I was a stranger and you invited me in

The tragic picture of Alan Kurdi put a human face on the issue of migration across the Mediterranean which had risen in public consciousness over the summer of 2015.

The phrase ‘refugee crisis’ entered common parlance. Yet it was quickly wrapped up with other words like ‘flood’ and ‘swarm’. Some people’s existing concerns around economic migration became blurred with those leaving their home countries to seek asylum.

The figures seemed large to many in the north west corner of Europe. Thousands of people were arriving in Greece and Italy, leading to unofficial tented camps in the summer heat and winter ice. But the scale was little understood.

UNHCR’s figures from June 2018 indicate that 65.8 million people have been displaced worldwide, 40 million internally displaced within their own country, 25.4 as refugees outside their country and 3.1 million claiming asylum.

6.3 million people have left Syria alone.

1 in 4 people in neighbouring Lebanon is a refugee. There’s a generosity and cost to that welcome in a such a small country. Proportionately lower but numerically larger, 1 in 23 in Turkey is a refugee, a total of 3.5 million. Uganda, Pakistan and Iran are other top refugee-hosting countries, none of them rich.

The UK government Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme committed in September 2015 to resettle 20,000 Syrians in need of protection during the next five years. Government figures report that by September 2018, 13,961 had been resettled. A community sponsorship scheme was launched in July 2016.

The ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais was demolished, and stories about people trying to stow away in lorries catching night trains across the Eurotunnel have diminished.

Over Christmas, there is often a lull in politics and the news agenda is less busy, leaving more space for fresh human-interest stories to break through.

Writing on 31 December, the BBC News Reality Check team reported their tally that “more than 230 people have attempted to cross the English Channel in small boats since November”.

Refugees are back in the news.

To give some perspective, a total of 26,350 people claimed asylum in the UK during 2017. In the same period, 21,290 decisions were made about claims of asylum in the same period, 31.8% offering some form of protection.

The UK grants “refugee status” to those who are unable to live in their own country for fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or other factors such as sexual orientation. A successful application usually allows someone leave to remain for five years with the opportunity after that to apply for indefinite leave to remain.

Newspaper columnists and radio phone-in programmes have been discussing how to tackle this new ‘crisis’.

The UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid has declared the crossings “a major incident” and some of the UK’s vessels are now being brought back from the Mediterranean to perform similar rescue work in the English Channel.

Canon Kirrilee Reid, the Church of England Chaplain and Refugee Projects Officer in Pas-de-Calais, explained this does not represent a “crisis” or a “major incident”. The Church Times report her saying that “the language used needs to be challenged. Our language should promote compassion and understanding rather than fear.” It should be “empathetic, not reactionary”.

“The terms ‘migrant crisis’ and ‘major incident’ are unhelpful. This situation is not new. There have been dangerous crossings for years. Many have died trying to cross the Channel by train, boat, and lorry. There has been an increase in those attempting to cross the English Channel by boat in recent weeks, and this is dangerous, but, sadly, indicative of the plight of desperate people.”

The Right Rev Trevor Willmott, Bishop of Dover, said the Home Secretary needed to remember that those attempting the perilous crossing were people in need.

“It is crucial that we all remember that we are dealing with human beings here. Across the nation, we have been celebrating the season of hope and goodwill as we remember Christ’s birth — let’s not forget so soon that every person is precious.”

The next few weeks are important as people look to politicians for a lead.

The House of Commons returns from its recess on Monday 7 January. The tone of parliamentary rhetoric – and in particular, that of government ministers – will be crucial in setting the public tone and policy of balancing the need to offer welcome and security with inevitable demands for tougher borders.

As I come to the end of my time working on Focus on Refugees with CTBI, and hand over to Richard and Romina, my mind frequently goes back to our visit to Lampedusa and Sicily in April 2016.

There our team met people who had arrived on those Italian islands by boat. Their reasons for travelling were diverse. Some had been traumatised by violence and persecution in their home countries. Others could no longer be sustained by unfruitful farm land blighted by climate change.

What was common was the toughness of the journeys which would be measured in months and years rather than days or weeks.

Given the season and location, most of those we met had travelled up through Africa to Libya. Passed from trafficker to trafficker. Bought and sold as human slaves along the way. Young women spoke of sexual assault and being forced into prostitution to pay their ‘debt’ to the man in charge of their latest leg on the journey.

They spoke about friends who stepped onto similar flimsy vessels but drowned in the Mediterranean, and didn’t reach the shores of Italy.

Those who are stepping into boats on the northern shores of France to head across to the south coast of England are not starting out on their journeys. Many say they are from Iran, though an understandable lack of papers makes this hard for authorities to verify at present.

What is not at doubt is that they have travelled far. Crossing the channel is only the latest in a series of precarious expeditions where they have placed their lives in the hands of others who aim to profit from their passage rather than any charitable concern for their welfare.

The way to stop or slow down dangerous journeys is to offer safe passage. To create legal routes to sanctuary.

Italy’s Humanitarian Corridor initiative was established by the FCEI (Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy, whose Mediterranean Hope project CTBI visited) and the Community of Sant’Egidio.

The humanitarian corridor pilot was launched after a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Ministries of the Interior and of Foreign Affairs, with the NGOs envisaging the arrival of 1,000 refugees over two years. The pilot was launched at no cost to the Italian state with NGOs covering travelling and reception expenses, raising over €1 million from the eight per thousand tax devolved to the Waldensian Church.

The initiative provides a safe pathway for refugees, in line with governmental security standards; the potential beneficiaries are pre-selected by the NGOs, then vetted by the Ministry of the Interior and finally granted a humanitarian limited territorial validity visa. So far, people have travelled from Lebanon, with more to follow from Morocco and Ethiopia.

The UK government resettlement scheme offers welcome and respects dignity. Families can travel together, with their belongings in suitcases, rather than plastic bags. Their status upon entering the country is assured.

The Irish government’s refugee family resettlement bill will enable refugees living in Ireland to be reunited with their dependent loved ones, amending the 2015 act which meant that refugees living in Ireland were separated from children over 18, civil partners, siblings, parents, grandparents and guardians.

The numbers crossing the English channel are small, though rising. If we believe that all human lives are precious, then we cannot turn a blind eye to people’s safety.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matthew 25 v35-36)

Alan Meban


Image: cliffs of Dover from Jess Hurd/Global Justice Now Flickr via Creative Commons licence