On Refugees

Sunday 20th September 2015
Year B, The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Mark 9.30-37

Many people believe that it was the Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc, turned into a human torch by napalm, that turned the tide of public opinion in the United States over the War; and in the past two weeks that picture has been compared more than once with that of the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, lying dead on a Turkish beach. Every picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. But for well educated people like us, that just isn't good enough! The hundreds of thousands of refugees struggling across the Balkans towards Budapest or risking death by drowning in the Mediterranean must have wondered when our long Summer holiday would come to an end, allowing us to pay attention to their plight.

In July and August media attention was fixated on what was dishonestly termed the "immigration crisis", as if it was our crisis and not that of the refugees, and as if the whole issue was some three thousand people living in what was described, deliberately to de-humanise the residents, as "the Jungle". The hysteria was so great, you may recall, that the BBC was taken to task by the right wing press for shooting a small piece of Songs of Praise at the makeshift camp.

By late August, things were beginning to change. A congregation in Truro loaded a van with supplies and drove it to Calais as "A humanitarian gesture" quite distinct, a spokesperson said, from the issue of immigration. Well, whether or not it was the picture of little Aylan, we all know much better now.

In today's gospel, in response to the bickering of his followers Jesus does not embark on a lengthy policy discussion about the merits or otherwise of children: First, he takes a child in his arms; and, secondly, he does not say that we should tolerate children, feed them, or even care for them, he says that we must welcome them.

Now it is all too easy to make the right noises about a passage like this. The Popes, after all, are styled "servants of the servants of God" but talk, as they say, is cheap.

Before coming to the specifically moral dimension of our individual and community attitude to the plight of the refugees, it might be as well to mention four practical matters of public policy.

First, there is no fence too high nor resentment so great that it will deter people from doing precisely what we would do in a similar situation. It would have been much more sensible to process refugees as near to their abandoned homes as possible and charge them for the air fare, allowing them to bring their savings with them, rather than subjecting them to horrendous risk and the exploitation of criminals.

Secondly, the idea that we can separate refugees and asylum seekers on the one hand and economic migrants on the other, is simply bogus: what we are trying to do in this case is to enjoy all the benefits of globalisation from cheap mobile phones to all-year-round strawberries while expecting poor people all over the world to bear the cost of our pleasures. But it is not just that there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as a free anything.

Thirdly, our attitude to foreigners is increasingly based on the immoral assumption that we can be in a club without paying the fees and obeying the rules, citing a bogus doctrine of exceptionalism saying that, as the seventh richest country in the world, we have no responsibility for what happens in the world, so we want the free movement of goods and capital but not labour.

Fourthly, the Government's proposal to pay for the reception of refugees out of the foreign aid budget is scandalous b because it is asking the world's poor to pay for what we should be paying for.

Now the individual and community response. First of all, it is right and proper that we should contribute to the temporary expedient of caring for refugees in their camps but that is only a starting point. Politicians have believed for some years now that we are a mean spirited people who want to keep foreigners out, no matter what their reason for wishing to be among us. Before Aylan Kurdi's corpse went global, they believed that the way to stay popular was to stay immoral, to pander to our worst xenophobia, to deliberately conflate the issues of Eastern European workers, West African paupers, Eritrean victims of torture and Syrian refugees. Well, they have been found out but, in a sad way, so have we. And it is time to make amends by publicly stating that we are prepared to accept and finance the residence here of hundreds of thousands of refugees if that is how many want to come here. Grudgingly talking about fair shares is an inadequate response.

The question being asked of us is not being asked by the refugees, it is being asked by Jesus. It is time to respond by opening our arms in welcome.