Responding to the Refugee Crisis

Recently a friend and former student asked me what I thought about the backlash to the refugee crisis. Throughout the summer, we have seen heart-wrenching stories and moving images of desperate refugees from bombed out Syria. But in the wake of the outpouring of sympathy for Syrian refugees in the late summer of 2015, other voices have argued against taking refugees into European and other Western countries, because of the danger that ISIS might be sending Islamic warriors into Europe among the refugees. And when the refugees refuse to register in countries like Hungary, this seems to confirm the view that they are dangerous.

The truth is that I’m not sure I have a satisfying answer to this question. Truthfully, there are several interrelated issues that complicate this crisis:

1. The first issue is that EU policy mandates that asylum seekers (i.e. refugees) register in the EU country in which they first land. That’s usually Greece, Italy, Hungary, and (most recently) Croatia, and these countries are overwhelmed. Infrastructure is lacking and the people don’t have a mindset that embraces multiculturalism or taking in newcomers. Germany was the first country to abandon this unworkable mandate and declare they would take in refugees passing through other EU countries. This is why people don’t want to register in Hungary–they want to continue to Germany. I know if I had been ousted from my home and was looking for a temporary home or new start in Europe, I’d take Germany over Hungary or Greece. There’s just more opportunity there and–for the most part–a far more welcoming atmosphere. The problem is that as soon as refugees move on from the country of first entry to Austria or Germany or wherever else, they’re technically migrants, and many people in Europe and here suspect them of opportunism. When I see the images of destroyed Syrian cities and contemplate how difficult it would be to walk several hundred miles to find a secure environment with food and shelter, I can’t really subscribe to that view. Many or most of the refugees must be suffering from some form of trauma, and all they know is that southeastern European countries don’t want them, while Germany has invited them to come.

2. The second issue is that we really don’t know much about the refugees. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that some of them have terrorist backgrounds or intentions. We won’t know one way or the other until things start to happen. But judging from the reporting, so very many of the refugees seem to be genuinely seeking asylum. Many will want to return eventually, but many others won’t. So I think the basic question is: do EU countries respond in fear or with compassion? What is their level of comfort with the risks? And we’ve seen both responses–and changing responses–as the crisis has evolved.

3. To my mind, perhaps the most problematic issue for us in North America is that the massive amount of information we have about this and other crises (thank you, Internet and TV!) makes us aware of the heart-wrenching suffering of people all over the world, without us actually having much capacity to do much of anything about it. This is psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually challenging, and often makes us want to despair. It’s not that there’s more suffering today than there ever has been. There’s probably less. But now we know all about these human rights abuses, about the “collatoral damage” from war, about the impact of terrorism, about the destruction of flood and famine–about all this human suffering.

But realistically, you and I have no way of knowing if the Syrian refugees are all genuine and well-intentioned. We just don’t. And frankly, it’s not our problem–in the sense that we are not (most of us) given the responsibility of holding the levers of political power in our home countries. We have no power to change the big picture.

That said, I firmly believe it’s important to do what we can do: to give money to aid agencies responding to the crisis, to support organizations that work for human rights, and to explore if it’s possible for the communities we’re involved in (my church, in my case) can perhaps sponsor someone. The challenge is not to let the paralysis I feel about the big issues I can’t touch prevent me from doing something I can do.

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