When the only news item about refugees and migrants on the BBC’s front page is a subcolumn headed EU tries to resolve migrant quota row, it is clear that there has been a major shift in the nation’s media focus. It does not mean that the problem has gone away or diminished in severity. There are still people clamouring to get to the richer countries of northern Europe; still people enduring appalling conditons; still host countries experiencing confusion and uproar. But we are not really looking. Many individuals have responded generously with money and offers of temporary homes. Some of the latter, I fear, have had more to do with sentimentality than serious consideration of what is most needed. Please don’t think I am belittling such offers, but there is a danger that in our anxiety to do something rather than nothing, we may unconsciously be trying to salve our own consciences rather than finding a solution to the underlying problems. To solve those problems, we must face some uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the situation we face.
A number of commentators have already said the unsayable: that not every person rattling Europe’s cages is a refugee fleeing war and terror; that there is a disproportionate number of young men unaccompanied by women or children; that the absorption of many thousands of Muslims could pose long-term cultural difficulties; that among those entering Europe may be those committed to its destruction. All these things may be true, but we would be untrue to ourselves and our Judaeo-Christian heritage if we didn’t first meet the purely human need of providing food and shelter to those who are lacking such things. But then comes the difficult part. What do we do next? How do we go about absorbing and integrating large numbers of deeply traumatised people? Should we even be thinking in terms of absorbing and integrating anyway? There is the fact that the public purse is not inexhaustible. We cannot complain, on the one hand, about diminishing services and benefits and then, on the other, expect the governments of Europe to cover the costs of resettlement, etc. It can surely not have gone unnoticed that Greece and Italy have borne much of the initial burden of welcome and support.
Politicians will argue endlessly about finance. It is true that Britain is the largest aid donor to Syrian refugees after the U.S.A., outsripping the contributions of other European countries by a considerable margin; but that doesn’t let us off the hook. The unpalatable truth we have to own is that much of the situation we face is of our own creation. The war in Iraq, years of cosying up to Saudi Arabia and oil-rich dictatorships, fighting phoney wars with Russia, even the mistakes, as we now see in retrospect, of British policy in Palestine have contributed to the chaos.
So, what to do? I think we need to support those trying to work out a political solution rather than simply condemn them for their failures. We cannot dismiss the past as of no consequence but, at the same time, we cannot let it dictate the present. Christians believe in redemption, in the possibility of change; and that is surely what we need to work at right now. It won’t be easy. More than one European politician must be having nightmares about civil unrest and trying to calculate how far it is politically expedient to follow one course or another. Such realpolitik should not surprise us. Those with a responsibility to govern, to ensure public order and safety as well as the provision of adequate food, clothing, shelter, etc, cannot be guided by feeling alone. As summer turns to autumn and chill winds begin to blow, it can be helpful to remember that we all need to take risks — and we cannot place the whole burden of doing that on our elected officials. ‘I was a stranger and you made me welcome’ has not lost its force or urgency. It is a sentence directed to each one of us.