Last Sunday, hundreds of churches rang out their bells in solidarity with refugees and migrants and in protest against racism and xenophobia. The initiative was the brainchild of Church of Ireland Dean of Waterford Reverend Maria Jansson. It was supported by former president, Mary McAleese.
The West is currently witness to a rising tide of anti-immigration populism that is especially directed at Muslims. A recent opinion poll from the British think tank, Chatham House, found that a majority of people in 10 European countries want a complete halt to all Muslim immigration, and not simply a temporary ban from six Muslim countries as recently ordered by Donald Trump.
On average, 55% of people in the 10 countries polled want a complete ban with only 20% opposed. The rest are undecided. In countries like France and Belgium, more than 60% want a complete ban. Both of these countries have been subjected to terrorist attacks by ISIS-inspired extremists.
In 2015, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders to anyone arriving from war-torn countries like Syria, other European countries, notably Hungary, built fences to control the flow of refugees.
What is the proper Christian response to this situation? Well, to begin with we must carefully distinguish between refugees and immigrants. Refugees are fleeing places of war, famine and persecution. Immigrants are generally seeking better economic opportunities, as millions of Irish people have over the last two centuries.
Refugees are obviously a higher priority than immigrants because for refugees, gaining a safe haven can be literally a matter of life and death. International law requires countries to give refugee status to those fleeing war etc., so long as they are genuine refugees of course.
Pope Francis has been a consistent advocate on behalf of refugees. Very early in his pontificate, he visited the island of Lampedusa, off the coast of Italy, where many asylum-seekers crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa first arrive.
In response to Donald Trump’s call to build a wall along the Mexican border, he said Christians build bridges, not walls.
So, we have a clear moral and legal duty to refugees. We can help them in various ways. One is to grant them haven in our own countries, and another is to send them help where they are, for example, to the refugee camps in places like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan to which many Syrians have fled, or else to the places in Syria where they are internally displaced.
The aim must always be to help them eventually resettle in the country they have fled so they can help rebuild it. After World War II the vast majority of refugees returned to their home countries.
What about immigrants? As mentioned, they are in a different category because they are not fleeing for their lives, but are simply moving in search of a better life.
In this regard, two goods need to be held in balance. One is the good of the would-be immigrant, and the second is the good of the receiving community. Not even countries built on immigration, like America, Canada or Australia, have open border policies that allow in anyone who wants to come. This would be unfair on their own citizens. This is why every country that can, regulates immigration. One year they will allow in more, and another year they will allow in less.
This makes perfect sense. Imagine if the whole population of Cork was to move to Dublin in the space of one year. It would be extremely strange, irresponsible actually, not to raise concerns about the effect this might have on school places, hospital places, jobs and wages, the price and availability of housing, and so on.
Every debate about immigration (as distinct from refugees) should have as its starting point striking the right balance between the good of the immigrant and the good of the host country.
I lived in Australia for a number of years after I left university. I went there for a bit of adventure, but also because the economy here was so bad at the time. But I never thought for a second that I had any right to emigrate to Australia or that Australia had any obligation to take me in.
In order to gain permanent residency there, I had to have a certain number of entry points based on my age, education, family status, health etc. That is, I had to show I could take care of myself if I was granted permanent residency. Australia did not want me becoming dependent on the Australian state from day one.
We don’t ask these things of refugees because they are in a different category altogether and because the assumption is that they will eventually return home. Many don’t, of course, but that is a story for another day.
Ireland does not have many refugees. This is because we are hard to get to and also because many refugees don’t want to come here. They often want to go to places where there are already large communities of their own. That makes sense. People like the familiar.
But we have very many immigrants, more as a percentage of our population than Britain, where there is an ongoing debate about immigration.
The UN defines an immigrant as someone who was born overseas. Based on this definition, 13% of people in Britain are immigrants versus 17% here.
Of the 17%, 10% are from the EU, and 7% from outside the EU. The non-EU percentage has nearly doubled in the last few years.
What effect, for good or ill, is this having on our own communities? For example, is it putting any strain on hospital and school places? We don’t really know because these questions are not being asked – in fact they are barely permitted.
But it is perfectly legitimate to ask them. To repeat, a prudent, just and moral immigration policy balances two goods; the good of the immigrant, and the good of the host community. What is the right balance for Ireland? It’s a good question. It should be asked.