Opinion

Archbishop of Canterbury: We all benefit from the gifts that refugees bring

"Refugees are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. They are taking the deep blue sea, and taking their children with them"

It was a bright September morning in Canterbury when I bumped into a member of the clergy pushing a trolley full of clothes, blankets and toys. I asked her what she was doing. “Oh, these are donations from local churches,” she replied. “We’ve got four carloads to take across to Calais.”

That was a few weeks after the harrowing image of three-year-old Aylan al-Kurdi laying drowned on a beach in Turkey sent a shockwave of grief and shame around the world.

The scale of the problem we are facing as a global human family is astonishing. More than half a million people have crossed the Mediterranean and Aegean so far this year. They are fleeing war, persecution and deprivation in Syria and Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea, and other countries.

It is a desperate, awful, terrible existence. You leave home when the alternative is death

As the number of people arriving in Europe continues to rise, nearly 3,000 people making the journey have drowned like Aylan or gone missing. My experience, having worked in this area for many years, is that you very seldom meet people who want to be refugees.

It is a desperate, awful, terrible existence. You leave home when the alternative is death. In the Levant and Mesopotamia, families are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. They are taking the deep blue sea, and taking their children with them.

In the face of such enormous suffering, that trolley of clothes and toys in Canterbury may seem trivial. But it tells a story about how churches, charities and individuals are answering the call of those who need our love and care, as we have done so many times in the past.

The people of these islands have a long and wonderful history of offering shelter – whether it be Huguenot Christians, Jewish refugees, Ugandan Asians, Vietnamese boat people or many, many others.

The Church of England, not always without controversy, has been at the forefront of calls for the UK to be just as generous again in welcoming refugees. We understand the complexity of the situation can see public opinion shift from generous to fearful, and back again. Our best impulses clash with our deepest fears.

We know too that political leaders have a profoundly difficult task on their hands – both in gauging public opinion on this issue, and in formulating a response that is just and achievable.

As we urge the UK government to do all it can to help refugees, we recognise our major contribution to global aid. So far we are the only G7 country to honour its commitment to ring-fencing 0.7 per cent of gross national income for foreign aid.

So as Christians we’re not just raising our voices – we are doing what the church always does: putting the love of Christ into action. Those Calais-bound cars were just the beginning: there is so much more to be done.

Alongside other churches and faith communities, the Church of England is working closely with the government and local authorities to formulate a plan for resettling them. The families coming to us from Syria will be among the most vulnerable and traumatised people affected by this crisis.

Churches in the UK are also intensively involved with other community groups providing practical help and accommodation to refugees. Meanwhile, our Anglican sister churches in Europe are providing emergency relief in Greece, Serbia and Hungary.

All of this goes to the core of our faith as Christians. We’ve received such love from Jesus Christ (who as a child was himself a refugee) that we’re compelled to share it with others – particularly those who Jesus cared especially for: those cast to the margins of society. Our message is this: “Because Christ loved us, we love you.”

The families coming to us from Syria will be among the most vulnerable and traumatised people affected by this crisis

But even as we start to welcome those first refugees from the Syrian camps, there are still doubts and fears. Do we have room? Do we have the money? Will our communities fragment? Are we putting ourselves at risk? These questions are all valid and vital – they must be asked, and answered as best we can.

They also point to a deeper and perhaps more urgent question, however: as a country, do we have the emotional and spiritual capacity to welcome those who need our help in the months and years ahead?

I pray that we do have that capacity – the same capacity we’ve had for centuries when people have turned to us in crisis. It’s always been controversial at the time. It’s always been seen as too difficult. Yet each time we have risen to the challenge and benefitted from the gifts those coming to us bring.

This is a moment for all of us in the UK to demonstrate our shared humanity with those for whom daily life has become dominated by fear, violence and suffering.

@JustinWelby

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