Thoughts from a Churches visit to the Jungle in Calais
The Refugee Crisis has been brought to our attention by the presence of 4,000 refugees in Calais hoping to come to the UK. There are 19,000,000 people in the world who are currently refugees. There are wars in Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan and Libya, lower level violence in Central America, Nigeria and Pakistan and persecutions in Eritrea, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
A team from our church took a three-ton van full of food over to Calais to meet with some of the 4,000 people stuck in northern France. The initiative was driven in partnership between churches, schools and the local community. One person secured a van and drove. Three schools offered their Harvest Festival and local shops contributed food. We collaborated with a charity already working on the ground in Calais. They gave a list of what they to bring and we did as they had asked. Jude (12) spent his own pocket money. Children came to pack the van and watch their individual boxes packed with food being driven away to France.
The Church’s efforts to assist refugees around the world echo a directive to take care of the poor and needy. We should welcome the stranger (Matt 25:41-43). We cannot say to those in need, “You are not our problem.” We should be generous, even when it hurts. (2 Cor 8: 2-3). Compare this with the fears expressed by Philip Hammond (The Foreign Secretary) that Europe would not be able to maintain its standard of living if it welcomed refugees.
There was a poignant moment as the team arrived. We had been asked to pack food in shoeboxes. People thought that they actually were shoes and ran towards the van because it was that for which they had been hoping at the time. There was an attitude, among the refugees, more of amazement than despair that they had come so far without having their situation resolved. The campsite was dirty with faces with unexpected numbers of people living in a restricted area. If we go again we will take a clean up crew.
Refugees pose the Good Samaritan question of who is our neighbour to whom we have a responsibility (Lk 10:29)? The answer to this question determines our understanding of subsequent questions of citizenship (Rom 13:1) and stewardship (2 Pet 4:10). How many of those people signing up to share their homes with Syrian refugees would be willing to give up their own child’s place in a top-quality school to make way for a refugee child?
Refugees point to the importance of home, place and territory. Simone Weil, a French female mystic, who died in 1943 at the age of 34, wrote that ‘to be rooted is perhaps the most important and the least recognised need of the human soul’. ‘People are rooted’, continued Weil, by virtue of a real active and natural participation in the life of a community. We have our own tale of exclusion acted out on a micro scale in the way that we respond to the homeless who are the refugees of our own society. A person who is homeless has a life expectancy of thirty years less than those who are socially included. Homeless people are not be helped by food banks, that purport to help those most vulnerable in society, because they don’t have a kitchen in which to cook any food that they are given.
Refugees raise questions of national identity and of the type of country we want to be. An appropriate patriotism with a desire to belong is one thing but an unwelcome nationalism with a sense of exclusivity is another. David Cameron described the migrants in Calais as a “swarm of people”. Katie Hopkins, writing in the Sun described the migrants as cockroaches and suggested using gunboats to stop them from crossing the Mediterranean. It is no surprise that Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said that the rhetoric being used by politicians surrounding the refugee crisis is comparable to that used in 1938 to describe Jewish refugees fleeing Germany and Eastern Europe, before the Holocaust.
The Church has a prophetic role in highlighting the value that refugees can bring to our society. In my local context, Mercy Ummeh was a refugee from Nigeria before becoming Mayor of Hammersmith. The Church has a prophetic obligation to itself to accept the need to recruit more ethnic minority people into her leadership. Ethnic minorities fill only 1.1% of bishops, archdeacons and cathedral deans posts although there are congregations where up 90% of members are such.