This post was co-written with Catherine Gladwell.
The rising number of refugees coming to the West has led to two opposite responses.
- Fear that our country will be overrun has led some Western countries to tighten their border security. People see refugees as a threat, consuming resources without giving anything back.
- Others demand urgent action to help those in need. Recent images of the situation in Calais can provoke our consciences to see that something isn’t right.
Both these reactions are based largely on emotion. But as Christians, it is worth taking a step back to ask what a Biblical approach to refugees might be. This will allow us to take a standpoint that soberly recognises the risks and compromises involved. In this tense situation, how can we be guided by Christian wisdom to joyfully act as Jesus would, not just in the immediate moment but in the long-term? I want to suggest three main attitudes, after which there are also some practical suggestions.
1. Double check the facts
The feelings we have about refugees in our country are often based on misconceptions about the numbers involved, whether or not people are ‘illegal’, and the amount of financial support they receive. Here are some statistics which help to gain a better perspective.
Myth #1: There are hundreds of thousands of refugees coming to the UK each year – we simply don’t have the space!
The facts: Last year, 624,000 people immigrated to the UK. Of these, only 24,914 were asylum seekers, and only 8,096 were ultimately granted some form of leave to remain in the UK (for up to 5 years). Despite what the media would often have us believe, asylum seekers and refugees make up a tiny proportion of immigration to the UK.
As a country we have a proud history of providing sanctuary to those fleeing persecution and war – should we really let the broader debate around immigration threaten our response to the most vulnerable?
Myth #2: Asylum seekers are in the UK illegally.
The facts: The term ‘illegal asylum seeker’ contains an inherent contradiction. If you are an asylum seeker, this means that you have registered your presence with the UK government, and are submitting evidence and undergoing a series of interviews that will, after a period of time, result in you receiving a decision from the government about whether or not you will be allowed to remain in the UK. Many asylum seekers wait for months or years for the government to make a decision on their cases.
Myth #3: Asylum seekers take our jobs or scrounge benefits
The facts: Whilst waiting for the government to make a decision about whether or not they will be allowed to remain in the UK, asylum seekers are not allowed to work. They are supported in low-quality accommodation and live on £36.95 per week.
Try adding up your average weekly expenses in a large city. Could you cover everything with £36.95, potentially for several years? Imagine you have skills and are keen to contribute to the country you hope to call home – but you are not allowed to work. How frustrated do you think you might grow after 6 months, a year, perhaps longer?
2. Be Biblically grounded, radical followers of Jesus
The Biblical story is full of displaced people groups. Sometimes they are God’s people – in slavery in Egypt, or exiled in Babylon. Other times, when God’s people are nicely settled in their own land, God gives them instructions about how they are to respond to immigrants and foreigners in their midst. Here are some of them:
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” – Lev 19:33-35
In fact, for Israel treatment of immigrants went beyond giving them equal status.
“You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” – Lev 19:10
This is loosely equivalent to saying “don’t squeeze out every penny of your profits for yourself, but give the excess to those who need it i.e. the poor and immigrants.”
Jesus’ own teaching was a radical transformation of the principles in the Old Testament. In Jesus’ time the Jews were occupied by the Roman Empire, so the question of “how to treat immigrants” was not on any Jew’s radar. This may explain why Jesus never used immigrants as examples in his parables. But he both taught and practised compassion for everyone, especially those most in need of it and those most different to ourselves (e.g. Luke 14:12–13). One of his disciples later defined “true religion” as being “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27 – once again the principle is to care for anyone in need).
3. Don’t be afraid
There are risks to opening our countries up and allowing foreign people into them. We may be inconvenienced, unable to live as comfortable lifestyles as currently, or even at greater risk of terrorism. Our country and culture may change in ways we do not like. We should not be naive about what it might mean if we responded to refugees in a Biblical, Jesus-centred way. Jesus never promised that following him would be easy, comfortable or risk-free. But he did give us some astonishing promises about how much our heavenly Father is watching over us.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? … But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt 6:25, 33)
The most frequent command in the whole Bible is “Don’t be afraid.” If our words or deeds come from a basis of fear, then we are not alone – it seems many people in the Bible were tempted to the same thing. But fear must not be the basis for our decisions. God will look after us – on his terms, not on ours. Letting go of fear and radically following Jesus no matter what the cost will take us on a great adventure – the adventure we were created to be on.
Practical Steps Forward
The UK charity Refugee Support Network has several practical suggestions for action. Why not visit their website and see what you could do?
Another thing you can do (if you’re a UK citizen) is to sign this petition.
The Migrant Crisis: Here’s Why It’s Not What You Think – The Globe and Mail.
Refugees, Migrants, and the New Covenant – Matt Hosier.
Let the Refugees In – Giles Fraser.
Christ of the Abyss – Wazala.
Welcoming the Stranger – LICC.
Remember that Jesus was an Undocumented Child Refugee – Billy Kangas.