Our response to the refugee crisis will be judged by history

St George[Brenden Alejandro Thompson] In the Twitterstorm provoked by the harrowing image of a three-year-old Syrian boy dead on a Turkish beach, the hashtags #IAmAnImmigrant and #humanitywashedashore have been trending, together with an image of St George, who is thought to be of Syrian origin.

It cleverly begs the question of what the patron saint of England would make of the British government’s insipid response to the treatment of his fellow countrymen desperately fleeing war.

Germany has welcomed 30,000 Syrians, Turkey around 1.6 million, and Jordan — a country barely able to feed its own population — far more. The UK has admitted just 216 Syrian refugees since March of this year.

Syrian boyAs Cardinal Vincent Nichols said on ITV news: “It is a disgrace that we were letting people die and seeing bodies on the beaches when together Europe is such a wealthy place. If we take 10,000, it’s a fraction of the problem.”

The cardinal had three messages in response to the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, epitomised by the dead Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi.

First, we are a generous nation. Think only of when huge world disasters occur like that of the recent earthquake in Nepal. Our national commitment to foreign aid, 0.7 per cent of gross national income, made the UK the second largest overseas aid donor out of the 29 OECD Development Assistance Committee members in 2013. British philanthropy is not dead.

Cardinal-Vincent-Nichols-1The problem is that this has been seen as an immigration issue, not a long-term humanitarian crisis.  There has been a failure of empathy. “People are beginning to see the human face of this suffering, so it’s no longer an abstract problem of people who are on the scrounge, ” said Cardinal Nichols. “It’s people who are desperate for the sake of their families, their elderly, their youngsters, their children, and the more we see that the more the opportunity for a political response that’s a bit more generous is growing.”

The Cardinal points out that what we are seeing are not solely economic migrants. Some 62 per cent of the migrants are fleeing dictatorships, war zones and persecution particularly in the Middle East according to a recent article. These are desperate individuals and families who are risking their lives and dying in huge swathes in order to escape the perils of their homeland.

Pope Francis in Lampedusa

Pope Francis in Lampedusa

The Cardinal’s final point was that this requires a concrete political response and strategy. He is calling attention to a long-term crisis, as did Pope Francis on his first journey outside Rome, in July 2013, to the island of Lampedusa. The Pope was the first major world figure to shine a spotlight on the plight of desperate migrants left to die at sea by unscrupulous people-traffickers, and to call for concerted international action.

As Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna pointed out on 31 August at a memorial service in the Austrian capital for the 71 migrants found suffocated in an abandoned truck, it was time “to emerge from our lethargy and resolutely to face what is without doubt the greatest humanitarian challenge for Europe in decades.”

71 migrants were found dead in this truck in Austria

71 migrants were found dead in this truck in Austria

It was a theme stressed by Pope Francis when he addressed the European Union in Strasbourg in November 2014, when he spoke of “that human ecology which consists in respect for the person”. T0 fail to understand our interconnectedness was simply to fail to grasp either the challenge or the solution. Tightening borders was not a policy, he suggested, adding: “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery!”

Cardinal Nichols reiterates this call for a united response. The Calais migrants only make up just one per cent of the migrants entering Europe and there is an awareness growing that Britain is nowhere near doing its fair share. (Bowing to criticism from all sides, the prime minister has promised today to do more to help Syrian refugees, though not those already in Europe.)

Refugees in Budapest

Refugees in Budapest

When the numbers of asylum seekers taken in is by European countries is adjusted based on population, Britain trails far behind Germany, France, Sweden, Belgium, Holland and Austria. Hence the calls by European Bishops for a far more energetic response to a global crisis. As Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, put it last month: when “thousands of people, human beings, men, women, children, face death trips to escape their countries for reasons we all know, we can only conclude that this problem is a human emergency, a human tragedy.”

In Madrid last May a mixed commission of bishops and others from the Mediterranean, Europe, and North Africa appealed to national governments and the European Union to promote global policies for migration and asylum, and to respond urgently to the need for resources and humanitarian rescue.

And recently the bishops of France signed a declaration expressing their “shame” over the treatment of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and at Calais.

“There is not a shadow of a doubt,” says German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference. “Where refugees are threatened, the Church is at their side.”

There are two concrete examples: in Italy, the Church through its charity arm Caritas has found 7,000 beds for migrants — concrete hospitality, mobilized through the parish network.

Christina Catambrone, co-founder of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station or MOAS

Christina Catambrone, co-founder of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station or MOAS

And out in the Mediterranean, a Maltese couple has gone where the states have failed — to rescue migrants in peril on the sea. Chris and Regina Catambrone (detailed profile here) were inspired by Pope Francis’s call in Lampedusa to take action.

These initiatives are small examples of the response of the Church to this humanitarian tragedy. The state, too, must act. The cardinal’s call should resound in the ears not just of Catholics but of policymakers. History will be our judge.


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