I was a strager and you did not make me welcome – Mt 25:43 Reflection
The practice of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution in foreign lands is one of the earliest hallmarks of civilization. References to it have been found in texts written 3,500 years ago, during the blossoming of the great early empires in the Middle East such as the Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians and ancient Egyptians, all of whom figure in the Old Testament. In fact, the Bible is really the story of a migrant people who moved westward, and whose descendants, later, take refuge in Egypt, simply as economic refugees – needing to find food during famine. Of course centuries later this migrant people, led by Moses flee again, this time as what we would now call political refugees – because of a well-founded fear of religious persecution – and were eventually guided to what is today Israel / Palestine.
Over three millennia later, protecting refugees was made the core mandate of the UN refugee agency, which was set up to look after refugees, specifically those waiting to return home at the end of World War II.
The 1951 Refugee Convention establishing UNHCR (the United Nations Commission for Refugees) defined a refugee as someone 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 nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
Since then, UNHCR has offered protection and assistance to tens of millions of refugees, finding durable solutions for many of them. Today, global migration patterns are increasingly complex, involving not just refugees, but also millions of economic migrants . But refugees and migrants, even if they often travel in the same way, are fundamentally different, and for that reason are treated very differently under modern international law.
Migrants, especially economic migrants, choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families. (Such are the many thousands who emigrate from Ireland each year to find work). But refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom. They have no protection from their own state – indeed it is often their own government that is threatening to persecute them. If other countries do not let them in, and do not help them once they are in, then they may be condemning them to death – or to an intolerable life in the shadows, without sustenance and without rights.
Yet in spite of the recent deaths of refugees in the Mediterranean, which have been widely covered in the media, EU politicians continue to take a hard line on policy. Where is the real solidarity and hospitality that should mark wealthy nations? Ireland a country underpopulated by European standards should be able to welcome more asylum seekers. If the will was there, a way would be found.
People of faith must become more active to demand greater protection and humane treatment for those desperate enough to flee their own countries and all that is familiar, to end up as a stranger in a strange land. We are the only country in Europe not to offer asylum seekers the right to work and Ireland ranks among the lowest in granting refugees asylum. Government policy is shameful, but remember! We elect our Governments!
“In truth I tell you, in so far as yoou neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me,”