It was an unexpected and very pleasant surprise. Occasionally I help out at the local United Reformed Church and yesterday led their morning service. Expecting a handful of people in the congregation, predominantly elderly, it was wonderful to welcome a party of over 20 young people from 11 different nations who were staying in Wooler on an international young people’s camp. They certainly enlivened the service and whilst their presence required a revision and revamping on the spot of how to present what I had prepared, it was a very stimulating and enjoyable morning, which everyone in the congregation appreciated.
It was such a pleasant experience, given the appalling and disreputable newspaper headlines and television covering of the crisis in Calais recently. The appalling, toxic language that has been deployed by the media and lamentably by politicians, including the Prime Minister, has only served to fuel the antagonism, hostility and antipathy towards migrants. David Cameron has evoked international criticism by he describing migrants in Calais trying to get into Britain as a “swarm” and his knee-jerk popularist response to the crisis was to speak about strong armed tactics, offensive measures including dogs to deter the migrants from entry.
Thank God for the Bishop of Dover, who at the weekend, challenged both the media and politicians over their use of unhelpful rhetoric. He urged David Cameron to “rediscover what it is to be human”, going on to say, “we’ve become an increasingly harsh world, and when we become harsh with each other and forget our humanity then we end up in these stand off positions … We need to rediscover what it is to be human and that every human being matters.”
Clearly there is an issue but it needs to be addressed in a compassionate, considerate and non-violent way. Gesture politics, tabloid grabbing headlines only help to shut out the cries of desperation from those who are pleading at our door, refugees, not economic migrants. In an extraordinary denunciation on how Britain was handling the issue, the United Nations special representative on migration, Peter Sutherland, denounced Britain’s attitude suggesting that the lessons of Nazism had not been learned. “Many of those in Calais are refugees, just as the Jewish people were in 1939. They can prove they were and are persecuted and would be persecuted if they were returned.”
I am reminded of those very challenging words of Jesus; “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” The people listening to Jesus asked him, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it we saw you as stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or imprison and visited you?”Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me”.
God, to whom we are, I believe, ultimately responsible and accountable watches and must grieve at the way in which we are responding to the “crisis”.
There is a huge issue around migration but it is not simply a British problem. It is a problem for Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and many places throughout the world. The idea that it is only Britain that faces this problem is ridiculous. As ridiculous as the Prime Minister’s suggestion that “a few more miles of barbed wire fencing and more dogs” would solve the problem.
Far greater numbers of migrants are to be seen in places like Greece and Italy. These two countries have witnessed nearly 200,000 migrants coming ashore this year, considerably more than those in the “jungle” near Calais.
When “breaking news” sensationalist headlines and political propaganda dominate what is lost is truth. Perception and prejudice rule over what is true and honourable, compassionate and just.
One of the things that I appreciate is the ability to discuss and debate things. The poverty and lack of debate in contemporary society and in many quarters of the church is very regrettable and something that does very little for the wellbeing of any society or community. Whatever the issue; from Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe, to austerity measures and changing patterns of worship in church services, it’s always helpful to have some facts to aid informed debate and discussion. I came across an article in the Huffington Post yesterday which I found very revealing. Some facts about the present “crisis”:
The impression given by the media is that all migrants want to come to Britain. They don’t! Many more migrants head for Germany and Sweden. Those two countries alone dealt with nearly half of all the asylum applications in Europe last year. The actual numbers of asylum applications to Britain showed an increase of 5% last year over the previous year. Just over 25,000 people applied for in 2014 as opposed to 84,000 in 2002. Of a quarter of a million people seeking asylum, fewer than 10,000 have claimed asylum in the UK in the first six months of this year. About a fifth of these asylum seekers are from Syria and the other main countries of origin are Afghanistan, Kosovo and Eritrea. The biggest increase in asylum applications last year came from Ukrainians, (remember that country? You would think that having disappeared off the newspaper headlines that the problem had gone away. In fact the daily killings, savagery, brutality and the hoards of Russian militia that are sweeping across the country, pose an equal if not more substantial threat to the Western world than any of the troubled spots in the Middle East and North Africa).
Another reason why we cannot pretend that the refugee crisis has nothing to do with us is because we have intervened and in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, invaded. If there is, to quote our Prime Minister, a “swarm”, it is not in Calais but in places like Baghdad, Tripoli and Kabul where our violent interventions in an unholy and unjust war has disturbed a hornets nest of unmitigated violence, brutality, bloodshed and terrorism. Our mistaken engagement and fabricated reasoning for going to war with Iraq has reaped what we have sown – death and devastation. We have attempted to eradicate our enemies by brute force and mechanised, military violence. Inept, arrogant and naïve political leadership, and a failure to understand the mindset of other cultures has fuelled the fires of religious fundamentalism and international terrorism.
We have reaped what we have sown also in relation to armaments. Next month the UK Government will welcome and support the bi-annual Defence and Security Equipment International Trade Fair at the ExCel Centre in London. This is code for an International Arms Fair where the government invites military buyers from around the world and encourages arms companies to network and make deals and help to grow the industry
On the one hand you have the Foreign Office listing 27 countries of concern in its recent Human Rights and Democracy Report, yet two years ago at the same Trade Fair, nine of these countries were asked officially to send delegates and ten years ago the UK government approved Arms Export licenses to 18 of the countries on this list. This is wicked. It is indefensible, to condemn repressive states for Human Rights violations and at the same time encourage those same states to buy arms; military weapons, many of them of capable of mass destruction which can be used to assist such repressive regimes. Again the words of Jesus haunt me, “love your enemies”. I often wonder, some would argue naively, what might have occurred had we delivered bread not bombs, education not attempted eradication, peace-making not conflict stirring, to Iraqi’s, Afghan’s and other troubled nations? We might have made more friends than enemies.
Then there’s the old chestnut about migrants only want to come here so they can get benefits as soon as they make it across the channel. No they don’t. Let me state very clearly and refute the lies and propaganda of both the right wing press and the political propaganda that comes out of Westminster. Citizens of non-EU countries who come to Britain have no access whatsoever to public funds in the first few years after they arrive. Similarly, no asylum seeker is eligible for welfare benefits whilst their claims are processed. Don’t believe the lies!
So why are the media making such a fuss about the migrants in Calais? The cynic within me says that editorial policy is as much influenced, particularly at this time of year when many correspondents are on holiday, by ease of access for TV crews. Long lines of stranded lorries make great TV pictures, as do images of desperate people risking their lives trying to leap onto trucks or trains.
Of more concern is my fear that these stories feed into the current debate about Britain’s membership of the EU. With parliament in its summer recess, anti-Europeans, aided by a predominantly right wing anti-European press, can get away with outlandish and wicked claims and propaganda, playing on people’s fears, exploiting ignorance and capitalising on prejudice.
The migrant crisis is complex, challenging and a great issue. The question that was posed a few years ago, with Christians wearing armbands with the phrase, ‘What would Jesus do?’, demands a compassionate and considered response. In truth I don’t know but of this I am sure; he would not be building higher fences, sending the dogs in or talking about people in ways that dehumanise them.