Angels Unawares: refugees and the political crisis

By David Atkinson
January 25, 2018

Our choices about refugees reveal whether or not we truly live by our ideals.  In Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time (TED Books Simon and Schuster 2017), David Miliband, former UK politician and now CEO of International Rescue Committee, issues a moral call to arms in this powerful book.  He argues persuasively that that the current refugee crisis is not only of concern primarily because of the personal misery of 65 million displaced human beings, too often without food, shelter or any hope of change…  but because of the growing instability this creates within the international community. Western countries, by virtue of our history, wealth, power and values, should be giving a more urgent and coordinated response.

This is a very personal book, beginning with David Miliband’s own family story: his father became a refugee from Belgium in 1940; his mother survived the war in hiding in Warsaw. He realises all too clearly that ‘it could have been him.’   He sketches his own history on the centre-left of politics, heading up Tony Blair’s policy unit, becoming an MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, and eventually Gordon Brown’s Foreign Secretary. The leadership election for the Labour Party, and their election loss in 2010 forced a big life change in 2013, and the IRC gave him scope for his political skills coupled with his personal commitment to social justice and his deep compassion for displaced people.

With numerous stories of people that he, or his staff, have visited, from Kenya to Thailand, from Sudan to Syria, Miliband described the plight of refugees, understood (in distinction from asylum seekers or economic migrants) as people outside their country of nationality due to well-founded fear of persecution. They need security, dignity, and sufficient resources for human wellbeing.  Some may go to a host country and seek asylum.  Some 100,000 Somalis were born as refugees and have never seen their country of nationality. Many come from places, often with weak governance, suffering prolonged civil war. Increasing numbers are displaced through changing climate or extreme weather events. Most live in poverty – "a scar in a world more than fifty times as rich as in the 1950s."

Why should we care?  Miliband asks.  He is not himself a religious person, but quotes with approval Pope Francis’ consistent defence of refugees and asylum seekers, saying that they need not only acceptance, but integration.  He refers to Archbishop Justin Welby’s call that we should "break down barriers, to welcome the stranger and love them as ourselves, to seek the peace and justice of our God".  He notes the words of an evangelical leader at Wheaton: "God’s people should be the first ones to open their arms to refugees".  He finds similar sentiments from former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and from the Director of an Islamic Studies Centre.  We are talking about values and about character.  We are faced, he says, with a call to empathy and to altruism.

(As Christians we could add, as motives to care, that the Hebrew Bible applies the same law to the native born as to the ‘alien living among you’. It calls for justice for the outsider, the fatherless and the widow and seeks to protect their rights. The same tone is picked up in Jesus’ words commending disciples who welcome the stranger, and feed the hungry, and in his blessing to those who "hunger and thirst for justice’.  Some of the Epistles speak of "dishonouring the poor" by discriminating against them. The injunction to "let mutual love continue" is followed by "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares."

In today’s West, Miliband argues, we have a freedom to act, and resources to give. "The nations of the democratic West made a distinctive claim:  the freedoms of the individual regarding thought, religion and conscience constituted fundamental human rights that should be respected the world over.  That commitment is tested in our treatment of refugees."  In the light of these values, Miliband is not slow to be critical of the current Trump administration, nor of the populist movements such as UKIP with their passionate animus towards refugees and immigrants, especially Muslims.

Miliband offers some sober assessments: the Iraq war was a huge mistake; Syria’s civil war is fuelling today’s biggest refugee crisis. There is often a well-founded fear – both for refugees and also of refugees by others.  He does not minimise the political and economic issues, but the plea which Miliband himself illustrates so well is to be both hard-headed and big-hearted.  There is a strategic dimension of global security as well as vast humanitarian needs.

The combination of what he calls "idealism and pragmatism" leads to an urgent but hopeful message. The crisis is not insoluble.  The solution begins with the recognition that this is a human question – and we are all involved.  As Miliband puts it "refugees are a good test – of us"; that is both of our individual character and our national foreign policy. He speaks of fair and humanitarian ways to offer welcome and sanctuary.  The recognition of individual human rights – irrespective of nationality or religion – is the foundation of a just global order.  There is the obvious need for money and much other aid, for education, for the establishment of good governance, for the respect for peoples’ rights especially those with no voice of their own.  "We are at a moral and political fork in the road."

David Miliband has written a very personal, clear, accessible and extremely powerful small book.  This is a hard-headed approach to global politics and economics interwoven with human values, and suffused with big-hearted compassion. 

 * David Miliband, Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time (TED Books Simon and Schuster, 2017), 137pp.

Biblical references: Exodus12.49; Deuteronomy 24.17; Amos 2.7; 5.24; Matthew 25.35; Matthew 5.6; 1 John 3.18; James 2.2-7; Hebrews 13.1-2.]


© David Atkinson is Honorary Assistant Bishop in the Anglican Diocese of Southwark. He is a well-regarded author and academic concerned with Christian ethics, pastoral and biblical studies, environment and scientific concerns. He was formerly Bishop of Thetford in the Diocese of Norwich. 

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