THE Synod held an emergency debate on the migrant crisis. While the item had been placed on the agenda, the wording of the motion was not circulated until close to the start of Synod, to ensure that it remained topical.
Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, co-chair of the National Refugees Welcome Board, described the scale of the problem as immense. He told the Synod that there were “around 60 million people forcibly displaced in the world. They become refugees through persecution, violence, and war.
“In Burundi, over 200,000 have fled the country, and tens of thousands are internally displaced since the violence that began in April. The story goes unreported here, because they will not arrive in Europe. But eight million internally displaced in Syria, and four million who have fled into Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, then some on to Europe — that directly affects us.
“So, too, those fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, and Southern Sudan; 800,000 have arrived in Europe this year, and around 3200 have died trying to reach Europe. The numbers are approximate. But God knows exactly how many there are. God knows every one of them by name, he counts every hair on their heads, each one made in God’s image and someone for whom Christ died.”
He said that the public mood in Britain was easily changed by the latest news. “It seems an age since the picture of the body of a three-year-old boy, washed up on a Turkish shore, marked a decisive shift in the public mood,” he said. “Then, the horror of 129 people killed in Paris in one night, and perhaps another shift in the public mood.”
The Bishop welcomed the Government’s “impressive lead” in providing aid to the refugees and internally displaced people in the region, and said that “the challenge would become less daunting” if other countries followed suit. “There would be more hope of people believing they can make a life within the region,” he said.
He wanted “reassurance” that the Government’s resettlement programme would be “fair to all, including Christians. . .
“The compassion which compels us to help the refugee will be blind to the differences of creed as [it is] to colour or any other characteristic. For all that, it is right that we uphold the right of our fellow-Christians to fair treatment. Whether or not they are in refugee camps, easy or hard to find, they must suffer no discrimination as UNHCR seeks out those in greatest need of resettlement.
“Those whose suffering is exacerbated by religiously motivated persecution deserve to have that factor given full weight in the calculation of need.”
The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Caroline Spelman MP, said that Britain had already granted asylum, or leave to remain, to some 5000 Syrians since the civil war began, and was able to expand this programme because of the commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of national income on aid.
“This means £1.1 billion is being spent on refugees in situ, including 18 million food rations,” she said. The Government wanted to involve the Church in its plan to resettle refugees, and gave examples of Christians’ offering their spare rooms, to teach English, and to provide secure tenancies. “We can also advocate for our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the Archbishop of Canterbury has already raised the issue of Christians in Syria.”
She also raised the “fear and resentment” felt by some. Constituents had written to insist that no more migrants be accepted into Britain, Ms Spelman said. “We should extend the hand of friendship to those already here, and those who come to seek safe haven, as the Holy Spirit requires of us.”
Bishop Angaelos (Coptic Orthodox Church) recounted his experience of visiting both Iraq and refugee camps on the border between Greece and Macedonia. “In their words, they have become used to quick deaths by bombs and bullets, but are now dying slow deaths in this journey,” he said.
As Archbishop Welby had said, working together was not a choice but an obligation. “There is no Church of the East and Church of the West, but one body, and it suffers equally. We need to approach this collaboratively.” This was also a “golden opportunity” to show the Church’s compassion and self-sacrifice.
The Vice-Chair of the House of Laity, Tim Hind (Bath & Wells), said that to solve current issues the Synod needed to look to the past, and hailed the work of Near Neighbours, a Church of England programme that makes grants for efforts to build cohesion in diverse communities. “Some of the issues that are resolved by these projects have been caused by a lack of attention to the integration of migrants in the past. We need to learn from mistakes that have been made before,” he said.
The Archbishop of Canterbury supported the motion, but hoped that the Synod would recognise its implications: the motion, and in particular paragraph D, “essentially commits us to supporting use of armed force overseas. To create safe ways and routes to places of safety must include some kind of forceful response. It is almost impossible to see how it can be done otherwise.”
He reminded the Synod that the Lords Spiritual would shortly be compelled to consider their response to a government proposal to extend the bombing campaign across into Syria.
The Church must listen carefully to the “powerful words” of Bishop Angaelos and his colleagues from the Middle East, “that the ideal situation is not simply to create a drain for people of these countries to escape, but also to create the means by which they can stay in prosperity, flourishing, and safety. The implications of that for the commitment of this country and others in the coalition are absolutely enormous.”
The Church must not only be prepared to commit money and resources to welcoming refugees, but “also recognise that, in much of the Levant and the Middle East, and in many other parts of the world, like north-east Nigeria and Burundi, and other places, the forces that are driving people out into being refugees may need to be confronted in the same way.”
The international community must face the fact that, just as the French police had had to go into the Bataclan to deal with the terrorists who had taken it over, there might be a need, in some parts of the world, to challenge people who had “not taken a theatre, but a whole section of land, and are using it to wreak the most terrible havoc and cruelty”.
The Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn (Deans)sought to amend paragraph B of the motion to say that the Synod “acknowledged” rather than “welcomed” the Government’s response. The Church’s response to the commitment to taking 20,000 refugees had not been one of welcome, he said. There had been a “huge amount of disappointment”, and “a sense of frustration”.
Bishop Butler resisted the amendment. The Government was putting “more aid than almost any other nation on earth” into the refugee camps. “That cannot just be acknowledged, but welcomed,” he said.
Canon Giles Goddard (Southwark) had an amendment to “call upon the Government to take a fair and proportionate share of refugees now within the EU, particularly those with family already legally resident in the UK”. He said that his amendment “makes explicit what is implicit in the motion”. Bishop Butler accepted the amendment.
The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Trevor Willmott (Canterbury), welcomed the motion. He spoke of the connections between his diocese and the RC diocese that included the so-called “Jungle” in Calais.
He warned that people in the UK were sending stuff to Calais that “nobody knows how to handle”, and that was causing volunteers to “lose heart completely”. The diocese intended to appoint a person to work in Calais to co-ordinate and support these volunteers, in January.
Gavin Oldham (Oxford)welcomed the reference to “refugees” rather than “migrants”. He argued that the situation of migration in Europe was “more complicated than purely a refugee situation”, and was caused by the “non-functionality” of the eurozone, whereby exchange rates determined where people sought to go.
Canon Goddard’s amendment was clearly carried, and debate resumed on the motion as amended.
The Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, Dr Robert Innes,said that the burden of migration was felt “very differently in different places”, and the heaviest burden was borne by the poorest EU states. He urged Europe to work together, for better co-ordination among Christians, and “deeply theological reflection on the causes and nature of migration”.
Jamie Harrison (Durham)warned that to be truly welcoming meant more than tolerating. It could be costly, and would put pressure on the health-care system, schools, and housing: “People complain when people come in later in the day, to take what is theirs, as they see it.” He concluded: “We have so many resources which we should and can share.”
Elliot Swattridge (Church of England Youth Council) said that he was shocked at the xenophobia and racism that he had found online regarding refugees. “It’s made me deeply ashamed to call myself British,” he said.
Prebendary Stephen Lynas (Bath & Wells) said that the motion did not address the deep hostility felt towards migrants, especially as expressed in the press. He recalled his gap year during the ’70s, when he worked in a refugee resettlement camp in Kent assisting Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin.
“It was a Heath Conservative government who had organised the airlifting of thousands of refugees,” he said. “The response was very different from what we are seeing at the moment.”
Canon Deborah Flach (Europe) said that Europe was facing “unprecedented pressure”. In Lille, where she lives, charities needed, above all, money and long-term volunteers, not more donated clothes.
Dr Megan Warner (London), a recent migrant from Australia, said that she was sad to discover a similar rhetoric around immigration to that in her home country. God’s people had always been refugees, as they had been when fleeing slavery in Egypt, she reminded the Synod. “It is for us to live as aliens and not to alienate others.”
“The crisis — which erupted suddenly, if the media is to be believed — was actually many years in the making, and will require a response lasting years and decades,” the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, told the Synod.
“People of Syria are still at the mercy of the regime’s barrel bombs; still forced to watch beheadings and crucifixions of family members and kinsfolk at the hands of Isis; still forced to pay the jizya tax as humiliated minorities; still, in increasing numbers, experiencing the deadening experience in refugee camps.”
He congratulated the Government for its humanitarian response, which, he said, was second only to the United States; but he described the global response as “lamentable”.
“The amount raised fell from 71 per cent [of the need] in 2013 to a mere 37 per cent by October this year.”
The Revd Jonathan Macneaney (Chelmsford) spoke of his recent visit to see refugees on the Serbian/Croatian border, where approximately 5000 refugees were crossing every day.
“My abiding memory will be of smiling children lining up waiting to get on buses to be taken to their next destination, and of their very relieved but exhausted-looking parents,” he said. “It was a great sadness that, a week after we returned, we learned that razor wires had come up, the rain had come down, and the refugees were now travelling through knee-deep mud, being told that 20 miles in one direction or another they might find an open border.”
The motion was put to the vote, and carried by by 333 nem. con., with three recorded abstentions:
That this Synod, recognising that almost 60 million individuals have been forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict or generalised violence, a fifth of them because of the tragic conflict in Syria, and noting the compassionate response of British people to the suffering and needs of those displaced by conflict and other causes:
(a) urge parishes and dioceses to work closely with local authorities and other community partners, to provide practical and sustainable resources and structures for the resettlement of vulnerable refugees and to pray for all those seeking to address the causes as well as the symptoms of this crisis;
(b) welcome both the scale of the aid provided by Her Majesty’s Government to those suffering as a result of the conflict in Syria and its decision to resettle vulnerable Syrian refugees, while calling on it to increase the number significantly beyond its initial target of 20,000 over five years;
(c) call upon the Government to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to ensure that vulnerability to religiously motivated persecution is taken into Britain; (d) call upon the Government to work with international partners in Europe and elsewhere to help establish safe and legal routes to places of safety, including this country, for refugees who are vulnerable and at severe risk; and
(e) call upon the Government to take a fair and proportionate share of refugees now within the EU, particularly those with family already legally resident in the UK.