Who is a refugee?
In 1951 (on the heels of the horrors of the two world wars and the displacement of millions), an international convention spelled out the definition of a refugee: any person who is forced to leave their country of origin or residence due to persecution, war or violence, and is unable to return to it. The nations agreed that refugees should be protected without discrimination and that international co-operation is required to fulfill these aims. The convention has been ratified by 147 nations, including the UK.
In the UK, the term ‘refugee’ is used to describe a person who has had their claim for asylum approved by the Home Office, whereas an ‘asylum seeker’ is someone who has made a claim for asylum but has not yet been approved. In Scotland, the great majority of asylum seekers live in the only Scottish dispersal city, Glasgow. Still, because of our participation in the Syrian Resettlement Scheme, there are refugees in all 32 local authorities.
The Syrian conflict has resulted in the largest humanitarian crisis in our time. Millions have left the country and even more are internally displaced within Syria. The UK government responded to the crisis in 2015 and committed to welcome 20,000 people through the Syrian Resettlement Scheme. Edinburgh promised to welcome 500 Syrians, and had been on track to reach that goal this year, before the pandemic hit our country. Our city also has welcomed refugees from other parts of the world, such as Sudan.
Why should we care about refugees?
Over and over again, the Bible commands us to show hospitality to all, in particular towards the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. God recognised the special vulnerabilities of these groups and called His people to protect them.
“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10.19)
“The kind of fasting I want is this:… Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor…” (Isa. 58.6-7)
“Do what is just and right… Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” (Jer. 22.3)
“The foreigners residing among you must be treated as native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 19:34)
I could go on citing Scripture verses. The very essence of the Gospel is that God descended (migrated, if you will) to us, and dwelt among us. Through Jesus’ sacrifice we, who were once strangers, now belong to God and to each other. Even our precious Saviour was once a refugee, escaping death and persecution in a foreign land. Imagine if the Holy Family would have been turned away from Egypt when trying to find safety and escape death?
If the Old Testament was clear on this issue, Jesus challenges us even more. When asked by an expert on the Law how are we to inherit eternal life in Luke 10, Jesus does not ask for an empty proclamation of faith, instead He tells us the story of the Good Samaritan. Loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself are the way to life, healing, salvation and flourishment, the story concludes. And if there is any doubt in our minds, Jesus goes on to clarify who is our neighbour: simply everyone—particularly those in need. Even Samaritans? Yes! Even our political enemies? Yes! Even those seeking asylum? Especially them!
The Church is called to bring Shalom to all the world. Jesus is making each of us our ‘brother’s keeper’. We belong to each other and are responsible to each other’s well-being. When one of us finds salvation and liberation in Christ, we all benefit. As never before in our lifetime, the global pandemic has made it crystal clear that every single one of us is interconnected. We are each other’s neighbours and responsible for each other’s wellbeing.
Our calling and duty as the Church of our living Lord remains the same, and it perhaps is even stronger and more needed now in our political and social climate. There is so much to be afraid right now: Will we get ill? Will I lose my job? Will the economy collapse? Will there be enough for everyone? What will our future be like? God is calling us to look compassionately on our fears but choose courage and love. The Apostle John reminds us that, ‘There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.’ We can cast our cares in our good, good Father, for He is taking care of us. Our trust in His love allows us to care for one another.
It is no secret that refugees and migrants have been dehumanised and used as scapegoats. In the past couple of months, we have seen an alarming increase of these hateful, fear-full sentiments. The Church are called, however, to keep our hearts and our tables open, ready to extend hospitality. Like the Samaritan in the story, we must let the love of God overcome our fears and reservations and help those who are most in need.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Heb. 13.2)