus, we must walk through it.  Love, and not fear, should color our prayers, our thoughts, our words, and, ultimately, our actions towards all, including refugees and migrants.

Greek orthodox priest, Papa Stratis, who lived on the Greek island of Lesbos, demonstrated that love.  Before his recent death, he was well known for his work in helping the thousands of refugees who landed on his island after floating across from Turkey. He said in an interview two years ago:

“What I see are people. People in need. I cannot turn them away, nor can I kick them, nor imprison them.  I cannot send them back to where they came from. Nor can I throw them in the sea to drown.” [5]

Even when it seems impractical, impossible, or unpopular, may we have the courage of the Lord to reach out and love.

[1] http://time.com/3923128/donald-trump-announcement-speech

Also see http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trumps-epic-statement-on-mexico-2015-7

[2] Recently, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, announced that the United States would accept 85,000 refugees in 2016 and 100,000 refugees in 2017.  These totals are for all refugees though many would be Syrian refugees.

[3] http://blogs.prio.org/2015/09/refugees-are-also-migrants-and-all-migrants-matter/

[4] I John 4:18

[5] http://tracks.unhcr.org/2015/07/a-good-samaritan-in-greece/