Friday, 18 March 2016

The Syrian Refugees and the EU Referendum

Two things have prompted me to write this blog. The first is a series of portraits in today's Guardian by photographer Muhammed Muheisen. They show faces of Syrian refugee children in a makeshift tent camp in the north of Jordan. You never saw such hopelessness written into human eyes. Such faces can no doubt be seen by the thousand in the desperate communities of refugees that are huddled in the eastern borderlands of Europe. 

Human faces are always beautiful, even when disfigured, scarred physically or emotionally by tragedy. The pathos of these portraits somehow added to their beauty. My response to them was complex, hard to put into words. First, a terrible sadness for these forlorn kids. I guessed that these children had done with weeping; probably they were utterly cried-out. For me looking on helplessly, there was not much I could do except try to put myself in their world and say my prayers. 

I've thought about how the photographer has given back to these children their identity. They have names. They have unique faces; each one tells a story. They share their personal thoughts about their homeland in the brief captions. We usually speak about "migrants", "refugees" and "asylum seekers" as collectives. They soon become a crowd - or worse: witness the language of "swarms" used not long ago by someone who should have known better. These are abstractions. The images tell us that they faces belong to persons who are made in the image of God. And if their eyes are filled with blank despair, maybe even God despairs too? That's what I found myself wondering.

The other prompt came in some words I saw quoted in the same paper. A Greek migration officer was commenting on the EU summit that has been trying to address this humanitarian crisis. "My big hope is that Europe will decide to behave like Europeans" he said. There is a common acceptance that Europe's failure so far to respond adequately has been "an insult to our values and civilisation" - this from the EU's top immigration official who was struggling to find the words.

"Behave like Europeans". It's a bitter sarcasm on the virtues we have prized on our continent, among them care, pity (in the best sense of that word), compassion and charity. You could sum these up in the word "humane". One of the founding values of the EU is "solidarity" which means our capacity to see ourselves as part of the human family in its entirety, especially its poor, voiceless, needy and suffering members. This is why Europe's agonised and so far unsuccessful attempts to agree a concerted response to the refugees who arrive on our shores feels so shameful to us who care about being "Europeans". That honoured identity isn't simply a privilege. It comes with a cost, the outward-turned generosity that is necessary if others in our community are to flourish as we do. 

I've constantly pressed in these EU-blogs the absolute priority we must give to loving our neighbour. It's basic to the Judaeo-Christian tradition whose social teaching so inspired the founders of the European project. If ever we were called to do this in practical ways, it's now. I would place a copy of these photographs on the desk of every member of the European Council, the Commission and the Parliament and insist that they contemplated them at the start of every working day. An image speaks more than a thousand words. These tragic faces plead with us not just to feel something but to do something. And that means everyone in affluent Europe. None of us is exempt from making whatever personal response we can even if it can't be more than giving to charities who are supporting refugees. 

As Christian Aid has said pointedly, the European Union has to act together if there is to be any strategic way forward. Now we learn that at the leaders' summit, the EU and Turkey have reached agreement, a "landmark deal". I hope this is good news, but we shall have to wait for the small print to make sure that it is a real breakthrough (and a legal and adequate one), and not simply another cobbled-together compromise. There's been much criticism of the basic idea underlying the proposal, exchanging genuine refugees for those whose asylum applications are turned down and who will be sent back. But even if this is ethical and workable, there still needs to be a bigger plan such as David Miliband has proposed, the opening up of legal routes to bring refugees into Europe without endangering lives through a dangerous sea-voyage and unscrupulous people traffickers. 

Meanwhile, we in Britain who are shortly to vote in the EU referendum are bound to be asking how the migrant crisis will affect both the debate and the outcome. It would be deplorable if a humanitarian catastrophe were used for point-scoring for or against. But at the same time it wold be just as deplorable if our EU debates just sailed on oblivious to this disaster happening on our continent. Not many contributions I've seen on either side have had much to say about the refugees in relation to the referendum. Maybe that's a respectful silence when faced with holy ground. More likely it reflects how difficult it is to know what to say about it. That's forgivable. What would be much worse would be a silence that suggested a shoulder-shrugging attitude that it's not a British problem. After all, didn't the PM remind the summit that the UK has "special status" in the EU? - a statement I have to say I am profoundly uncomfortable with as I've said elsewhere.

My worry is that the terms set for the referendum debate are so circumscribed by "what's good for Britain, what's best for us" that the plight of the needy has been banished out of sight. If so, we should loudly insist that it's brought back into our conversation. A campaign based on self-interest only would be a campaign without a conscience. The Archbishop of Canterbury has been vocal in drawing attention to the refugees, and in this he is in tune with all the churches. I should like to see the referendum debate focus much more on what kind of society we believe the EU could be, and what values we ourselves hold to in the UK. Here's where the migrant crisis is an acid test of our capacity to be human. The referendum is not about abstract issues. It's about people and communities: we who are so privileged, and the many who are not. 

A final thought. Suppose the electorate concluded that the EU's failure to bring its peoples together to act humanely towards its refugees was a conclusive argument for Brexit. Well, I would understand and respect that because it would have been informed in a principled way. It would be a much stronger argument than the (to me) xenophobic fear of "migrant invasion" that tabloid reportage talks up. Similarly, I would find it hard to sympathise with those whose case for Remain is based solely on what's in our own national or personal interests. That wouldn't demonstrate the conscience and compassion we must have when human beings are suffering in our midst. It would fly in the face of what I believe are the best reasons for staying in. I happen to think that when we act together we are in a stronger position to make a difference to desperate human lives. Time will tell if I'm right.

I hope voters are listening out for indicators that humanitarian care is featuring in the way we talk about the referendum and are preparing to vote. We should take the images of those Syrian children with us in our memories when we go into the ballot-box. We must not forget them. If we do, they may never forgive us. 

1 comment:

  1. Powerful words, thank you. But what if we take people in and they end up sleeping in shipping containers and eating out of food banks? We do need to take refugees, and we do need to see an end to the rhetoric that demonises people merely for wanting better lives. But we also need to be prepared to pay more taxes to pay for what we want.

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