“JUST hit dry land in Dover.” These were not the words of a refugee, but of the former Brexit Party leader, Nigel Farage, last month, when he hired a fishing boat to track migrants in the English Channel coming to British shores.
Home Office figures state that about 450 people travelled to the UK in small boats between January and March, and Border Force data shows that there have been more than 1400 arrivals in 2020 to date.
Many victims of this desperate situation are unaccompanied children. Since the beginning of 2020, nearly 200 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arrived in dinghies. Kent, where we live and work, is the port of entry for many people seeking asylum in the UK. Kent County Council acts as corporate parent for 486 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children aged between 16 and 18 years old, and supports 900 young care-leavers aged between 18 and 25 years old. Through the National Transfer Scheme, children could be transferred to volunteering local authorities, if that acts in the best interest of the child, across the country. Only two handfuls of placements, however, have been resettled nationally.
In a time of lockdown, impending financial recession, and Brexit, we may be tempted to harden our hearts to strangers — but we should resist that temptation. Crossing the Channel in dinghies is the most dangerous way to find safety. It speaks of desperation, courage, and mourning. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says that thousands of lives have been lost trying to reach Europe. With an international effort to implement refugee resettlement around the world, each and every life lost could and should have been saved.
THE theme of this year’s Refugee Week is “Imagine”. To imagine that one of our children would make such an unaccompanied and life-threatening journey is unthinkable, and we cannot leave this situation to local authorities, or even governments. International co-operation is needed, but there are important steps that each of us can take.
The first is to recognise the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger and those most in need. Among the many examples are the exhortation in Deuteronomy 10: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”; and Jesus’s great call to acts of mercy in Matthew 25; “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Second, we should resist the temptation to demonise and dehumanise refugees as “invaders”. Dehumanisation has been the hallmark of atrocities throughout history, and we must stand up to it today. And, third, we should not only campaign nationally and internationally, seeking greater political change and calling for humanitarian corridors to provide safe routes to sanctuary, but also act locally.
One way to work locally is through the Community Sponsorship scheme, which was launched in July 2016 by the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Community Sponsorship enables community groups including charities, faith groups, churches, and businesses to support resettled refugees in the UK.
In the diocese of Canterbury, for instance, we are part of Canterbury Welcomes Refugees: a fully volunteer-led charity which was formed to resettle refugee families through Community Sponsorship. In November 2019, we welcomed the first community-sponsorship family. As a diocese, we work alongside asylum-seekers, refugees, NGOs, everyday heroes, and local and central government to respond to these current identified needs, such as online learning-support, advocacy, awareness-raising, food supply, and pastoral care.
TO TREAT the stranger with compassion, as human beings like ourselves, and to take action where there is injustice, are not optional: they are Christian duties. As the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, writes: “I am deeply moved and saddened to see the desperation of those who risk their lives and that of their families crossing the Channel, to seek asylum, to seek safety, to make a better life for themselves and their families; their attempts in seeking a new life speaks of courage.
“I am equally saddened by the lack of compassion being shown by those who would demonise them. Their courage is no different from the kind of courage that drove the British from these shores to make a new life when they went to New Zealand, Australia, the Americas, and the Caribbean. We should be spending our time and energy trying to work for a better world order, where poverty and war becomes a thing of the past, instead of using our time to hunt ‘invaders to our planet’.”
Despite being condemned for his “heartless” behaviour, and reminded by the police of lockdown travel restrictions, Mr Farage maintains that “The invasion will continue unless we act.” Yes, indeed, we need to act — but not in the way that Mr Farage imagines. We need courage — courage to welcome the stranger, humanity to have compassion, and bravery to fight injustice. It is time to act. This is not an option: it is a command from an incarnate God born into a refugee family — Jesus Christ.
Domenica Pecoraro is Kent Refugee Officer in Canterbury diocese. She works as part of Communities and Partnerships, a diocesan department committed to working for social justice, directed by the Revd Dr Jonathan Arnold.
For more information on this year’s Refugee Week, visit refugeeweek.org.uk.