Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Displaced Persons 2018

One of the few facts I recall from Peter Damian’s Life of St Romuald (whose feast we celebrate today) is that he was a kind of monastic itinerant. His zeal for reform meant that he was constantly either abandoning the monastery he had entered as being too lax or being forced from it by monks unhappy with his efforts to make them adopt a more austere manner of life. Eventually, he established the distinctive form of monasticism we now know as the Calmaldolese but  I have often wondered about those years of constant disruption and movement. Benedictines have such a strong sense of place, of being rooted in it, that the idea of endless wandering, of never having a home, so to say, is quite alien. The latest report from the U.N. Refugee Agency therefore makes very sobering reading. It estimates that there are now 40 million internally displaced persons, 25.4 million refugees (19.9 million under the UNHCR mandate, 5.4 million Palestinian refugees registered by UNRWA) and 3.1 million asylum seekers, an unprecedented total of 68.5 million people forced from their homes. More than half the refugees (57%) come from just three countries: South Sudan (2.4 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million) and, overwhelmingly, Syria (6.3 million). Their numbers are always growing. Approximately 44,400 people are forced to flee their homes because of violence or persecution every day. That is one person every two seconds.

After a while, the statistics begin to be numbing. We have to make a conscious effort to realise that there is a human face behind every number, that over half the world’s refugees are under eighteen years of age and have little or no experience of being safe, having a home, an identity other than that of unwelcome burden on their host country. What is life like for them? How do they perceive the world in which they live? My guess is that it is cold and uncaring. There are currently 3.5 million refugees in Turkey alone, but rarely do we hear about their living conditions or the efforts being made to give them a sense of security. Instead of Christ’s words, ‘I was a stranger and you made me welcome’ we hear of attempts to limit numbers, turn people back, suspicion and hostility. At one level, that is understandable. It is usually those who are themselves vulnerable who have the closest contact with refugees and asylum seekers and are sometimes wary of what may result. But politicians often stoke up the fears because it is vote-catching. After all, it is easy to appear strong by tyrannising the weak.

I suspect most of us will respond to Refugee Week by making a donation to an appropriate agency and praying for all who are affected, but I wonder how many of us will mull over the U.N. Refugee Agency report and examine our own attitudes to refugees, migrants and asylum seekers. It can be surprising, even shocking, to realise that even the most ‘liberal’ of us sometimes harbour prejudices and fears we would be reluctant to admit. I come back to St Romuald again. One of the practices he urged on his followers was the constant praying of the psalms. They contain a whole pattern of life: they make us humble, they show us our shortcomings, and they give us hope. Of all these, perhaps hope is what we most need.

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Into the Unknown

When I was first diagnosed with cancer and told it had spread significantly, I shared a little private anguish with my old friend, Bro Duncan PBGV. I told him my plans had been scuppered and I felt somehow ‘cheated’. But he just looked at me with those wise old eyes of his, and something about them brought me to my senses. We are never cheated by life. Our plans are exactly that: an attempt, a desire, to achieve something in the future, nothing more. They have no separate or real existence apart from our dreams. We may be reluctant to admit it, but our desire to control the future is illusory. We step daily into the unknown. To a dog, the unknown is a place to be explored with enthusiasm and delight, whereas to human beings it can be a source of confusion and distress.

In Advent we step out into the unknown in a new way. We are being called to prepare a place for the Lord in our hearts and that means being prepared to be turned upside down and inside out. I say ‘prepared to be,’ because most of us are spared such dramatic twists and turns. The majority of us seem to get by with just a little rust being scraped off here and there. That can be painful, of course, but it is hardly earth-shattering. Throughout Advent we shall constantly be reminded that this journey into the unknown is not made alone:

the glory of the Lord
will be a canopy and a tent
to give shade by day from the heat,
refuge and shelter from the storm and the rain. (Is. 4.6)

As the Israelites discovered in the desert, and as those in Aleppo and Mosul know only too well today, the protection of the Lord does not mean that we shall be immune from sorrow and distress. God never promised us ease or material success or any of the things we tend to prize. He promised us something much better: a Saviour, and eternal life.

A prayer intention for today: let us pray for the people of Syria and Iraq and for the thousands of refugees and migrants living in refugee camps or temporary shelters, especially those vulnerable to bombing and military attacks.

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Calais and the Language of Fear

Anyone who has been following media reports of the disturbances in Calais will have been struck by the way in which the language we use reveals more hidden attitudes. The BBC seems to have opted for ‘migrants’ as the most neutral term it can find to describe those trying to make their way into Britain via the Eurotunnel. Add ‘illegal’ to ‘migrant’ and one immediately has a more disapproving idea of the people involved. Why should anyone think they have the right to enter Britain? Aren’t they already in a free country (France)? They only want to come here so they can enjoy a better standard of living at our expense! Conversely, call such people ‘refugees’ or ‘asylum seekers’ and a more positive note is sounded. What unimaginable horrors they have fled from, and at what cost! A compassionate society must provide for them. Shame on those who show reluctance! How we talk about all the others caught up in the disturbances, from the French police or Eurotunnel guards to British lorry-drivers/holiday-makers, also reflects our underlying attitudes.

What I think is indisputable is that we are all, in some measure, afraid. Our language about Calais is the language of fear, whether we take a positive or negative view of people and events. Some are afraid of being swamped by an alien tide of immigrants; others are afraid of being found wanting in compassion, of inhumanity to those most in need. Ask me where I myself stand and I can’t answer because the situation is too complex. How does one weigh the case of a young person fleeing poverty and distress against (significant word!) that of the middle-aged lorry-driver whose freight company is being pushed towards financial collapse? Everyone wants the situation resolved peacefully and soon, but how shall we be fair to everyone involved?

To many, it will seem lame and inadequate to say that, unless we are called upon to give practical help, the only answer is prayer; but there is a very important truth contained in that answer. Prayer, because it invites God into a situation, opens it up in a way impossible to us as mere human beings. It drives out fear and selfishness (which is only another kind of fear) and allows us to work for the common good. In all the debate about what should or should not be done in Calais, no one seems to have addressed the importance of changing the economic/political circumstances that drive people to make that hazardous journey to Europe in the first place. Until we do something about that, I suspect we are destined to go on being afraid. Calais is a challenge to more than the way we use words. It is a challenge to the way we view the world.

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