Strangers at the Gates: Welcoming the Migrant & Refugee

The Lampedusa Cross – made of wood from broken boats washed up on the shore on the Italian island. A constant reminder of the plight of refugees.

Last month I addressed the Gibraltar Archdeaconry Synod. I was grateful for the opportunity to speak on one of the most pressing ethical and political issues of our times. When we agreed the diocesan strategy in 2015, we included striving for the creation of a just society by defending the poor, the disadvantaged and those in need. Since then, our concern for work with migrants and refugees has become a real priority. Many chaplaincies throughout the diocese are involved in this work one way or another. At a European level, the crisis over refugees has been one of the most difficult and divisive questions that the EU has had to face in the last decade.

It has mostly been assumed that responsibility for welcoming and integrating refugees is mainly a state responsibility. But one of the most interesting developments in the last few years has been the creation of humanitarian corridors or humanitarian admission schemes in which private individuals or groups work together with government agencies to enable refugees to immigrate. This model is particularly well established in Canada, which has over the last 40 years welcomed some 300,000 refugees through private sponsorship programmes. In recent years, nearly half of all refugees to Canada have been privately sponsored. About 75% of Canadian sponsors are churches or faith-based NGOs.

The community of Sant’Egidio has been a leader in this field. In collaboration with the Italian Protestant Churches it has established a humanitarian corridor from Libya to Italy. UNHCR, in dialogue with the Italian Government, identifies families living in a camp in Libya who are eligible for relocation, perhaps because they are especially vulnerable or there are children at risk. Individuals in Italy sign-up with Sant’Egidio to sponsor and receive a migrant family. Welcome contracts are entered into, and the refugees are then flown legally and safely from Libya to a home and support network arranged for them in, say, Milan.

A humanitarian corridor is also being developed in France with Catholic and Protestant partners, and there are schemes underway in Germany and Ireland. In the UK, the Home Office is very interested in this kind of arrangement and is working with the Church of England amongst others on these kinds of partnerships. Three schemes are underway: the Gateway Protection programme, the Syrian Vulnerable persons resettlement scheme and the Vulnerable Children Resettlement Scheme.

In Belgium, where I live, all the main faith groups, including the Anglican Church, have committed to working with the immigration ministry to bring 130 vulnerable families from camps in Lebanon into Belgium. We Anglicans are a relatively small group, so our church has committed to sponsor one family, at a cost of €17,000. Just before Christmas the first two families from Lebanon arrived at Brussels Airport under this scheme, amidst a lot of excitement and publicity. Their arrival felt like a contemporary Christmas story!

The first two Syrian refugee families benefitting from the humanitarian corridor arrived in Belgium in December 2017. News coverage here.

Jesus said, “Come you who are blessed of my Father, for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” As a Diocese in Europe we are committed to making a difference for the lives of the refugees we find in our communities. Bishop’s Appeals have supported work with refugees. The last Advent appeal supported the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center, connected to our Episcopal sister church of St Paul’s Within the Walls, Rome. This year’s Lent appeal is going to our own new project in Calais. Here we are working with the Diocese of Canterbury and SPCG to fund a project officer and new chaplain to the Calais chaplaincy.

There are still many refugees and migrants in the areas around Calais and Dunkirk.

The photo above shows an Iranian family living in the woods near Dunkirk. Their story was reported here. The man is severely disabled and unable to walk or speak. The woman tells journalists that police had slashed their tents whilst clearing the woods overnight. She shows cuts in the fabric of the tent, which they have now abandoned. They are desperate to get to the UK where they think job prospects are better, but they seem to have no idea of border and migration policy.

I want to end with this thought. After Easter last year, I visited a refugee camp on the Serbia-Croatia border and was introduced to some of the children living there. The Serbs are very welcoming to refugees, because many of them know in their recent history what it is like to be displaced from your homes. These children are the future. We want the best for them, and what each of us chooses to do now will have long-term consequences. May God give us welcoming hearts to meet the strangers at our gate, and then invite them in.

The full text of my address to the Gibraltar Archdeaconry Synod is available here. In addition to the topic of private sponsorship, it deals with the confusion of definitions around ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’, explores some relevant biblical material and outlines five broad principles for engaging with the European refugee crisis.


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