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4 May - Rev'd Dr Duncan Dormor - Hospitality in a hostile environment

Hospitality in a hostile environment



 By Rev'd Dr Duncan Dormor, USPG General Secretary




'When I needed a neighbour were you there? Were you there?

I was cold, I was lonely, were you there, were you there?‘

For generations of children, those simple, direct words with that memorable tune have always cut through - straight to the heart of the matter. And, across Europe, families are opening their homes and hearts to Ukrainian refugees, to women and their children as they flee violence and seek refuge. Churches have been at the forefront of this response, doing what they can – serving food, providing accommodation and transport, coordinating, accompanying, providing practical, emotional and spiritual care.

USPG has been deeply privileged to be a small part of this through its relationship with the Diocese in Europe, whose clergy and congregations have reached out in generosity and compassion over these last few weeks. Many congregations in the Diocese are used to this ministry of hospitality, for they have cared for the physical and spiritual needs of people on the move, especially over the last decade. Like all Christians, that ministry is rooted in the simplest of ideas - a love of neighbour - and the creation of a welcoming, hospitable environment, where people are accepted.  

Many of those who are UK based and want to help are discovering more directly the opposite – the hostile environment. Fruit of the bitter, xenophobic seeds that have been sown for years now; seeds of misinformation, distrust and fear-mongering pushed through the media and the quite deliberate creation of a ‘hostile’ rather than hospitable ‘environment’ towards refugees and asylum-seekers. An environment in which those arriving on boats are labelled as economic migrants - contrary to all the evidence: The overwhelming majority are asylum seekers. An environment in which fears of the numbers ‘flooding in’ and ‘swamping’ an already over-populated island are fed and nurtured; this despite the fact that the UK receives around a third of the number of asylum applications of countries like Germany, France and Spain. It is no surprise that the Home Office is not capable of dealing with the Ukrainian visa situation, and indeed is at the wrong end of a legal challenge. For the system is simply not designed to help, that has been precisely the point. It is as difficult to change the system and processes as it is to change the underlying habits and values.


And so to Rwanda…

I have to confess when I first glimpsed the story I assumed it was a piece of satire in the style of the BBC/HBO drama, Years and Years. Offshoring asylum seekers to Rwanda (the most densely populated country in mainland Africa) simply didn’t feature even in my imaginings for what post-Brexit’s ‘Global Britain’ might look like. Reality dawned cutting through my unbelief.

Happily, it is not simply over coffee after church on Sunday that outrage and disbelief have been expressed, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Durham and many others have condemned the government's proposals. This callous disregard of traditional British virtues - fair play, hospitality and decency – and the shredding of our reputation as a nation concerned with upholding international law cannot simply be rolled in a banner proclaiming a defence of these isles against the ‘threat’ posed by asylum seekers. It is a fundamental betrayal of the Christian values upon which our country was built. Unsurprising then that Bishop Paul Butler described the proposal as ‘state sponsored trafficking’. He is right.    

And then the timing. All this against the backdrop of the largest refugee crisis in Europe for decades. Unsurprising that the government has been highly elusive about whether Ukrainian nationals might end up outsourced to Rwanda. How do you articulate a response that seeks to treat those fleeing the war in Ukraine or escaping the political changes in Hong Kong differently from those fleeing conflict in Afghanistan or Syria? On what grounds are distinctions being made here?

‘Being there’ for our neighbour is a simple, but compelling idea and reality – whether that neighbour is local or global. That doesn’t mean that there are or should be no rules, rather that agreements should be followed, fair and proper process observed; truth told. There are over 84 million displaced people in this world, people forced to flee their homes, and the overwhelming majority are in countries adjacent to conflict zones, like Lebanon. A tiny proportion attempt to seek refuge on these islands of ours. It is time for us to fundamentally rethink our attitudes as a country to refugees and promote a hospitable rather than a hostile environment, to demonstrate to those who seek to represent us that we will no longer tolerate the sheer lack of humanity engrained in our approach to those who would seek refugee with us – those who are strangers, neighbours – and also sisters and brothers under the gaze of a generous God.

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