The Refugee Crisis in Europe

At the beginning of this month Archbishop Justin presented me and several other bishops with a Lampedusa cross. I own lots of crosses. Mostly they are made of precious metals and they are often beautifully decorated. But this cross is very different and very special.


Lampedusa is the port of arrival for migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Southern Italy. A local carpenter collects driftwood on the shore from boats that have broken up during the crossing and makes them into crosses. So my Lampedusa cross most likely comes from a boat whose occupants died on their perilous voyage across the sea. This cross speaks of suffering and death.

In a typical month over this summer, about 20,000 migrants arrived in Italy. Another 2,000 arrived each summer month in Greece[1]: it was far more before the EU-Turkey resettlement deal. In 2015 the number of refugees applying for asylum in the EU was 1.3 million.[2] That sounds a lot, and indeed it is. Though it is less than the 2.5 million Syrian refugees living in neighbouring Turkey. And only a small proportion of the 60 million displaced people worldwide.

Politically, migration has become a deeply troubling issue. The demand for ‘control of our borders’ was a key issue in the Brexit vote. Angela Merkel suffered electoral defeats at the hands of right-wing populists in protest at her ‘open doors’ policy on refugees. And in a recent vote in Hungary no less than 97% of those who voted rejected proposals for Brussels-imposed quotas of Syrian migrants.

It would be wrong to suppose that all those who are fearful of migration are unthinking or hard-hearted. I have met senior Christian leaders from some Eastern European countries who – no doubt influenced by national histories of oppression by occupying invaders – feel negatively towards mass migration from people of other religions and cultures. Nonetheless, it seems to me that a basic predisposition to care for the alien and the stranger is written deeply into the Christian faith. The Old Testament law is clear: ‘You are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.’ (Deuteronomy 10:19; Leviticus 19:34). And Jesus teaches that whatever we do for the hungry, the sick, the stranger or the prisoner we do for him (Matthew 25:44-45).

In a situation of crisis, Europe has so far failed to agree a coherent response. The result is that the poorest countries, especially Greece, are bearing the heaviest burdens. That is unacceptable. The EU has lately come to realise that member states cannot simply be compelled to take refugees. Jean-Claude Junker: “I remain attached to the idea that we need to answer the migration crisis with solidarity and the heart.”[3] That sounds like Europe has a spiritual problem. And it means there is a task ahead in changing hearts and minds.

Against a discouraging political background, our diocese’s recent conference on migration shed rays of hope and light. [4] We heard moving accounts of individuals from different parts of Europe who had personally helped refugees or welcomed refugee families into their homes. We learnt about the Sant Egidio programme which, in partnership with the Italian Government, provides a humanitarian corridor from Lebanon to Italy. We listened to stories about food programmes in Athens and milk programmes in Istanbul. In many cases, people had proved in their own experience how it was ‘more blessed to give than to receive’. We shared good practice. We received encouragement from a senior Advisor at the UNHCR. And we left feeling there were things we could do to show compassion, to help and to influence.

There is no silver bullet that will solve the refugee crisis. And there is no blueprint for action. The crisis is multi-faceted, hot spots come and go, the needs are constantly changing. But the Christian community has more assets to call on than it sometimes thinks. The Diocese in Europe has particular resources. Most of our people do not live in their home country. We know what it takes to settle successfully outside our home country, to learn a language and to adapt to the laws and customs of a foreign land. These are skills we can pass on to others whose journeys have been less comfortable and less freely chosen than our own.

The cross is a symbol of suffering. On the cross Jesus demonstrates compassion for all who suffer across the ages. The cross is also a symbol of judgement on sin and of triumph over death.

The stories of individual refugees are humbling and inspiring. Many of them have survived the most terrible and death-defying journeys to get to Europe. But to repel those fleeing conflict zones is a scandal. The refugee crisis is one of the great moral issues of our time. And we will be judged by God and by future generations on how we respond.