From 9/11 to 4,000,000 Displaced Syrians image

From 9/11 to 4,000,000 Displaced Syrians

Fourteen years ago today our church administrative assistant told me that a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center in New York. My initial response was to be somewhat nonplussed. I had never been to New York, wasn’t sure what the World Trade Center was, and had no sense of how big a deal this was – until we turned on the TV. Watching in real time as the twin towers smoked and then collapsed was a defining moment. It felt like the world had changed.

Since that fateful day the world has indeed changed. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were a direct consequence of 9/11 as is all that has subsequently unfolded in the rise of jihadi movements across North Africa and the Middle-East. Before 9/11 we were told it was Shi’ite terrorists we needed to fear; now it is the Sunni al-Qaeda and ISIS who send tremors through Western society. Fourteen years ago who would have guessed that an ‘Islamic State’ would have seized vast territories in Iraq and Syria, and today there would be millions of displaced Syrians, with hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to make their way into Europe?

The Syrian refugee crisis has been the big story of the past couple of weeks, with torrents of comment. These are dangerous waters to wade in with further opinion. One writer unafraid to do so is Alistair Roberts, posting on the Reformation 21 site earlier this week. Alistair has many helpful things to say, and his conclusions about practical actions Christians might take are especially useful. Nonetheless, there is something about the tone, as well as the content, of his piece that troubles me. My concern is that many who might benefit from his conclusions will give up reading before reaching them, due to the manner in which Alistair writes about refugees.

The Diana-fication of the British society has not been a good thing. There is an increasing tendency to mawkish sentimentality, facilitated by the power of social media. Alistair is right to highlight this problem, but his implicit accusation of the likes of Justin Welby being prone to it seems wide of the mark. Welby is a hard-nosed operator, with hard-won credentials of face to face negotiations with terrorists and hostage takers in some of the world’s most dangerous places. Alistair veers unpleasantly close to an apartheid-like attitude with his demand that refugees be kept in their ‘places’ rather than accommodated in Europe. By contrast, the appeal to open the doors of Europe by many Christian commentators, and by a growing segment of the public, is welcome: in the UK the general attitude towards migrants has been increasingly nasty, so I consider it no bad thing if a greater degree of welcome is being extended to Syrian refugees. Yes, there is doubtless some thoughtless sentimentality at play in many of the tweets and comments currently gaining traction, but I’d rather that than the defensive posture of ‘not our problem’ which has tended to be more the norm.

The tension in Alistair’s piece is summed up when he says,

While people have the right to migrate, no great onus lies upon European nations to open their borders to such persons. Rather, our primary moral course lies in restoring the refugees’ own places and assisting their neighbours in providing for them.

Here Alistair confuses (unintentionally or not) migrants and refugees. They are not the same category. ‘The average refugee’ (what, in God’s name, is an ‘average refugee’?!) might not be ‘seeking to enter countries such as Germany and Sweden…on account of their particular character as places’, but to claim they are doing so entirely, ‘because of their generous welfare states and employment prospects’ is terribly simplistic, and simply terrible. As a European, Alistair has the right to migrate to Germany, or Sweden, for lifestyle reasons; a Syrian refugee is fleeing the implosion of his or her country. Which means that, yes, there is considerable onus for European nations to open their borders to such refugees, and offer them safe haven.

It was beyond the socially acceptable pail to say it, but as soon as the war in Syria began I felt it was a policy mistake for the US, UK and other European nations, to encourage the overthrow of Assad. Assad is a monster, but despite his egregious assaults on his own people, under his rule minority groups were better protected than is the case now. (Assad himself being a member of the minority Alawites.) The sectarian violence unleashed in Iraq with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein should have provided ample warning of what can happen when a Middle-Eastern dictator is removed.

The refugee crisis is the current, visible problem for Europe, but it is the war in Syria that is the real problem – a war that is in large measure the making of the Western powers, and of our allies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. A war that allows Assad to barrel bomb his own people, while ISIS slaughters anyone not sharing their narrow ideology.

Where I agree with Alistair is that it would be best if the refugees could return home – something which (as I pointed out last week) at the moment many of them want to do. Once they are settled in their thousands in Europe, find work and put the kids into school, it is far less likely they will return to Syria, even once peace is established.

It seems to me, then, that the real issue at the root of the migrant crisis is not the sentimentality of popular response to images of drowned refugee children but the failure of our governments to display the will needed to confront and overcome ISIS. As long as that failure continues, opening the doors of welcome to refugees is an obligation we cannot shirk. That is not sentimentality, but hard reality.


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