REFUGEE CRISIS: THE CHURCH PREPARES TO RESPOND.
On 9 September, the Archbishops of Westminster and Southwark pointed out that we need to be prepared to respond to this widespread crisis over a long period, recognising our shared common humanity. All can contribute and play a part to help support the most vulnerable by prayer, financial support, offers of time and skills and of shelter and accommodation: a warm welcome can be the most simple and yet effective of gifts.
Responses are being coordinated in each diocese, in most of which a coordinator has been nominated. The list of their names indicates a strong reliance upon individuals well known in networks for Justice and Peace, Caritas Social Action and the Society of St Vincent de Paul.
Their vision is that of the Conference of European J&P Commissions. This lists three key themes for building welcoming societies: addressing fears as well as giving hope; moral leadership; and a long- term vision for society. We need to offer concrete facts and broader perspectives, responding to fears and addressing arguments against being welcoming; to promote a welcoming society, first asking vulnerable or at-risk people what they need; and finally to support and encourage politicians and opinion makers in making statements and advancing policies which support development of welcoming societies. On practical UK matters, John Battle and the Jesuit Refugee Service provide valuable advice.
Within the UK the implications of David Cameron’s comment that we would take the most vulnerable remain unclear. Should we prepare to welcome families or individuals; the fit or the handicapped; the elderly or the young? The National J&P Network highlights the possibility of offering shelter to people with no recourse to public funds or emergency housing. It also offers a sample letter to MPs expressing concern that the Syrian refugee programme must be properly resourced and funding not diverted from other important budgets, such as overseas aid.
Likewise, the SVP is developing advice nationally, pointing out that there are already many immigrants living among us, many regularly attending Mass: they are equally deserving of welcome and inclusion. Not to mention those who are detained in various Centres, obvious candidates for the ministry of visiting and listening.
Work around the country is at various stages of advance varying locally. For example, Arundel and Brighton has taken care to understand what actions are planned by other denominations in order to join them where appropriate and avoid needless duplication. Bishop Richard Moth’s pastoral letter suggesting ways to give practical help has met with an enthusiastic response. A “Ways You Can Help Database Form” has been widely distributed to get reponses from parishes and individuals. The Hallam diocese lists a number of groups already working together across of Sheffield, where the J&P Commission has links and supports campaigns and events.
In Lancaster a series of articles appeared in ‘Faith & Justice News’ to present our bishops’ national proposals, alongside an account of a visit to the USA/Mexico border. Similarly, an edition of the e-bulletin for J&P in the Lancaster, Liverpool, Salford, Shrewsbury and Wrexham dioceses features articles to encourage reflection. One tells a story from Vietnam, another outlines Italy’s reception of Albanians in 1991 and a third comments upon the likely effects of climate change in forcing migration. They note that the Crowded House song “Help is Coming” is re-released to raise funds for Syrian refugees, accompanied by a moving video. This has an introduction from Benedict Cumberbatch, who quotes a poem by Somalian Warsan Shire: “No-one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark … No-one puts their child in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
In Southwark, Archbishop Peter Smith joined a rally of solidarity in Calais together with the Anglican Bishop of Dover and the Bishop of Arras, whose diocese includes Calais. They signed a statement repeating calls for people to respond to the growing crisis by showing generosity to those who are exiled. They say that, “These vulnerable men, women and children share in our common humanity and everyone can help them to live in dignity and contribute to civil society”. They agree that we can pray and gather information to support pleas for better treatment in our nations and across the European Union, pointing out that “We wish to counter the myths that lead to prejudice and fear and urge politicians to envisage new policies that go beyond merely closing frontiers and employing increased numbers of security staff”.
The Westminster diocese Caritas is developing plans to provide refugees with accommodation and services, co-ordinating a response to the call to offer long-term support, and ensuring that people are met with a warm welcome as they arrive. Volunteers are being sought in parishes who can offer their time, skills and dedication to work towards these aims. Examples include: ESOL (English as a Second Language) teaching; Legal advice; Medical services; Befriending; Basic necessities. The J&P Commission supports this process, asking people to go further than just providing cash, blankets and clothes, and sign a statement calling for a better government approach. The J&P worker has visited Calais and reported back on the dire situation there.
Quite a few parish meetings have been held in Liverpool. The crucial question seems to be whether or not we limit our response to the “government approved group” or recognise the greater need of very many immigrants who are now our neighbours.
Other questions include those that affect parishes across the whole country:
• How can we organise in preparation?
• Where is there suitable property to offer accommodation?
• Is anyone able to offer accommodation to a family?
• Is anyone able to offer accommodation to an individual?
• Who has time to offer in support of new arrivals?
• Who can offer food and basic necessities?
• Who can interpret the language of new arrivals?
• Which other local groups are preparing in a similar way?
• What is the link with the local council?
• Does the parish need a team to coordinate responses?
• How do we acknowledge and deal with worries and fears?
The diocesan website has links to background information to to help those coming fresh to this area of mission, and a mapping exercise is under way to identify resources that can be offered. The clear intention is to work with other faith communities and the local authorities to coordinate a response and maintain conversations with several organisations in the region that have extensive experience of working with asylum seekers and refugees.
From the above snippets of information provided through the National Justice & Peace Network (NJPN), it is clear that generous responses are emerging, with offers of presbyteries, access to social housing, translation skills, legal advice, clothing, food, money, friendship. The challenge is to coordinate these responses and maintain the enthusiasm of the early reactions.
Collated by Phil Kerton