It happened at some point in the last week to ten days or so. It might have happened because the story of the European refugee tragedy continued to develop new and unforeseen dimensions. Most probably, it happened because of the power of the picture and the reach of the internet; the image of the lifeless body of three year-old Alyan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach after his family had tried to reach the Greek island of Kos. Perhaps it was the extraordinary sight of a column of refugees on the march along a European arterial highway. It could also have been the horrific reports of finding over 60 refugees’ corpses in an abandoned food truck, parked on the verge of another inter-city highway, that between Budapest and Vienna. Most of us and our media have been in denial. These are no longer distant events in a faraway land. As Pope Francis challenged every Catholic parish and religious community to welcome at least one refugee family, the critical moment has now come when practically everyone in Britain and across Europe has finally realized the enormity of the tragedy happening across our continent and, whatever response our vacillating leaders and governments might eventually settle, that nothing here will ever be the same again.
Europe is in political meltdown. Analogously to the single currency’s near-collapse when things got difficult, the EU’s immigration policy has proved inadequate, even useless. In recent weeks, news emerged that Europe’s biggest emergency since at least the end of WWII extended to its eastern borders as well as its southern shores. People are arriving in countries such as Hungary and Macedonia, trying to make it to western Europe. There is nothing even remotely close to a consensus on how to cope with the influx; still less to acknowledge, let alone share the duty of care and welcome. Germany and Austria have begun to welcome refugees in large numbers. By contrast, Hungary, although smarting from criticism of its treatment of the refugees who tried to board trains out of Budapest last week, has erected razor-wire fencing and threatened to deploy troops on its border. Meanwhile the British Government stands carping on the side-lines, refusing to have anything to do with the European Commission’s stumbling attempts to form a cross-continent response.
Those viral pictures ensured that people of good will (that is, let us not forget, most people) were not duped into thinking only of the increasingly numbing numbers of people on the move across the content and the threats, according to some voices, that these pose to our society and culture. We can no longer forget that these each of those is a person, with a name and a family, an identity and a story, a human. Little Alyan, in death, showed us this as did that haunting picture of the young Turkish policeman gently removing the boy’s body from the water; a Deposition, in its own way. The statistics of these people on the move have been rising all summer, including the extraordinary figures of those welcomed by Germany in particular, taking in a predicted 800,000 in 2015, leaving the UK Government’s grudging and graceless reception, under public pressure, of a few thousand looking mean-spirited and paltry. A remark attributed to Josef Stalin suggested that “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” Henceforth, for this reason, this column will try to eschew citing statistics, for the numbers can numb our perception of the human tragedy.
Henceforth also, I’m going to avoid writing “migrant” when, I suggest, we should be saying “refugee.” There is a burgeoning online campaign here trying to persuade the BBC to do the same. The difference between talking about migrants and refugees matters. The UNHCR defines a refugee as one who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his [sic] nationality." According to some, many of Europe’s refugees are not that; they are economic migrants. This needs challenging. To label someone a migrant demands much less of you than a refugee would, be that legally or morally, on this thinking. We need to recognize this fact.
But this raises a further question, one that needs to be discussed. What is so terribly wrong about being an economic migrant? What is so despicable about wanting a decent life? Even if some of the people we’ve seen on the move are not fleeing, say, Asaad’s murderous regime or the horrors of Isis/Da’esh, we must ask the prima facie question of why we would refuse entry to a family fleeing poverty and hoping to establish a new life in the prosperous West. Our Christian morality, first forged and articulated by a people in flight from both violence and poverty, requires us to consider welcome first. It is a call to fundamental human solidarity that is not fittingly answered by walls, fences and troops. Our response risks being structured around an un-Christian, and inhumane, notion of protecting our affluence, keeping it for ourselves and not letting these outsiders from elsewhere enter and plunder our prosperity. As the Anglican vicar and writer Giles Fraser pointed out, there is “no respectable Christian argument for fortress Europe, surrounded by a new iron curtain of razor-wire to keep poor, dark-skinned people out” (Guardian, Sat. 05/09). And for those who need to look, it isn’t in the Bible.
Perhaps they do indeed pose a threat to our culture. If that’s a culture of individualistic and materialistic selfishness, maybe such a threat is no bad thing? The Hungarian PM, Viktor Orban, has, this week, been one of several public figures to repudiate any responsibility towards the refugees on the grounds that they threaten the Christian identity of Europe while the UK Government has stuck to a similar line, predicting fundamental damage to our entire European culture, value-system and social stability if we let these people in. By contrast, scores of Bavarian volunteers met the arriving refugees with banners and signs welcoming them to Europe, yet Slovakia announced recently that it would accept only Christians. As Fraser and many others were quick to point out, it is not the refugees but these figures who, with their grotesque version of Christian ethics, threaten Europe’s Christian identity.
Against this background, Cardinal Christof Schoenborn of Vienna has spoken an uncomfortable truth. Interviewed on the early-morning “Sunday” religious affairs programme on BBC radio, the respected Austrian prelate noted that nations’ immigration policies must be distinct from their responses to the refugee tragedy. Asked if Europe could absorb the vast numbers currently on the move, he pointed out that Europe is being asked to receive only one percent of the world’s refugees. He rejected the “apocalyptic scenario” proposed by some European politicians and called shame on how narrow nationalistic interests are preventing any coherent European response. But his most outspoken comment, on being asked about the threat of so many arrivals changing and undermining the culture, was that this is inevitable; “go on the streets of London … Paris … Berlin … and you’ll see that it’s already happening.” He suggested that the refugees might even be attracted by the best of European values, evoking and challenging Europe to live up to the best of those “values of freedom and human dignity,” and that the immigrants come “not as conquerors” but because they “just want to have a decent life.” Earlier, in a memorial service for those killed in the abandoned lorry, he had cited Pope Francis’s warning of a “globalization of apathy” and called for a proper, collaborative response that should emerge not only from our ethical values but from our very humanity.
England’s Cardinal Vincent Nichols this week called the British government’s response a “disgrace” while the leader of Scotland’s Catholics, Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, spoke out equally robustly, calling for the UK to become a “safe haven” for the refugees. He urged, “it is time to open our hearts and our borders.” Anglican leader Justin Welby told how his “heart was broken” by “this wicked crisis.” And on Sunday, upping the stakes even further, Pope Francis told the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square that every parish and religious community should open its doors to a refugee family. The pontiff underlined this challenge with a specific request to Europe’s bishops to support this appeal. To emphasize that he means business with this request, he announced that within days, two parishes of the diocese of Rome will lead the way, each taking a family of refugees. To warm applause, he made it clear that it was insufficient to say “have courage, hang in there” to the refugees. This imaginative challenge comes as Catholics everywhere prepare to respond to the pope’s calls for a Year of Mercy, perhaps the overarching theme of the Jesuit pope’s papacy so far.
There were some other refugees a long time ago, as reported in one of the legends of the Bible that would in time become foundational, who, like those refugees on the Hungarian highway, once marched in a column away from oppression and violence towards liberation and the restoration of hope. There was one individual refugee, originally from Nazareth and displaced only days after his birth, who would later have nowhere to lay his head and who would insist on compassion and mercy for all. He appealed, and still does, to the best of our common humanity. At this tragic point in European history, it’s surely to be hoped that the best, and not the worst, of us will prevail, for the greater common good.