Grief is not enough. We must open our doors as well as our hearts

25/10/2019

The Archbishop writes in the Observer today on the theme of trafficking and the need for a national policy of welcome...

Who knows why those thirty-nine victims were heading our way last week, only to die before reaching their destination?  Were they driven by fear, hope or both?  Were they refugees, or naive victims of criminal opportunists who were trafficking them?  At what point did it dawn on them that their cries for help in that grim container were going unheard.  Did it take hours for them to die, or was it days?

Essex police reported that eight of the victims were women and thirty-one were men. The National Crime Agency said it is trying to identify any "organised crime groups who may have played a part”.  Most of our questions will have to wait a long time for an answer.

In the meantime, when a young Essex woman heard the dreadful news, she brought some flowers to lay on the dockyard where the container had been.  It was all she could do: a deeply moving expression of fellow-feeling, which spoke for us all.  Last century the US President Woodrow Wilson wrote, "Benevolence does not consist in those who are prosperous pitying and helping those who are not. It consists in fellow feeling that puts you upon actually the same level with the fellow who suffers".

Many of the world’s religions share what we call the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated. It’s a universal template for right behaviour towards one another.

Ben Ryan, in his new book “How the West Was Lost”, compares various nations’ treatment of asylum-seekers, reminding us that in 2017 Germany, Austria and Sweden settled more than 3,000 refugees per million of their own population, compared with Britain and Bulgaria with 240 per million.  His thesis is that we need to recover our moral purpose of freedom, equality and solidarity – enshrined in the First Article of the UN Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. Yes! Equal in the eyes of God.  This means interdependency, inter-connectedness as members of One Race – the Human Race. We find our joy and human flourishing in company with others. And the Rule of Law should help us to put all our actions in check.

Each statistic conceals a human being. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) tells the story of Farouk who, aged 16, walked 10 days through a forest, crossed Iran in the boot of a car, braved the sea in a dinghy at night and endured months in detention.  On the way, he picked up five languages.  Farouk fled war in his home country of Afghanistan in early 2018. He crossed 10 countries overland, slept under bridges and finally wound up in Italy. He asked UNHCR how to reunite with his brother and sister living in the UK.  Now he’s training in London to be a plumber. 

Farouk could have been murdered, drowned, or died of hypothermia in his search for a worthwhile life. Back in 2000, 58 migrants suffocated in a lorry in Dover, having set off from China weeks before.  Each had paid £20,000 to a Chinese gang.  In 2015, the bodies of 71 people were found in an abandoned lorry on an Austrian motorway. Police suspected it was part of a human trafficking operation.  There have been thousands of such fatalities this century.  Human trafficking is a heinous crime of modern day slavery. We are all implicated in what some criminals are doing because of our common identity as human beings.

Ahmed Al-Rashid was an asylum-seeker from Syria, who has been reliving the nightmare of his journeys in the back of refrigerator lorries driven by people-smugglers in 2015.  Last week he told BBC News he had been “at the mercy” of the smugglers and the trucks were locked from the outside. “It was a matter of death or life for me,” he said, thinking of the carnage he had escaped in Syria. “If I go back to that situation at that exact time, the bombing and the shelling and the desperation, I think I would still do it.” Eventually he was granted asylum and permission for his wife and two daughters to join him in the UK.  “I’m extremely lucky because I’m alive and with my family and little angels. My heart goes out to those who lost their lives en route. Be kind, be the voices of the voiceless. Be a human being.” 

There’s a lurking suspicion that if Britain opens the door to more refugees, they will take the jobs of locals and destabilise the country. I think these fears are unfounded. A National Farmers’ Union survey reveals another story. It shows that a third of apple growers have been forced to leave 100 tons of fruit unpicked because of a lack of labour. Brussels sprouts, cabbages and cauliflowers are also at risk because of a labour shortage in the period leading to Christmas period. That’s because foreign workers have left, either through political uncertainty or because better wages are on offer elsewhere. 

There are unnecessarily bureaucratic obstacles in the path of refugees in the UK, holding them back from working when they are raring to go.  Here’s a typical quote from one of them:

“I want to work – I don’t want any more hand-me-downs. I want to enjoy the reward of my sweat. I don’t want to rely on the Government’s benefits – I want to work so I can prove myself to my children”.

I must declare an interest.  In Christ’s words, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”.  That was in 1974, when I was fleeing the regime of President Amin in Uganda.  So I know at first-hand what it’s like to depend on the fellow-feeling of British people, to be allowed to work for a Cambridge doctorate and to have the privilege of serving in the Church’s ministry here for 40 years. 

Experience tells me the British are not hard-hearted. We just need to turn today’s sentiments of sadness into a national policy of welcome. Becoming people with cool-heads and warm-hearts.