Archives for posts with tag: asylum seeker

People who are fleeing violence and persecution, who have no safe place to live, are willing to risk their lives and to pay thousands of pounds to risk drowning in freezing seas as they cross the Mediterranean and the English Channel.

It is not a question of ‘pull factors’. These are people fleeing – they are subject rather to ‘push’ factors, if anything. Some of them choose to seek asylum in the UK, but this is a smaller number than those who have gone to France, Italy, Germany and Greece. All those countries have granted asylum to greater numbers than those trying to reach the UK.

Refugees who choose to come to the UK usually do so because they speak English or have relatives already living here. When they have been allowed to remain here and work, the statistic is that on average immigrants pay 10% more tax – and earn and spend that much more – than indigenous Britons. The NHS would not survive without its many thousands of immigrant doctors and nurses. 

There is no ‘legal’ way to claim asylum in the UK. There is no way to apply unless you are already in the UK. Under the Refugee Convention 1951 refugees are not obliged to claim asylum in the first place where they flee to, but if they do claim asylum in a country, that country is obliged under the Convention to consider their claim. It would be a breach of the Convention to deport asylum seekers to an offshore processing centre, as Australia did.

But we miss the point if we get bogged down in the mechanism of how asylum claims are made. The point is that since time immemorial people have fled from country to country, from continent to continent, if the place where they were born becomes dangerous or they are unable to earn enough to feed themselves. A distinction is made between asylum seekers and ‘economic migrants’, but it is specious. If you have been driven from your home in fear of your life, of course you are an ‘economic migrant’ as well. 

The point is that this migration in search of safety and prosperity is all right. Immigration is a Good Thing. Why am I entitled to live in the UK? Because I was born here. But does that entail entitlement? I think not. The fact that I was born here is sheer luck. 

So why should I try to assert entitlement to live here as against other human beings who happen not to have been born here, but rather have been born in poor or dangerous places? If I benefit, by sheer luck, from living in the fifth-richest country in the world, why should other human beings, who are not so lucky, not join me in this earthly paradise? What right have I to deny them?

But, people say, our islands are too crowded. We can’t afford to share our schools and hospitals and universities with foreigners. This is nonsense. The indigenous population of the UK is shrinking in numbers, as our birthrate is too low. We need more people – not just doctors and nurses (although we certainly need them, to fill the shortage of over 100,000 staff in the NHS today), but we need people in all walks of life, professions and trades.

We have plenty of room. Half an hour from the centre of London in any direction one is in green countryside. The same is true of all our conurbations. There may be 67m people in the UK, but there is plenty of room for more – and plenty of need for the economic boost that extra people will create.

But ‘they’ won’t integrate, they say. They keep themselves to themselves and some don’t even learn English. But do we try to get to know them? Do we welcome them into our homes – or do we ostracise them, shrinking away from them and avoiding contact? No wonder they are separate – we drive them away into themselves. The latest racism scandal, affecting Yorkshire cricket, could, in some aspects, have been repeated all over the country.

Yet our politicians compete to be ‘tough’ on immigration. Disgracefully, Theresa May started a ‘hostile environment’ policy towards immigrants which continues under Priti Patel. Imagine what it must feel like: driven out of your homeland in fear of your life, you reach the country which drafted the Human Rights Convention and most of the Refugee Convention, which welcomed the Jewish refugee children fleeing Nazi Germany in the Kindertransport – and you are received, not with a compassionate welcome, but with a ‘hostile environment’.

With climate change, this pressure of population, shifting from poverty and violence towards comfort and abundance, from Africa and the Middle East towards northern Europe, will be many times greater. People will flee those countries where it is 50 degrees in the shade. And again, they will benefit the northern countries where they go to.

But we are a democracy, and 55% of those polled say they are against immigration, and would vote for politicians who are ‘tough’, who restrict immigration and show a hostile face to poor asylum seekers. This unenlightened, if not actually racist, attitude is said to prevail in the ‘Northern Red Wall’ of parliamentary seats formerly held by Labour and now narrowly Conservative, because these voters supported Brexit, largely in order to stop immigration. The Conservatives are afraid of offending these voters, and Labour want to regain their affections, so neither party dares to tell the electors what is right and good.

This will not do. There is room in a democracy for elected representatives to offer leadership and inspiration. They ought not lamely to follow their constituents’ unenlightened and unjustified bigotry. Most of these people have never met an immigrant, let alone tried to get to know one. If he or she is wearing medical scrubs and cures their pain, they conveniently forget that it was a ‘foreigner’ who helped them. 

The same goes for all that fruit that didn’t get picked, all those lorries that didn’t get driven, all those plumbing jobs which didn’t get done. All done by immigrants – until Brexit stopped freedom of movement and the ‘hostile environment’ was the best the government could offer in order to ‘take control’.

So much of this is attributable to fears of the unknown, or the ‘other’. Surely our leaders can address this. The people of the Red Wall are racists, if they are so, because of what they don’t know. What they don’t know they fear and shun. We need to challenge this. 

No Red Wall temporary Tory is happy to see children, their mothers and fathers, drowning in the freezing English Channel. Even at this lowest common level, their common humanity is something we can all recognise. So if they are like us in not wanting to be drowned, what other similarities are there? 

They are human beings, in every respect just like us. They love their children; they feel hunger, and cold, if they are not in their houses. Just like we do. They enjoy having nice meals to eat; they love music and stories. Just as we would miss these things if we were deprived of them, so do they.

Immigrants and refugees are just as much entitled to live in a safe place – indeed, in our safe place – as we are. It is just our good luck that we got here first.

Think of Emma Lazarus’ words on the foot of the Statue of Liberty: 

‘Give me your tired, your poor, 

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, 

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’

And think of what Jesus said.“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”

(Matthew 25:31-45)

Which do you think our leaders resemble today? The sheep, or the goats? And, for that matter, what do you think the British electorate looks like? ‘Come on’, they might say. ‘When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ Because ‘you’, in this, are a refugee, or an immigrant. 

We need leaders, politicians, who have the guts to dare to remind everyone what that mythical British character is supposed to be all about. Fair play; protect the underdog; not, certainly not, to meet him as he emerges freezing from the sea with a ‘hostile environment’.

Hugh Bryant

25th November 2021

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 23rd December 2018

Isaiah 10:33-11:10, Matthew 1:18-25

‘In the bleak midwinter’; ‘Snow had fallen, snow on snow’; ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out … deep and crisp and even’. But Bethlehem is a hot place, dusty rather than snowy. I suppose carols and hymns can be rather an unreliable source of proper geographical information. ‘And did those feet .. walk upon England’s green and pleasant land?’

I don’t suppose they sing ‘Jerusalem’ in Italy, or in France or in Germany. Or if they do, presumably those feet were walking in the Black Forest or on the Palatine Hill, or maybe, in the Bois de Boulogne. There is, if we are literal about it, quite a lot of nonsense which we happily tolerate at this time of year. Things that appear to go completely contrary to common sense; like snow in Bethlehem. It probably was quite cold at night in the stable, once the sun had gone down. But there certainly wasn’t any snow.

One of the things that these carols are doing is assimilating the story of the birth of Jesus into our homes, or rather into an idealised version of our homes, because even here in England a white Christmas is, of course, very rare. I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that we won’t have one this year either.

And as well as the carols, the Bible readings that we traditionally use at this time also contain things which look contrary. Isaiah’s wonderful vision of the peaceful life on ‘God’s holy mountain’, after the Rod of Jesse, the Saviour, has beaten the Assyrians, and saved God’s chosen people, isn’t just a pastoral idyll.

It deliberately puts almost impossible companions together. The wolf and the sheep; the leopard, the kid; the calf, the young lion, the cow and the bear – the little child, leading them, like a party of schoolchildren following their teacher around the Tower of London, say.

Or perhaps it’s a classroom, full of these unlikely neighbours, who are not busily eating each other, but they are sitting attentively in class, being kept in good order by a little boy, like my two-year old grandson Jim. In your dreams, Sunshine!

Well, yes; in Isaiah, in Isaiah’s dreams. In the words of the prophet, telling his hearers what God has spoken to him and said, that the Rod of Jesse would come and slay the Assyrians, and then that they ‘would not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain.’

Interesting that it is on a mountain, on a high place. The Greek gods were on a mountain too; on Mount Olympus. And in the Old Testament, the heathen gods, the Baals and the Astartes of the Chaldeans, were worshipped with sacred poles, which were ‘in the high places’. ‘High places’ was almost a synonym for where God lived. We ourselves look up, look up to heaven, because conventionally, God lives in Heaven, and Jesus sits at God’s right hand ‘on high’, we say. Think of our Psalm this evening.

Unto thee I lift up mine eyes:

O thou that dwellest in the heavens. [Ps. 123]

But again, it’s not literally true. Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut, was said by Nikita Krushchev to have gone into space ‘but not to have seen God there’. The early astronauts didn’t find a man with a white beard sitting on a golden throne and floating above the clouds. John Gillespie Magee’s wonderful poem, which is often read at the funeral of a pilot, ‘High Flight’, comes to mind. ‘Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth … put out my hand and touched the face of God’. And so, on God’s holy mountain, children can safely play with cockatrices, vipers, and with asps, cobras. ‘Sheep may safely graze’.

It’s a much better outlook for the Israelites. The Messiah would come along and free them from slavery. The Rod of Jesse would mete out retribution to all their foes. That’s something that we can certainly relate to. ‘If only ..’, we say. If only: what would you call in the Rod of Jesse to do in your life? But maybe we are too comfortable, too well settled to really empathise with how the Israelites must have felt.

But there are people who are in exile, who are not free, who may even be subjected to slavery, even today, not far away. On Friday I did my first Father Christmas duty of this Christmas, up at Brooklands College, where there is a project for children who are asylum seekers and refugees. I gave out splendid big stockings full of goodies donated by the supporters of the project and by Elmbridge CAN, our local refugee support group, to 26 young people, teenagers and in their early 20s, who had come from Eritrea, from Syria, Ukraine, from Kurdistan, Iraq, from Afghanistan. Some were black Africans, some were Arabs, a couple were Chinese, and a couple were white Europeans. Many do not know whether they will be allowed to stay.

Some were learning to read and write for the first time; although typically, the ones who hadn’t been able to read and write were amazingly good at mental arithmetic. They were learning English, of course, and learning how to fit in with English society. The first words that they are taught are ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘sorry’, because none of those are necessarily expressions that you come across in some of the countries that they have come from. Part of Father Christmas’ visit was a huge lunch, of Middle Eastern and African delicacies, that one of the volunteers from Elmbridge CAN had made. For about half the children, this would be their only meal that day. One meal, if you’re lucky. This is in Weybridge!

So pictures of the Israelites, in exile and under the oppressor’s boot, could still in certain circumstances be a picture of contemporary life, for refugees and asylum seekers today. Think what life in the refugee camps must be like, in Jordan, for example. No snow there, either!

As well as the mythical snow on this fourth Sunday of Advent, just on the eve of Christmas itself, St Matthew tells us the story of the other half of the Annunciation. This isn’t about Mary but about Joseph her betrothed. Again, the Christmas story is so familiar that we perhaps gloss over the bits that seem rather unlikely. Joseph’s original reaction when he finds out that his wife-to-be is pregnant, although he has had nothing to do with it, is what you might expect. His first thought is that the wedding is not going to happen.

Who is the Angel Gabriel? Have you met any angels recently? Or at all? It seems to depend a bit on where you come from and what you’re used to. In Africa and in Southern Europe, people are much more ready to believe in the existence of angels than perhaps we are. I don’t think that we can explain the Virgin Birth in the same way that we could explain how to bake a perfect soufflé – or whatever it is they do on the Great British Bake-Off.

But look at it functionally. Jesus definitely lived. He was a human being, although during his life and afterwards, things happened which have led us to believe that he was more than human, that he was divine as well as human. So somehow he must have been born, been conceived. All the things that show that he was really born, that he really was human, just like the other miracles, turning water into wine, miraculously healing sick people, raising Lazarus from the dead – none of those can be explained: so Jesus’ conception is equally mysterious and impossible to understand.

But notice how Jesus’ earthly parents, wonderfully, accepted the situation; and of course Mary said the Magnificat, which we’ve just sung together. God has chosen me; God has magnified me; God has made a big thing out of me.

Is it just a pretty story, then? Is it just a convenient excuse to have a nice time at Christmas? Think about what Mary said. Think about the message of the Magnificat, and the message of Isaiah, about the animals on ‘God’s holy mountain’. ‘He has put down the mighty from his seat, and exalted the humble and meek.’ Are we the mighty? Or are we the ‘humble and meek’?

We need to think about it, and to do something. Perhaps the other thing about God’s holy mountain is that a little child shall lead them. Shall we say that that is the Christ Child? You know, in snowy Bethlehem? And another thing. ‘No crying he makes’. This is some baby!

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.

Where never lark, or even eagle flew —

And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee (1922-1941)