Sarah Moore is a minister of the United Reformed Church currently serving in Cumbria, England. In addition to this she is currently a trustee of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), an ecumenical body consisting of 39 member churches and 37 bodies in association, whose work is to serve the churches of Britain and Ireland on the shared journey towards full visible unity in Christ.
The trip to Greece referred to in this article took place in May 2016 where a group of twelve women from the churches of Britain and Ireland travelled to Athens, Thessaloniki and Samos with the aim of meeting women refugees and sharing their stories as far as possible. This article previously appeared in URC publications.
I travelled abroad for the first time when I was six. Along with my parents and my then two year old brother we went with some family friends to stay in a large house in Brittany, France. From what I remember, the house had a big yard that was perfect for playing in … especially water fights! We spent a lot of time on the beach at the end of the road where I learned to swim and we walked up to the local boulangerie each morning for fresh bread – trois baguettes s’il vous plait – being the key phrase to remember.
My father drove us from our home in south London via the Portsmouth to Cherbourg ferry to the village of St Marguerite. It felt like it took forever. But it was straightforward. We drove to Portsmouth, sat (or in my case, played) on a ferry for a few hours, and then drove on to our final destination. My parents had applied for and been granted one of those family passports that enabled us to all travel on one document. The passport was blue and the clerk who issued it had filled out the salient details by hand.
A passport is exactly what it says on the cover – a pass port – a document that enables the holder to travel internationally “without let or hindrance”. Or at least that is what it says on the inside of my British passport anyway. A passport enables the holder to travel with the stated protection of their government asking that the government of the territory to be crossed allow safe passage. Interestingly the earliest mention of a passport occurs in the Bible, in the book of Nehemiah:
“Then I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may grant me passage until I arrive in Judah” Nehemiah 2.7 NRSV.
When I recently travelled to Greece to meet refugees and visit agencies supporting refugees I became very aware very quickly of the privilege it is to hold a passport that enables me to travel freely. A British passport allows its holder visa-free travel to 156 countries. According to the United Nations there are currently 206 sovereign states in the world so a UK passport holder can travel freely to just shy of three quarters of the countries in the world. That same person can likely obtain a visa to visit most of the others without too much difficulty. Provided, of course, one has the cash to pay for a ticket to travel and to cover the cost of the trip.
Most of the refugees that I met in Greece came from the following nations: Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is perhaps no coincidence that according to the passport index these are the five weakest passports in the world (weakest meaning that holding one allows for free travel to the least number of states); an Afghan passport holder can travel freely to a mere 24 nations, Pakistan 27, Iraq 30, and Syria and Somalia 32 a piece. These were people who, even on a good day, do not enjoy the same privilege of being able to travel that I have.
Which country any of us end up being a national of is mostly down to luck. I did not choose to be British anymore than Ameera*, a refugee I met, chose to be Syrian. That was decided for each of us according to who our parents were, and the country in which we each happened to be born. The fairness of that reality is currently a much contested political issue as the European Union debates the current migrant crisis, and the people of the United Kingdom go to the polls to decide whether or not it will remain a member state in the aforementioned European Union.
Personally I would not like to see my British passport become ‘weaker’ but I think I would like Ameera’s to be ‘stronger’. One of the difficulties of course is that Ameera’s government is in no position to protect Ameera from harm when she’s asleep in her own bed never mind when she’s living in a refugee camp in Greece. The UK government – for all its faults! – doesn’t for the most part do too badly at ensuring the security of the people within its jurisdiction.
So with my passport and credit card in hand I can book a ticket, board a plane, and travel pretty much anywhere in the world “without let or hindrance” and expect at least a reasonable welcome when I arrive. Billions of people in the world do not have that advantage – and that’s what I mean by privilege here – an advantage.
Hundreds of thousands of people in the world are currently living in refugee camps, and they have the least advantage to travel at all. Not all refugee camps are ‘locked’. In fact the government camps in Greece only ‘restrict the liberty’ of the refugees that they host for the first 25 days after they arrive in the country.
Refugees are people fleeing war, drought, famine or other threat of life and limb; whatever else they are, they are not criminals (or at least they are not criminals by virtue of being a refugee). They deserve to have their story heard, their case heard fairly and justly, and if a reasonable legal process agrees that they are wherever they are as a result of fleeing war, famine, pestilence or persecution, they deserve to have the opportunity to build a new life for themselves and their loved ones. And what is wrong with that.
I will never take my passport for granted again. A question that I have now been asked several times is how joining the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland trip to Greece has changed me? This is one way. I love to travel, I find it energising and life-giving. But I now know a tiny bit of the privilege of being able to travel freely; and of the advantage of being able to travel because I choose to do so, and not because the only choice I have is between death and taking my chances somewhere new.
*name changed to protect identity
Photos: Esme Allen