February 2018 Pulse
Our world is currently facing a displacement crisis at an unprecedented scale.
In 2015 alone, more than 65 million people have been forced from their homes by conflict and persecution, over half of whom are under the age of 18. This tally is greater than the combined population of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
It must be recognised at the outset that forced migration is never a cause for celebration. These refugees, who out of desperation leave their own lands and cultures in the hope of attaining a safe and secure life, often endure untold hardships.
But the migration crisis has also created unique opportunities for people-smugglers vying to get a larger stake in the extremely lucrative sex trade. Additionally, extremist groups like Daesh have also taken advantage of this phenomenon to plant terrorists in unsuspecting host countries.
Countries like Australia have introduced strict measures to deter asylum seekers, and to detain those who arrive illegally at their shores. Over the years, Australia has proliferated detention centres in isolated locations like Baxter, Curtin, and Christmas Island. These detention facilities are so poorly run that Peter Young, the former chief psychiatrist of Australia’s detention centres, described them as “factories for producing mental illness and mental disorder”.
What would a Christian response to the pressing and complex migration crisis look like? What appropriate actions should governments take to ensure that genuine asylum seekers do not become victims of further injustice, humiliation, and suffering?
It must first be acknowledged that there is no consensus among Christians on this difficult and pressing issue.
On one end of the spectrum, there are Christians who advocate an open border policy, urging governments to allow the masses fleeing oppression free entry into their countries. On the other end, Christian restrictionists advocate tighter border control.
The Christian Scriptures offer penetrating insight into the modern migration crisis, even though the geo-political realities of its authors are radically different from ours.
The injunctions in the Old Testament concerning the proper treatment of the alien (i.e. foreigner) and sojourner are grounded in a profound theological anthropology articulated in the very first chapter of Genesis. Regardless of their ethnicity and social status, human beings are deserving of special dignity because they are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).
In addition, the instruction to the Israelites to welcome the alien is accompanied by the clear reminder that their ancestors were once displaced people – slaves in Egypt and wanderers in the wilderness.
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
Every time Christians read the Gospels, they are reminded that their Saviour and Lord Himself once lived as a refugee in Egypt because His own homeland was not safe (Matthew 2:13-15).
These passages of Scripture, together with the principles of solidarity, compassion, and the hospitality they inspire, shape the Christian moral vision of the human community. It is therefore impossible for Christians to turn a blind eye to asylum seekers.
In addition, Christians of every stripe have always emphasised the preferential option for the poor, which includes the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised.
While these moral principles are clear, the chaos of the modern migration crisis makes their application very challenging indeed.
But if displaced people are to get the justice they deserve, the international community must make every attempt to abide by these principles, even if the policies of individual countries may differ. By the same token, it would be immoral for any country to categorically refuse refugees for whatever reason.
This of course does not mean that countries should open their borders unconditionally and accept every refugee indiscriminately. While host countries should do their level best to receive asylum seekers, they have every right to regulate their borders and control the influx of immigrants.
The realism of the Christian approach to migration is expressed well by the American Bishops’ pastoral statement, Welcoming the Stranger: “While people have the right to move, no country has the duty to receive so many immigrants that its social and economic life is jeopardised.”