Bishop of Durham calls for better understanding of migration as refugee crisis bites

The Bishop of Durham, the Right Reverend Paul Butler.
The Bishop of Durham, the Right Reverend Paul Butler.

The Bishop of Durham has asked for "a new understanding of the reality of global migration" as millions flee war, terror and poverty around the world.

The Right Reverend Paul Butler made the call in a speech today at the Church of England General Synod to introduce the Migration Crisis debate.

The Synod has given its overwhelming backing to work by parishes and dioceses to support the resettlement of vulnerable Syrian refugees, in a debate focusing on the humanitarian response to the migrant crisis.

The Rt Rev Butler said: "There are around 60 million people forcibly displaced in the world. They become refugees through persecution, violence and war.

"In Burundi over 200,000 have fled the country and tens of thousands are internally displaced since the violence that began in April.

"The story goes unreported here because they will not arrive in Europe. But 8 million internally displaced in Syria and 4 million who have fled into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, then some on to Europe - that directly affects us. So too those fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Southern Sudan. 800,000 have arrived in Europe this year, around 3,200 have died trying to reach Europe.

"The numbers are approximate. But God knows exactly how many there are. God knows everyone of them by name; each one made in God's image and someone for whom Christ died.

"It seems an age since the picture of the body of a three-year-old boy, washed up on a Turkish shore, marked a decisive shift in the public mood.

"Then the horror of 129 people killed in one night, and perhaps another shift in the public mood. We have wept and prayed over those deaths.

"Cruel, murderous violence is terrible whether on our doorstep or far distant, whether the ensuing death and suffering is witnessed in the streets of Paris or from the shores of Turkey, Lesbos or Lampedusa.

"All of this suffering is the cry of my neighbour. And in so many cases, our neighbours have had to flee their home.

"There is a deep need for a generous and constructive discourse which develops a new understanding of the reality of global migration.

"Great regional migrations have marked past centuries; perhaps global migration is to be one of the marks of this century. Groups of Christians are meeting to work towards such a language, not least across the continent of Europe.

"Our chief purpose in this debate, however, is less broad and ambitious. It is to talk about how we as God's people respond to the practical opportunities which He gives us.

"The British government has taken an impressive lead in aid to the region in which the vast majority of those suffering from displacement are still trying to survive. If this lead were followed by many other countries, the challenge would become less daunting.

"There would be more hope of people believing they can make a life within the region. Bitter winter conditions are now beginning to descend on those without homes."

The Rt Rev Butler said welcomed Prime Minister David Cameron's commitment to receive 20,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement in the UK.

"Most of us have seen this number as a good start. The Archbishop of Canterbury welcomed it, but as a ‘slim response’. 84 bishops wrote to the Prime Minister urging that we take more.

"It is hard to imagine a list of British values which did not contain the word ‘hospitality’. It stands close to the heart of the Christian gospel.

"So many waves of people needing protection and help, over centuries and in living memory: Ugandan Asians, Vietnamese, Bosnians, Kosovans ... each time what began as a costly commitment by our country has ended as a creative enrichment of it.

"Hospitality does not involve an idealising of the guest: guests can be hard to understand, damaged, vulnerable, unfamiliar; but through their coming, healing can enter the house.

"Many in the churches believe that, if we put our backs into working with others to create the capacity, we can make 20,000 a number that can be comfortably exceeded. After all, it is not money that will do most to enable people driven from Syria to make new lives.

"It is practical care from a community, inviting them in, suggesting in many practical ways the possibility of hope and the promise of safety.

"The first 1,000 from Syria are arriving by Christmas. This phase is a stepping up of the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme which began early in 2014. The next phase is going to be a much bigger proposition. A government team is working hard to scale up the operation. The churches have been directly involved in this.

"The compassion which compels us to help the refugee will be blind to differences of creed as to colour or any other characteristic. For all that, it is right that we uphold the right of our fellow-Christians to fair treatment. Whether or not they are in refugee camps, easy or hard to find, they must suffer no discrimination as UNHCR seeks out those in greatest need of resettlement. Those whose suffering is exacerbated by religiously-motivated persecution deserve to have that factor given full weight in the calculation of need.

"Our country is bound together with Europe in so many ways. We will do well to rediscover our common life with the churches of Europe. The Diocese in Europe, supported by Us, have been doing terrific work, with partner churches, on the front line of receiving refugees arriving in boats and by land. These refugees, whether in Calais or elsewhere in Europe, still demand our care. We shall not sleep easy if we pass by, as it were, on our side of the English Channel, and regard the fate of those in Europe as separate from our own.

"The request for safe and legal routes to places of safety – not excluding the possibility that some of those now in Europe might come to Britain – is therefore the final element in the motion which is before the Synod.

"I look forward to our debate, because I am sure we shall hear something of the eagerness and practical commitment with which dioceses and churches across the country are mobilising to meet these opportunities, responding to these terrible hurts and needs.

"I almost apologise for the length of the motion – almost, but not quite, for this is no simple challenge which we face. It is a challenge full of tears and hope, in which, as my Lutheran sisters and brothers might say, we are utterly thrown upon the grace of God."