It is time to get the refugee issue in perspective. In 2015 a million refugees risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean to enter Europe and a further 34,000 came overland. Globally there are 13 million refugees and 86% of them are in developing nations, not the EU.
Britain has fewer than 200,000 asylum seekers and the Government is committed to taking another 20,000 from the camps in Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon by 2020. These desperate people are fleeing religious persecution, tyrannical government, civil wars and the possibilities of imprisonment, torture and even execution. Some are economic migrants seeking a better future for their children, than is likely in their homeland. They come hoping for religious freedom, physical safety, a peaceful way of life and a better standard of living.
Despite the fact that most of us want and expect the same, UK public opinion is less than welcoming to refugees. Britain is the most densely populated European country and immigration is a vexed political issue. We have a housing crisis and more incomers will only make it worse. NHS waiting times are already too long and school class sizes are generally too big. Most asylum seekers don’t have a right to work here so the taxpayer must provide minimal financial help for them. Currently this means £36.95 per person per week or £5.28 a day. They will be housed but have no choice as to where they live. Often this means a ‘hard to let’ property that Council tenants refuse to live in, most likely in the poorest neighbourhoods with higher incidences of unemployment, dysfunctional families and criminality.
Refugees can present a real challenge to local communities where they are placed. They may not be fluent in English, have cultural differences in what they eat and won’t eat, and how they dress. Orphans will also need to be placed with people whose suitability has been tested and approved. Equally, UK secular culture may challenge their religious beliefs and customs. They will also have to cope with the racism of the English Defence League and the BNP and the xenophobic tone of some British newspapers.
So, what can we do to make these needy people welcome? The words of Jesus, ‘I was a stranger and you invited me in’ (Matthew 25:35) challenge the Christian churches to reach out to refugees settled in their communities and help them to cope with the problems they face. Help with learning English, coping with government bureaucracy, finding the best shops to make their limited resources go further, registering with a doctor and a school for their children, are obvious examples but simple friendship is the most important response. If ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, is at the heart of the Christian faith, second only to loving God, failure to welcome the strangers in our midst would be a disaster for the church’s credibility and mission. Beyond this, it is necessary to challenge the selfish attitude that we should keep our prosperous way of life for ourselves and shut out the desperate refugees who were also made in God’s image. This is not about politics or attacking the Government’s plans for refugees but it is about being salt and light in society.