Refugees, Migrants, and the New Covenant
First of all, we need to exercise some discretion with our terminology. A migrant is not the same as a refugee. The definition given by the UNHCR is that “Refugees are persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution”, while “Migrants choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives”. Governments have a responsibility to help refugees, and not return them to their county of origin, whereas how they handle migrants is much more a matter of domestic policy. But when is someone a refugee and not a migrant? Trying to make that distinction is what lies behind some of the crisis we are currently witnessing.
These are difficult times, and hard issues. Hard issues with a human face, as has been made most acutely obvious by #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik
In my Bible reading today I was in Jeremiah 31. It is a chapter of scripture with some beautiful promises for God’s people. Israel’s condition at this time didn’t fit neatly into either the migrant or refugee categories: rather, they were being taken as captives into a foreign land, but that must have felt similar to contemporary refugee experiences. Through Jeremiah YHWH promises that,
Behold, I will bring them from the north country
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
the pregnant woman and she who is in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back.
There is hope for your future,
declares the Lord,
and your children shall come back to their own country.
Hearing stories of refugees – pregnant refugees – who have walked from Syria to Germany makes these verses come alive in a fresh way; especially when those same refugees speak with tears about how they would love to be able to return from this ‘north country’ to their own country.
The promises of Jeremiah 31 are spoken to the people of Israel, but the larger context of the chapter is the new covenant that God promises to make: a covenant of changed hearts and forgiven sins – and this covenant will catch up all peoples of the earth, including Syrians, and Germans, Hungarians, Greeks, and Turks.
I do not in any way envy the politicians who are having to make the decisions on this one. I understand the caution of those leaders (like David Cameron) who know that migration is a toxic issue in their countries and want if at all possible to avoid taking more people in. It is understandable that this is causing rifts between neighbours; that the Hungarian prime minister should say that this is a “German problem” since Germany is where those arriving in the EU “would like to go” and that this should then generate a sharp response from other European leaders. It is understandable why our leaders might want to duck the issue and pass the buck.
But, as I read those verses in Jeremiah, and what they represent of God’s heart, and the incredible generosity of the new covenant, I can’t help but feeling that we should be welcoming the refugee with open arms, and at least treating the migrant with dignity. God has restored and welcomed us, surely, so far as we are able, we should do the same for our fellow man.