Christmas 2015: A humanitarian challenge to us all
The Christmas story itself is a disturbing and uncomfortable account of conflict, displaced families and refugees in the very region that is a humanitarian challenge today
There is an old adage that says “charity begins at home”. Unfortunately, this is often a flippant excuse for people who remain unwilling to support charities even when they are home-based. With a touch of irony, these same people often object too to paying taxes that might benefit those who otherwise find themselves depending on charitable support.
Yet one of the grim lessons of 2015 is that charity knows no boundaries and that bounty and generosity must know no borders. Figures from the United Nations last week show that the number of people forced to flee war, violence and persecution in 2015 has surpassed the record 60 million recorded last year. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that so far this year almost a million people have crossed the Mediterranean as refugees and migrants, and conflicts in Syria and elsewhere are “continuing to generate staggering levels of human suffering”.
These figures mean that one in every 122 people in the world has been forced to flee their home. “Never has there been a greater need for tolerance, compassion and solidarity with people who have lost everything,” says Antonio Guterres of the UNHCR. The Anglican bishop in the Diocese in Europe, David Hamid, has described the refugee crisis as the greatest humanitarian challenge faced by Europe since the end of World War II. “The numbers of people on the move have not been seen for over 70 years.”
During the first six months of this year, at least five million people were newly displaced, with 4.2 million of them remaining inside their countries and almost 840,000 crossing borders. This is the equivalent of 4,600 people becoming refugees every day. The main factor in shaping these figures is the war in Syria which has created up to five million refugees this year.
Turkey has become the new migration gateway into Europe with large numbers of Syrians arriving in Greece each day, accompanied by a huge influx too from Afghanistan and Iraq. This year has seen a 20-fold increase over last year of migrants and refugees crossing the Aegean Sea alone – 800,000 and still counting. For far too long, the countries of northern and central Europe have allowed Greece and Italy to be the breakwaters for waves of refugees from unstable, unfree or war-torn countries.
In the past two decades, more than six million people have applied for asylum in the EU. By the end of this year, Germany is expected to take in one million asylum-seekers. The work of the Irish Naval Service in the Mediterranean has been heroic. But the negative response of three Eastern states in particular beggars belief: after the collapse of Communism, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic produced the second-largest wave of economic migration to Europe in the last 20 years.
The UNHCR figures, published just a week before Christmas, are challenging and discomforting. But the Christmas story itself is a disturbing and uncomfortable account of conflict, displaced families and refugees in the very region that is a humanitarian challenge today.
The Christmas story begins with a displaced couple from Galilee finding there is no room at the inn in Bethlehem. There they are visited by wise men who travel from what is now Iraq across desert, rock and snow to a humble, temporary dwelling on the West Bank, and in the words of TS Eliot find :
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
This family is soon forced by the murderous plans of a cruel tyrant to seek refuge in Egypt. Even when they return, Saint Matthew’s Gospel recounts, it is not safe for them to settle near Jerusalem and they move once again to Nazareth. Indeed, before the drawing of modern political borders in the Middle East in the 20th century, the hymn-writer John Greenleaf Whittier placed Christ’s life story “beside the Syrian sea”.
From the very beginning, the Bible is a shared story of forced exile, asylum and refugees. It is a story that begins with Abraham, a wandering Aramean, and that continues with exile in Egypt and in Babylon. Yet it always remains a story of hope and return, of compassion and love, of freedom and long yearning for peace and justice.
The poet Ursula Vaughan Williams sums up the hope at Christmas for an end to the world’s misery and for an outpouring of love and joy with the birth of Christ, in words written for Hodie, the Christmas cantata and last major composition by her husband, Ralph Vaughan Williams:
Promise fills the sky with light,
Stars and angels dance in flight;
Joy of heaven shall now unbind
Chains of evil from mankind,
Love and joy their power shall break,
And for a new born prince’s sake;
Never since the world began
Such a light such dark did span.