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Are refugees the crisis? Or is it the stories we tell about them?

The global refugee crisis shows no signs of abating in the coming years and decades - conflicts and climate change will make sure of that.

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This week, World Refugee Day seeks to recognise the crisis in an organised way and come up with solutions. But however practical the solutions need to be, perhaps the root of the problem lies at a more theological level.

The theme for this year’s World Refugee Day is Hope Away from Home; a world in which refugees are always included. Clearly, the plight of refugees is a daily struggle that requires ongoing attention, but on this day, there’s an organised effort to raise awareness and affect positive humanitarian change. Most of us will not be strangers to the issue of refugees; the Syrian refugee crisis is fresh in the mind, as are the coastal nations of Europe which are daily navigating the bleak and tragic waters of refugee crossings, both literally and figuratively.

The stories we’re fed about refugees come in different forms; those we take in being formative on how we think and feel towards them. The American photographer Brian Sokol delivered this TEDx talk in which he takes issue with the dominant Western narratives of refugees. He points out that the stereotypical refugee photos tend to include barbed wire, dust/rain, leaky boats and beleaguered people. These are often well intended, attempting to shock people into action, but they are also woefully one-dimensional, reducing people to stories of hardship and sorrow. As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie observes, ‘The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.’ Add to this the extraordinary statistics on refugees (c.35 million according to the UNHCR), which are too big to comprehend, they end up being dehumanising and abstract. To paraphrase an old adage: one refugee is a tragedy, one million is a statistic.

Photos and statistics allow us to ‘other’ refugees, to see them at a distance from our own kith and kin; they’re not in our group. For many, consciously or unconsciously, it follows that those who are not within our group are not within our moral sphere of responsibility. The Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel expertly guided a BBC debate on whether borders actually mattered in the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, where the question of how much moral responsibility we have for one another was hotly debated. The topic is highly emotive and politicised, as evidenced by the British Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s controversial comments that asylum seekers arriving in boats to the UK were an ‘invasion’. Similar sentiments have been both implicitly and explicitly expressed by leaders in a number of countries.

Hostile reactions to refugees are nothing new; refugees present very complex issues for nations, and we humans seem to have a native instinct for xenophobia, instinctively demarcating who is in and who is out. A recent case in point can be seen in Europe’s reaction to the invasion of Ukraine, where Ukrainian refugees were (rightly and laudably) largely welcomed to neighbouring nations, plausibly because they share the same majority skin tone and religion. Noting the disparity between this and other refugee crises, Krish Kandiah, director of the Sanctuary Foundation, pleaded for the same treatment to be extended to Sudanese refugees.

Perhaps it’s in times like these that we need a different narrative; stories that will challenge our reflexive response to outsiders. It’s interesting that many can be found in the oldest parts of the Bible. While the word ‘refugee’ does not appear, in the Old Testament’s book of Leviticus the Israelites are told “When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. You must treat the foreigner living among you as native-born and love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” Fast forward a few hundred years and we have Jesus, who himself was a child refugee when he fled to Egypt from Israel to escape a despotic ruler’s infanticide. In his later teachings he identifies with oppressed people, saying in the gospel of Matthew, ‘Whenever you failed to help any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you failed to do it for me.’ A thread which runs through the Bible is that all people are valuable, made in God’s image; it’s this religious conviction that has led to the belief in universal human rights, as historian Tom Holland argues in a piece he wrote for the Financial Times.

Refugees can’t be reduced to problems that need to be solved. While technocratic solutions are important, they need to be accompanied by an approach that humanises and dignifies those whom we consider ‘other’ to ourselves. Such an approach is borne of the conviction that all people are intrinsically valuable and deserve care because they bear God’s image just as much as anyone else we might know. It’s this radical belief that helped to abolish slavery,  just as any humane and compassionate solution to the refugee crisis will follow from this conviction.




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