From One Refugee To Another: What Should We Do About The Current Refugee Crisis?

Why Good Intentions Can Kill

I became a refugee when I was 4 years old.  I was living in communist Hungary at the time, and my parents decided we had to leave. They wanted a better life for my two brothers and I than what they had experienced: they wanted us to grow up in a free country, not a dictatorship.

Refugee photo

I mention my story as a young refugee because it’s in stark contrast to another young refugee’s story. One you’ve no doubt heard about: Aylan Kurdi. Chances are you’ve seen the picture of his lifeless body on the beach (and have been traumatised by it, like I have). I not only felt great sadness, but like many, I was outraged: ‘This should not be allowed to happen!’’.

But what can we do? What’s a Christian response to the whole refugee crisis?

A Controversial Issue

The issue of refugees can be divisive, even among Christians. I have honourable friends who disagree with me about this topic. And it’s understandable: it is a morally complex issue.

And so you might find my approach counter-intuitive, if not controversial. All I ask is that you give me a fair hearing as I speak to this topic as a former refugee, and as a Christian.

The Uncontroversial: Welcome The Outsider

Most Christians would agree that we should welcome and love the outsider. Theologian Brian Rosner makes this point well when he writes:

‘[T]he Christian warrant for a humanitarian response to refugees, or should I say new humanitarian (since we are part of the new humanity, with Jesus Christ as the head), is grounded in God’s love for all, even (or especially) for the outcast and the stranger.’

So what might this look like in practice, in light of our present crisis?

Dancing With Controversy

As I’ve thought about this issue, and discussed it with friends, there seems to be a default view that an open border policy is good, whereas a strict border control policy is bad.

But is this really the case?

Is a more open border control policy a more compassionate, a more Christian response to this crisis?

To answer this question, let’s begin by taking a look at the risks asylum seekers are exposed to.

When It’s Safer Jumping Off A Cliff Than Being An Asylum Seeker

Little Aylan Kurdi drowned as he was trying to make his way to Europe from Turkey.

Sadly, his experience is all too common.

According to the International Organisation for Migration,  more than 430,000 migrants and refugees had crossed the Mediterranean to Europe so far in 2015, with 2,748 dying or going missing en route.

In other words, the chances of a refugee dying on their way to Europe is 2748 out of 430,000, or 1 in 156.

To put that into perspective, the chances of you dying in a car crash (the most dangerous activity most of us are involved in) is 1 in 17,000. That’s considered dangerous enough that our governments make strict laws about how to drive,  mandate driver training, punish offenders, and so on.

The most dangerous “sport” that some (crazy) people are involved in is base jumping: namely jumping off a perfectly good cliff or tall building with a parachute strapped to their back. The odds of dying in that are 1 in 2700 .

In other words, making ones’ way to Europe as a refugee is over 100 times more dangerous than driving a car; and 17 times more dangerous than jumping off a cliff with a parachute on your back.

Aylan Is Not Alone

And so poor Aylan is far from alone in his watery death: it’s just that his photo made it’s way to our Facebook feeds, whereas the thousands of other people’s drowned bodies did not.

But It Gets Worse

But as bad as it is trying to get to Europe, it was actually more dangerous for asylum seekers trying to make their way to Australia by boat, under the previous Labor governments’ policy.

During the years 2007 to 2013, a total of 44,654 asylum seekers arrived by boat from Indonesia. However, it’s estimated that in that same period, over 1000 people drowned as they tried making their way here.

In other words, the chances of dying whilst coming to Australia by boat are somewhere of the order of 1000 out of 45 000, or 1 in 45.

That’s a massive 377 times more dangerous than driving a car.

And 60 times more dangerous than base jumping.

That’s insane.

So why do people take such risks?  Apart from not realising how risky their travel will be, there are two main reasons.

The 2 Reasons Asylum Seekers Take Such (Insane) Risks

1) Push Factors.

Journalist Jamie Walker, currently in Greece, writes about the plight of many a Syrian Refugee:

Malak Boubarki, 15, can barely bring herself to talk about the hardship her family endured since fleeing the city of Idlib in northern Syria two months ago. They walked to Mersin on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast and caught a bus to Istanbul to enter the human pipeline to Europe. “The children cried, every day, every second,” Malak says.

The war in Syria has given many people no option but to flee their homeland. That’s clear enough.

But something that is not as readily acknowledged by many is the ‘pull factor’, which also incentivises risk taking.

2) Pull Factors.

Journalist Jamie Walker again: this time writing about people being ready to take risks when they see an open border:

The rate of arrivals [to Greece] is accelerating, driven by the fear of asylum-seekers that the sanctuary recently offered by Germany and Austria will not last.’

Afghan refugees Reeza Husseini and his brother Mashhad, originally from Kabul,  found refuge in Iran:

But there was nothing there for them, “no work, no future”, so when they heard people were getting into Europe, they left.”

Another refugee, having found found temporary asylum in Lebanon, put it this way:

“The people in Germany welcoming the refugees encourage me much more to flee,” said Mohammad Burhan, 30.

Veteran foreign affairs reporter Greg Sheridan writes:

Almost all the people movements of the last few weeks have been secondary movements, that is, not of people directly fleeing persecution but, having gained some safety in nations like Turkey, deciding to move on to Europe.

He continues:

Aylan Kurdi and his drowned brother and mother had been, with their father, on a people-smuggler’s boat and had been living in Turkey, receiving money from relatives in Canada and the father getting some paid work.

With the immediate mortal danger of Assad and ISIS behind them, it was the pull factor of Europe’s lax borders, (coupled with a desire to make a better life for themselves and their families), that gave  refugees like Aylan Kurdi’s father a very big incentive to risk travel.

Many have taken that risk. But thousands have lost their lives trying.

Removing The Pull Factor?

Whilst Europe is struggling under it’s refugee crisis (the biggest since the end of World War 2), Australia is not. That’s despite the record numbers of asylum seekers that were coming to our shores only a short two years ago.

What happened?

It would seem that the ‘pull factor’ was removed ( the ‘push factor’ certainly hasn’t been).

According to a Federal Parliament Report, there was only one boat arrival to Australia in 2014. This was despite 2014 being a ‘record year for boat arrivals globally‘.

Refugee advocate Paris Aristotle recently said this:

The government has stopped the boats and I for one am glad that we haven’t seen anybody drown in the last 18 months as a consequence of those boat journeys.’

Stopping the boats from coming to Australia, for all it’s moral complexities, seems to have shut down this dangerous travel route to our country, and saved the lives of many refugees. 

But Aren’t They Desperate?

Many would argue that we should allow desperate people to make the voyage: after all, they wouldn’t do it (so the thinking goes) if they weren’t desperate.

However, is it ever ok to expose desperate people to such mortal danger?

If so, then how can you complain when children like Aylan drown as a result of being exposed to such risk?

Speaking as a former refugee, I would much rather be stopped from taking such a treacherous voyage, than risk losing my loved ones, and/or my life. Death is final: life in a refugee camp is not.

Just ask Aylan Kurdi’s parents.

When The Road To A Refugee’s Hell Is Paved With Our Good Intentions

I realise that many pro-refugee advocates desire lax borders out of the best of intentions: it’s seen to be a much more compassionate and caring stance than strict border controls.

But as we’ve seen in the Australian experience, and as we’re seeing now in the European experience, our good intentions can often lead to unintended and negative consequences.

To paraphrase the Italian poet Dante:

‘The Road To a Refugee’s Hell Is Paved With our Good Intentions’.

Whatever the solution to the current refugee crises, lax borders are not part of it.

Lax border controls only incentivise risk taking. And the risks, as we’re seeing,  are deadly.

Sure, there is more, much more, to loving and welcoming refugees than closing off treacherous sea routes.

But closing off treacherous sea routes is where it needs to begin.

Aylan Kurdi is a tragic testament to that.

Question: How do you think we should respond to the refugee crisis in our world today? 

Leave a Reply

10 thoughts on “From One Refugee To Another: What Should We Do About The Current Refugee Crisis?

    • Hi there!

      Thankyou for your comment.

      A couple of thoughts:

      1) The document you provide is from 2013, and expresses skepticism that boat turnbacks would deter people from coming.

      Looking at the situation in 2015, it seems they do deter people from coming.

      2) ‘The government should provide alternatives so that asylum seekers are not left to make the harrowing decision between remaining in dire circumstances in countries of first asylum or risking their lives at sea in the hope of finding an adequate solution.’ (p38)

      I would think the most obvious way ahead is to ensure that refugees are properly looked after in countries of first asylum, so that they don’t have to take the extremely risky voyages in the first place. A compassionate response would be to sponsor refugee camps in these countries (under the auspices of the UNHCR, for example), and ensure that refugees are well looked after.

      There should also be diplomatic pressure/incentives (e.g. trade deals etc) to make such countries signatories to the convention (or at least allow agencies like the UN to run the camps within those countries).

      3) ‘Investing in a serious regional protection framework would go a long way in providing an alternative, safe and legal pathway for asylum seekers to find protection. It would demonstrate Australia is both committed to fulfilling its international and regional responsibilities and serious about doing everything it can to prevent further loss of life at sea.’ (p38)

      Agreed. More can and should be done in this area.

      4) ‘We must work towards establishing the conditions whereby people are presented with other genuine opportunities before being forced to risk their lives at sea.’

      Absolutely. This is where we need to focus our efforts.

      But let’s be clear: any policy that incentivises people coming by boat only puts refugees at mortal risk.

      Refugees lives matter. Providing them with a mortally dangerous pathway to our country is not a morally sane response, in my honest opinion.

      We can do much better than that.

      We need to do much better than that.

  1. Some more considerations and resources to consider:
    Please stop perpetuating the lie that ‘we have stopped the boats’, it is simply not true. The boats are still coming but are being turned around (http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/aug/06/australia-turned-back-20-asylum-seeker-boats-with-633-people-in-past-18-months), paid off (http://edition.cnn.com/2015/06/12/asia/australia-smuggling-payment-claims/) and towed back (http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/mar/12/turning-back-the-boats-is-a-moral-and-legal-failure-say-academics in expensive life rafts that are then dumped (

    • G’day again!
      Certainly some people will always want to come by boat, as the first article details.

      But let’s face it: 633 people attempting to come in 18 months is a heck of a difference to 17,000 actually arriving on our shores in 1 year (i.e. 2012).

      In other words, it’s 95% less people arriving than at the height of the Labor governments policy. That’s as good as successful, in my books.

      More to the point, those people that were turned back did not perish (at least according to that first article), unlike the 1000+ that did when the boats weren’t turned back under Labor government policy.

      Refugee lives matter: but providing refugees a mortally dangerous pathway to come to our shores is not the compassionate solution.

      As I detail in an earlier response, more needs to be done.

      But allowing children to drown on their way to our shores is not the morally sane response.

      The third article was particularly interesting, with the claim that the boat turnback policy does not save lives, but at the same time saying ‘“Given the official secrecy surrounding this topic, it is not possible to say with certainty that there have not been further cases of death or injury,” it says.’

      That’s hardly a conclusive answer that would back up their assertion.

      As to flouting international law: international law is non-binding, and I think there is a compelling moral case to flout such a law in our case because it leads to children drowning. If that’s not a compelling case to flout such a law, then I don’t know what is.

      Maybe we need pictures on our facebook feeds of dead children being washed up on Darwin’s shores?

  2. Akos, I think you only present half the story here. How have the boats been stopped? What about the conditions in detention centres- sexual assaults, lack of medical care, children detained for long periods, lack of independent oversight etc? If they can’t come by boat have we made other avenues for refugees to seek asylum which is an international obligation Australia should not shirk from. there is so much secrecy about stopping the boats navy personnel say they have been ordered to ignore distress calls so the statistic of one drowning is inaccurate. Yeah we stopped the boats, aren’t we compassionate. Out of mind out of sight, not our problem anymore. 🙁

      • Thanks for your comment Katja!

        Yes, I do only present part of the story, as I indicated at the end of my blog post. I would have presented more, if not for the length.

        To summarise:

        1) How have the boats been stopped? I’m happy to hear evidence to the contrary, but I’m going off what refugee advocates like Paris Aristotle are saying.

        2) Conditions in dentention centres? I fully agree that the conditions in detention centres are appalling: in no way do I endorse treating any human being in that way. I would that all refugees had the same experience of a refugee camp that I had: namely the equivalent of a 3 star hostel!

        3) Stopping the boats (assuming Paris Aristotle is on the money) has saved lives. Unless we want our facebook feeds full of dead children washed up on Darwin’s shores, then the only compassionate thing to do is prevent boats from coming in the first place, AND opening up other humane avenues for refugees to arrive in Australia.

        4) There is more we can, and must do. Here is my summary:

        a) Invest money to make sure the middle eastern refugee camps are run according to International humanitarian law. Hearing from an Assyrian friend of mine with family over in the camps, this is not currently happening. No wonder people are risking the trip to Europe, rather than staying in the camps.

        b) Pressure and incentivise the wealthy Gulf states to take their fair share of refugees. From what I understand, many of these wealthy Muslim states have hardly taken any refugees. Moreover, we in the west should pay them, to ensure that the refugees they do take are looked after well. Iran can take the Shi’a refugees; the Gulf states can take the Sunni. This will ensure that the religious freedoms of the respective muslim refugees are respected.

        c) If the Middle eastern Gulf states are looking after their fellow Muslim refugees, the this will free up the Western nations to take the most vulnerable, and the ones that can no longer stay in the middle east (at least not without their human rights being seriously curtailed). I’m thinking of the non-Muslim minorities: Yazidi, and Christians, for example. It’s no good for a Christian refugee to move to Saudi Arabia: his freedom to exercise his religion is essentially zero in such a Muslim country.

        d) Furthermore, churches here in Oz should put up their hands to sponsor Christian refugees: don’t make the Australian tax payer foot the bill, we need to do it for our fellow Christians (see Gal 6:10). Interestingly enough, when I came over as a refugee with my family, it was a local Catholic church that sponsored us: paid the rent for our unit, furnished it, etc. This would allow more of the most vulnerable refugees to come over.

        e) And yes, let’s ask the government to take more refugees! But by selecting them directly from the refugee camps, we can be more certain that we get the most vulnerable. Not everyone has the money to pay people smugglers (often the most vulnerable don’t).

        My 2c.

        • Hey Katja,

          Maybe this illustration will help:

          Would you really think the ‘let’s allow the boats to come policy’ is compassionate and enlightened, if you saw the bodies of the children who drowned (as they attempted to make their way here by boat) appearing on your Facebook feed each week?

  3. Excellent article. I do believe Germany put the “sugar on the table” and created an incentive. However there are 12 million displaced people in Syria and about 5 million refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan temporarily placed until they can return to their own countries or be placed elsewhere. Islamic countries in the Middle East have taken no refugees permanently. Europe cannot accommodate more. The elephant in the room is Islam.The whole of the Middle East is in meltdown resulting form sectarian violence that Islam has been unable to resolve. Turkey was a secular democracy but voted in an Islamic political party 10 years ago. In the last 3 years the rule of (secular) law, judicial independence and freedom of the press has been undermined to the extent it is no longer a democracy and heading toward civil war. The country has been polarised.

    Refugees are attracted to western democracies because they are peaceful and affluent. However, you can’t have Islam without Sharia law. Hence many Islamic refugees have become hostile to the western secular law and the way people in the west live and this generates conflict.

    • Thanks for your comment, Barbara.

      You’re absolutely spot on: western democracies are peaceful and affluent, which attracts refugees.

      Not only so, but your point about Islam is well taken: Islam, as traditionally practiced, does not fit well with modern western humanitarian values.

      We live in interesting times!

      Thanks again,

      Akos