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.
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.
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.
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.
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?