Welcoming the Stranger

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‘Welcoming the stranger’, is about embracing those new to our communities and society, regardless of the circumstances in which they have came to live here.

Due to a rise in global migration numerous people come to live in Northern Ireland for many reasons including to provide a different life for their families, to study or to work. Additionally, due to the rise of conflict zones throughout the world some people also arrive as a result of persecution, destruction and danger in their homeland, and are often resettled here at no request of their own. This increase in people living here from other nationalities and cultures presents the Church and wider society across Northern Ireland with amazing opportunities and challenges.                                                                                                                      

There are a lot of misconceptions and confusion when it comes to discussions around migration and immigration. Laws around immigration policy such as who gets to come into a country, how and why, have always been controversial. However, the UK-exit from the EU has polarised the debate even further and is unhelpfully used as a simplistic totem or short-hand for what is assumed to be someone’s views around immigration policy. The reality is obviously much more nuanced and how immigration policy in the UK unfolds in the years ahead remains to be seen. What we can be sure of is that the Church has the potential to play a vital role in this space.

Some terminology and statistics might be helpful at this point:

Definitions

  • Asylum Seeker: ‘A person who has left their country of origin and formally applied for asylum in another country but whose application has not been concluded’ 

  • Refugee: an individual ‘who has shown they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country and have been allowed to stay, usually for a period of five years, in the first instance’

  • Migrant: ‘A general term for anyone who has moved or been moved, either within their own country or across international borders’.

  • Migrant worker: ‘Someone who moves for work’

  • Immigrant: ‘Largely used to describe someone who arrives with the intention of settling long-term’

Statistics

  • There are 68.5 million displaced individuals worldwide, with 25.4 million being refugees, and 3.1 million being asylum seekers.

  • 11,118 Syrian refugees have sought asylum in the UK since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, this is 0.17% of the total number of refugees who have fled Syria.

  • There were 165,131 work related visas granted in the UK for the year 2017.

  • There were 223,536 study related visas granted in 2017 (excluding short term students).

  • Approximately 200-300 people come to Northern Ireland each year to seek asylum.

Definitions and statistics can remain impersonal if not earthed in the reality of human experience. One asylum seeker in Northern Ireland, ‘Tamar’ from Africa, is the mother of a six-year-old who is unable to walk, see or speak and has cerebral palsy. She is afraid that

if we were deported back to our home country, my daughter will be killed because people in my tribal group view my daughter and her illness as a curse’’.

As Christians, we have the wonderful opportunity, and responsibility, to welcome those new to our towns, cities, countries, and to show them the love of Christ. Deuteronomy 10:18-19 reminds us,

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.’

Indeed, throughout Scripture God’s people are reminded to be welcoming and hospitable to foreigners and strangers living among them, as Hebrews 13:1-2 tells us,

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it’.

We are called to reflect the love and grace of God to all people. We cannot and should not discriminate against anyone based on the language they speak, the religion they practice, the colour of their skin or the country they come from. There are many examples of those who left their homes, crossed borders and started new lives in foreign lands such as Abraham, Moses and Jacob. These individuals did not come to live in a new land under the same circumstances, but one common feature in each account was that God was part of their story in that new land, culture and community.

As we journey through Advent, we wait upon and celebrate Jesus, the most famous refugee in all of history. God, not of this world, born into human skin in a foreign land and fleeing persecution as an infant.

During this series we will be taking you on a journey from Greece, to Belfast and ending in your local church, placing this conversation in the context of our communities. This series is only a short introduction to a highly complex and contentious issue. There are legitimate differences of political opinion among Christians when it comes to what might be the best immigration policy, but as to how we are to treat the person made in God’s image in front of us, the conclusion remains disturbingly simple, ‘welcome the stranger’.

References

Embrace (2018), ‘Welcome! A church for everyone: helping churches welcome people from other cultures’.

Embrace and McNulty. M., (2018), ‘Refugees in Northern Ireland 2018: some basic facts’.

The Refugee Council, www.refugeecouncil.org.uk

The Home Office, www.gov.uk

The UN Refugee Agency, www.unhcr.org