“Forced displacement is in the Bible, but few Christians understand what that means for how we treat people”

Tom Albinson (International Association For Refugees) analyses the 2020 refugee crisis. He believes churches are key “to open the door” and help asylum seekers integrate in a new culture.

Jonatán Soriano , Evangelical Focus

MINNESOTA · 23 JUNE 2020 · 16:22 CET

A view of the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. / Photo: courtesy <a target="_blank" href="https://www.eurorelief.net/">EuroRelief</a>, author: Salomé Wiedmer,
A view of the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. / Photo: courtesy EuroRelief, author: Salomé Wiedmer

There are 79.5 million people displaced from their homes in the world. 30,000 new people are displaced every day. Right now, 1 in every 97 people in the world has been forcibly displaced.

These are the figures made public by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in early 2020. Organisations working with refugees, such as the Christian group International Association for Refugees (IAFR), are trying to offer solutions to this dramatic situation.

Governments are starting to look away from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights they signed and honoured. And that is a very dangerous development”, Tom Albinson, founder and president of IAFR, told Evangelical Focus in an interview from Minneapolis (US).

For Albinson, the church needs to “wake up” in the issue of refugees. He quotes Matthew 25 as he explains how Christians should become more aware of how “the new society of Jesus” looks like when it comes to strangers.

But there are also “amazing examples of church engagement”, he says. “I know of many in Germany, Bosnia, Switzerland, France and other places. There are churches deeply engage in loving and welcoming refugees and asylum seekers in Europe but they are not calling attention to what they are doing”.

Last Saturday 20 June, the World Refugee Day was celebrated, and the attention was put on what now are again crowded refugee camps in Lebanon, Lesbos (Greece) and other regions of the world. Millions are experiencing the harsh reality of loss and a deep uncertainty about the future for themselves and their families.


Question. We are celebrating World Refugee Day but the feeling is that we are, at best, stagnant and, at worst, facing challenges which are bigger now than before. How do you perceive the current situation?

Answer. There is no doubt that the situation of refugees is increasingly and rapidly getting worse. The numbers of forcibly displaced people in the world (including refugees, asylum seekers and entirely displaced people), has more than doubled in the last decade. So, the situation is getting worse, not better.

I think often about how Europeans or the Western nations perceive the crisis based on how many people are crossing the borders of their country. But four fifths of the world’s refugees are in developing countries.

Turkey carries a huge load, but European countries and North America actually share very little of the burden when it comes to caring for forcibly displaced people.

Q. The world has experienced many migratory movements in the past. However, sometimes we have the feeling that is a problem exclusively of the 21th century. For example, here in Europe with the Mediterranean crisis, or in Central America with the caravans, or the Rohingyas’ massive displacements in Southeast Asia. How related is our human existence and the migratory phenomenon?

A. I would ask the question, is migration a problem? Or is that a normal part of human history? For Christians, our book starts with God telling us to be fruitful, to multiply and fill the earth. God was telling men to go forth and fill the earth, to migrate, to move. When we look at this issue from this perspective, migration itself is not a problem.

However, we also have to consider why people are moving. And there are different kinds of migrants. There are those who go from one part of their country to another, looking for a job. There are migrants from one country to another country looking for jobs and opportunities.

But there are also people who are forced to flee their countries because of war, persecution or gross violations of human rights. These are forced migrants, these are refugees and asylum seekers. They are not going anywhere to get something, they are running away from something. That is really important to distinguish, and that is where the crisis today is. The world’s refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people are fleeing, they are not choosing it. So when they get somewhere they are just looking for safety, and I think the challenge in the world today is how do we help one another to care for this growing number of people who have to flee their countries to survive - and cannot return home.

Q. A few decades ago we were talking about displaced people because of a war or local oppression. Now we have incorporated other concepts, such as climate refugee or migrant.

A. That is right. Climate change is moving people. Quite often as desert grows, it pushes people out of lands where they used to have cattle or farms. They are pushed outside the borders of what people called home or ancestral homes. Or as the seas rise, people are being pushed inside the same country into other people’s spaces. And generally, climate change is a cause but the reason people are fleeing is because this has often led to conflict (because of perceived threats) or to oppression by governments or by ethnicities in these regions that have not had a good relationship over time. So climate is certainly a new factor that is pushing people together.

But another issue that is having a great impact is that while numbers grow, fewer nations are willing to help them. So we got some of the wealthiest nations, including my own, that are pulling away funding that is intended to help keep refugees alive, and this is further increasing their vulnerability. The situation worsens, and there are very few places to go - if any. So this people spend decades displaced, not getting food to survive. That leads to increasing hopelessness

I would also say that the United States and some European countries are no longer paying as much attention to human rights as before. All of our nations have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and right now most countries are saying it is difficult to guarantee the basic human right of seeking asylum. But this is Article 14. And there are other documents these nations have signed as well. The source of these documents was the aftermath of World War II. When mostly Western nations realised that there were many Jewish people who were seeking protection but were being pushed back. And the world said: we can’t ever let that happen again. So they created the Human Declaration of Human Rights, to make sure we could stand up and say all human beings have certain rights.

Now many countries are looking away and it seems to be a contagion that spreads, it is a dangerous thing. Asylum seekers or refugees, people who are seeking refuge in another country, see how now many countries are saying that they can’t even come there to ask for safety. And send them to another country. So whether it is Libya, or Rwanda, or Mexico or some island in the Pacific where people are thrown. Governments are starting to look away from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights they signed and honoured. And that is a very dangerous development for all of us, but it is directly impacting refugees and asylum seekers today.

Two refugee children play in a refuee camp. / Photo: courtesy EuroRelief. Author: Marijn Fidder

Two refugee children play in a refuee camp. / Photo: courtesy EuroRelief. Author: Marijn Fidder

Q. IAFR has pointed out that the world is offering three solutions to asylum seekers: to return to their home country, to integrate and to resettle people. But you also said these alternatives do not work. What would be a proper solution?

A. If I could answer that question I would have won the Nobel Peace Prize [laughs]. In a good year even before 2016, when there was more help available, only 1% of the refugee population returned to their country of origin. People who were resettled to another country whether this was in Europe, or North America or Australia, were always less than 1% as well. And if we look at integration, since four-fifths of the world refugees live in developing countries, these countries often do not have the capacity to absorb all of the refugees seeking safety.

That is why we find people for decades living as refugees in camps that are not places, but spaces. Or they are put them in urban settings, 60% of the world’s refugees are in urban settings, and they live off of the supportive care of the United Nations and the international humanitarian organisations, as well as national organisations.

The idea of integration is very difficult for a country with a weak economy and with instability. Those people flee across the Sahara desert, across the Mediterranean, and they get to Europe because they think that is a place where, if they are accepted, the can reboot their lives. There are those who came to Turkey from Syria, or those who go through Latin America and up through Mexico and try to get Canada or the United States. Those people don’t want to get stuck on a place where they cannot rebuild their lives or where they have to live in dependency.

The solution is probably not to come up with another option. The solution really is for the world to agree to truly share the burden of carrying for refugees and for the world to say, we are going to increase the number of people that are resettled, we are going to increase the number of people we can integrate. That is a long-term strategy but again, a lot of countries, including my own, are withdrawing funding from those solutions. We have to do something. Even in the refugee convention of the United Nations it is right at the beginning, and those who signed it, including our countries, have said that we understand we are going to have the share of that burden.

And, to be honest, sometimes there has been good funding but very rarely there has been a true burden sharing in helping this people find permanent solutions to their displacement, to give displaced people a place in the world.

Q. Most European and North American countries have Christian roots. But there are now some socio-political movements that openly reject the right of asylum seekers while claiming a Christian religious identity. How is this possible?

A. Most of us who identify ourselves as Christians have never deeply thought about how central migration and forced migration is in our book, the Holy Bible. Beginning with men being thrown out of the garden of the Eden, which is forced displacement, to the end of the book where John writes the Revelation from the island of Patmos, where he is exiled.

The Bible has story after story of forcibly displaced people. Joseph was displaced, Moses was displaced. David was on the run for twelve years from King Saul. Jesus was forcibly displaced soon, after he was born and fled to Egypt. He was a refugee, with Mary and Joseph. And then the first missionary that is in the Bible, Philip, he run down to Samaria because persecution broke out in Jerusalem. Aquila and Priscilla were also heroes of the Bible who were forced to leave Rome and go to Corinth. That is why Paul found them, because the Caesar threw all of the Jews out of Rome. Forced displacement is in Scripture but very few Christians have recognised that or have even understood what that may mean for how we treat people who are forcibly displaced. Most Christians have not their eyes opened to this reality. So I think one of the reasons for the attitudes you mention is lack of education in this area.

The other thing is that we are in an era of media, and media is extremely powerful. I think a lot of Christians are more influenced by the media than they are by their book, and by their faith and by the Holy Spirit, when it comes to this issue. The Bible is clear, there is absolutely no question what the new society of Jesus, the kingdom of God, looks like when it comes to the stranger. Matthew 25 is one of the great texts that points to that. I think the church still needs to wake up.

However, there are some amazing examples of church engagement. I know of many in Germany, I know of some in Bosnia, I know of many in Switzerland and in France and other places. There are churches deeply engage in loving and welcoming refugees and asylum seekers in Europe but they are not calling attention to what they are doing. They are just quietly doing what the church does. And one of the thing we would do well to do is put the light on those examples because I have never met a Christian who starts to help refugees and asylum seekers who doesn’t tell me they were more blessed than the people they help.  

“Forced displacement is in the Bible, but few Christians understand what that means for how we treat people”

  Cooking food in a refugee camp. / Photo: courtesy EuroRelief. Author: Salomé Wiedmerr

Q. There are many Christians in Europe who wonder what they can do to help refugees and displaced people, besides from going to a refugee camp as a volunteer or give some money to an NGO. How important is it to be an active disciple and an active church and what can really do for these people?

A. Firstly, never underestimate the value of donating money [laughs]. There are great Christian organisations in Europe and elsewhere that are working full-time, learning how and engaging with these people, trying to help with survival recovery and integration. And I think that should never be downplayed. Those people in those organisations are serving a wonderful purpose, especially if they are doing it together with local churches. That is a good thing and volunteering is also a good thing.

Visiting a refugee camp, if you can partner with someone who can help you to enter the camp, that is a wonderful thing to do as well. The worst thing to happen in life is to have great suffering and no one with you who cares about you. I often think about a hospital. If my friend is sick in the hospital and might die because of his disease, I could think at my home, he’s got the doctors, the nurses, food, all the machinery. What good would it do for me to go the hospital to visit my friend? I cannot solve his problem. But my friend is sitting in the hospital and he doesn’t want to see another doctor, and he is tired of the machine noise, so he wants his friend just show up and be with him.

Presence is an important thing. Most humanitarian and governmental work is high on helping whit specific needs and low on relationship.

I think the church is a relational community of people who follow Jesus and so just by coming into the space, praying with people and offering presence is very powerful. At the same time we don’t have to solve all the problems to do something meaningful. Most of us, when we walk down the street, will see people who we think might be an asylum seeker, or a refugee, or a migrant.

Most of those people feel very much outside of the culture they are in and the only way they can get inside is if we open the door. If I go to a restaurant and the person serving me looks to different and has another accent, I often ask them what is their name and what it means, because in most countries, unlike mine, the name has a meaning. So I ask them and I tell them that I’m so glad they are here. Just to tell people you are glad they are here. You can have these simple conversations that they would never forget because nobody is saying those things.

We can look around our neighbourhoods, our schools, our work places… Who is cleaning the floor, who is doing the labour that many of our own people won’t do in our countries and we can break through the door, open it up and begin to have a conversation. Most of the time, we will find that these new arrivals, including refugees, are more generous and more hospitable than our own cultures, and we will find ourselves easily at home with them. We can do that as a church. The church is a community, not a humanitarian organisation.

The other thing we can do is invite them into our space if our space is a safe space for them. If you don’t invite a person from outside your culture into your church community they are not likely to knock on the door because they are going to assume that is not for them. So we can invite them. It’s no rocket science, but it is work. It makes me have to stay out of where I’m comfortable and risk confusion and discomfort. Most of the time we will find ourselves more blessed because we open our arms.

In Matthew 25 Jesus tell the famous story about the goats and the sheep and he says his people are marked. One of the marks of his people is, “when I was a stranger you invited me in”. It’s simply opening the door and say we are glad you are here. That is powerful. The church can do that and sometimes we don’t know where to begin. In many places there are local, national and international organisations that want to help, so they can help a church to understand what it does mean to start opening up to the people who are not like us. And what does it look like to help integrate because in Europe, in particular, the challenge is integration. As we move towards that, we will find that love opens up a lot of other doors.

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