Welcoming the Stranger: J&P Responds to the Refugee Crisis

2015 saw the flow of refugees to Europe, already creating tragedies in the Mediterranean, increase exponentially. We have become used to seeing the images of processions of desperate people streaming along roads, boarding trains and being blocked at borders, and hearing of the daily toll of deaths of people fleeing war, persecution and the impacts of climate change drowning in the seas in their attempts to reach Europe.
On 6 September 2015 Pope Francis called on ‘every parish, every religious community, every monastery and every sanctuary in Europe … to host a family…’. There was an outpouring of good will across the continent and in our own country, particularly after the images of the death of Alan Kurdi were picked up by the media. This forced the UK government, slow to react to calls to take in more refugees on the grounds that it was by far the biggest funder of aid in the refugee camps in countries bordering Syria, to promise to resettle 20,000 vulnerable refugees from the camps in the UK over the next 5 years, i.e. about 4,000 per year.
In response to this the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales asked for a someone to be appointed in each diocese to co-ordinate offers of help and support and to work with the civil authorities to assist in the welcome of those being brought in as part of the resettlement programme. Several of those co-ordinators are Justice and Peace workers or commissions, while other J&P people have been getting involved in their local areas. As we enter 2016, what has been the experience so far, and what is needed as we go forward?
There has been a generous response financially and in offers of help, but how best to direct this help has been an issue.
In relation to the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), dioceses are working with Local Authorities who are responsible for resettling the refugees. Liverpool is aiming to set up local support groups to co-ordinate activity on the basis of local authority areas. Volunteers will be needed to create welcoming communities for these refugees.
While initially much attention was given to offering accommodation, spare rooms are not necessarily appropriate for those under the VPRS, and rules relating to accommodating refugees can make this difficult. Arundel & Brighton diocese are hoping to appoint a Project Worker to look at setting up hosting schemes and other ways to utilize offers of support.
However, as well as being woefully inadequate as a response to the scale of the need, the resettlement programme does raise the question, are we creating two classes of refugees, with asylum seekers already here facing delays, obstacles and destitution either because of failures in the system, or because their claim has been refused and they are appealing the decision? People are therefore being encouraged to support the many projects already in existence around the country by e.g. befriending, language classes, drop-in centres, material help – to find out more go to your diocesan co-ordinator (links below) or J&P contact or contact NJPN.
Others have been working to offer support to those on the move and in camps across Europe, and particularly those in Calais. Southwark and Westminster J&P have been supporting a group, ‘Seeking Sanctuary’ which has been helping migrants in Calais for some time. People are generally encouraged to give financial help, which can be done via CAFOD and CSAN. If you wish to donate material goods or volunteer to help, the website www.calaisaid.co.uk has updates of current needs and how to organise goods.
Over recent months we have seen the initial popular outpouring of sympathy for those trying to move across Europe turn to fear and xenophobia as the European Union has failed to rise to the challenge of a coherent response to welcome and resettle them, focussing rather on how to keep people out. As well as a practical challenge, this also raises questions about the fundamental values of the European Union and the UK. So there is a need for Justice and Peace people to engage with politicians to seek a just response to what is a long-term issue. In a letter to David Cameron from several NGOs in January these principles were set out:
-The UK should take a fair and proportionate share of refugees, both those already within the European Union and those still outside it.
-Safe and legal routes to the UK, as well as to the European Union, need to be established.
-There should be access to fair and thorough procedures to determine eligibility for international protection wherever it is sought.
Read the full letter here, and use it to write to your MP/MEP