Compassion for refugees is not just a short-term fix
The Prime Minister has been clear that the UK’s response to the refugee crisis has to engage both head and heart. He is right. To divorce one from the other is not a good thing to do.
It has also been argued that policy should not be made on the basis of an emotional reaction to a distressing photograph on the front page of a newspaper. Yet, the photograph of a drowned little boy became the icon that transformed “swarms” and “hundreds of thousands” into the raw and defenceless humanity whose fragility is easier to relate to. There is a human face to each individual refugee.
So, the current migration crisis in Europe – which is actually a crisis driven by the destructive violence of dysfunctional countries in the Middle East and northern Africa – is a tragedy of such enormous proportions that we have to respond with the heart (and our hands) in order to address the immediate plight of stricken people. There is little point holding committee meetings to discuss politics if the people the policies are aimed at helping die before the deliberations are complete.
Yet, the Prime Minister is right to insist that the head be engaged. We can rightly be caught up in the immediate anguish about the plight of so many refugees – particularly children who have no family, no home and no obvious future. But, we also need to do the cool work of assessing the implications of the compassionate response we offer.
So, it seems to me that the massive popular response of practical compassion is both powerful and moving. It is also challenging: are we prepared to still be supportive in ten or twenty years time when the consequences of our compassion have to be lived with?
The Archbishop of Canterbury has been clear in recognizing the complexity of the situation, but also in demanding a clearer response by the UK Government to the crisis: “Now, perhaps more than ever in post-war Europe, we need to commit to joint action across Europe, acknowledging our common responsibility and our common humanity. As Christians we believe we are called to break down barriers, to welcome the stranger and love them as ourselves (Leviticus 19:34), and to seek the peace and justice of our God, in our world, today… We need a holistic response to this crisis that meets immediate humanitarian need while tackling its underlying drivers.”
This statement recognizes the challenges of finding a common strategic response to a situation of chaotic origin. It should not be surprising that millions of people feel they have no option but to flee from appalling violence, nihilism and destructiveness. And it should not be surprising that they want to come to Europe when we have spent generations praising the standards of living and relatively peaceful nature of the Europe we have created since the Second World War. It has become a test of our humanity as to whether we respond with practical compassion to our fellow human beings or leave them to their own fate.
Some politicians and commentators are suggesting that we can't solve the problem (principally, but not exclusively) in Syria by simply taking more and more refugees – and reasonably make the case that to do so simply feeds the human traffickers. They are right to insist that more strategic attention has to be paid to tackling the problem at source – especially as so many of the problems have arisen partly as a consequence of western military intervention in places that have now collapsed into violence.
But, this is not an ‘either-or’ conundrum. The Prime Minister has been reported as saying that “we can't take any more”. But, this is not a given – it is a choice. We can take more refugees – we choose not to. That is a different matter.
Conversely, we can choose to take any number of refugees we like, but only if we do so knowing that we must then – willingly and generously - pay the price for doing so. After all, many countries in Europe took in millions of migrants during and after the last world war, and this at a time of poverty, crisis and economic privation. We now have more than the means to address our human and moral obligations; the question is simply whether we choose to do so or not.
To do nothing is to choose. And that choice also is a moral one.
Perhaps the compassionate and costly response of Germany has something to do with a living memory of such humanitarian need on their own land and caused by their own choices. There is no reason why we on our island should not demonstrate a similar compassionate imagination. Furthermore, if not already being done with some urgency, other Middle Eastern countries (probably excluding Jordan which has already absorbed huge numbers during the last few years) should be pressured to take refugees – something they seem not to be keen to do.
Many groups in society – including churches – have responded with remarkable love and care, seeking partnership with local authorities and other groups. We must be prepared for the long haul and not just the quick fix.