The Mediterranean's migrant crisis and why Christians should not give in to fear

ReutersEritreans are the second largest group to cross the Mediterranean in the hopes of a better life in Europe.

For millennia, the choppy waters separating northern Africa from southern Europe have been a crossing point for trade and travel. But not so far from the sun loungers and resorts packed with European holiday makers, these waters hide a much darker reality, as the graveyard of countless migrants who tried in vain to flee deprivation and barbarity just beyond Europe's shores.

The figures are telling: at least 150,000 people have made the dangerous crossing to Europe this year alone, according to the latest figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and over 1,900 didn't survive the journey.

When a boat filled with 850 desperate men, women and children from Libya capsized in the Mediterranean back in April, only 28 were plucked from the water.  While it's not the first time lives have been lost in the crossing, the scale of the tragedy caught the attention of the international community like never before and it is forcing Europe to come up with an answer.  

With the rise of radical Islam and nationalist parties across Europe, immigration has for some time been a hot button issue for the region and one that is often cast in a threatening light. Two images cast their shadow over the debate: that of the frightening terrorist; and the forlorn migrant burdening the host nation with its needs and using up precious resources.  The conundrum for national governments is obvious, with the sense of human duty to care for those in need pitted against the need to protect their own.

In Britain, UKIP is one of the parties taking a hard line. Asked by the BBC about whether Britain should grant asylum to more migrants, the party's Nigel Farage spoke specifically about Christians fleeing ISIS but his answer reflects a common view on the issue more generally: "[If] we have to give some Christians refugee status, given that with Iraq and Libya there's almost nowhere for them to go, then fine but Europe can't send the message that everyone who comes will be accepted.

"If it does then the numbers we are talking about here could literally be millions."

In other words, there should be specific conditions and if those conditions are not met, then the door should be very much closed.

There will be many who sympathise with this view but the World Evangelical Alliance's Ambassador for Refugees, Thomas Albinson, has a much broader interpretation.  For him the dilemma is not a numbers game, and the question to ask is not 'how many should we take?' but rather, 'how can we refuse?'.

While an obvious answer to the migrant crisis is to adopt a narrow policy and send as many as possible back home, Albinson argues that such a position is based on the mistaken assumption that these migrants have other options open to them. The truth, in his view, is that they don't.

An example of this is those trying to flee ISIS in Libya. After the horrific beheading of Egyptian Christians earlier this year, other Christians in the country are looking to get out while they can. Their options include heading south through the desert, or north across the Mediterranean. Both have their dangers but the fear of what might happen if they stay put is driving many of them to choose one or the other.

"People board the boats because they do not believe they have any other viable option," says Albinson.

"There are presently over 51 million forcibly displaced people on the planet to whom the world offers only three possible 'solutions':

"Solution 1: Return to your country of origin. But refugee-producing conflicts are increasingly protracted. Many go on for decades. 21 nations are presently engaged in such violence with no end in sight.

"Solution 2: Integrate into your country of refuge. The trouble is that 86% of the world's uprooted people are hosted by developing countries. These countries cannot possibly absorb and integrate all of the people seeking refuge within their borders.

"Solution 3: Be resettled to another country. In any given year, less than 1% of the global refugee population is resettled.

"It is clear that these 'solutions' fall far short of offering any real hope to the majority of uprooted people in the world."

It's this lack of concrete solutions that he says leads people to the desperate forth option – risking it all to try and reach a country where they have a chance of building their lives all over again.

"It is this dangerous hope that fills boats headed to Europe with human cargo," he says.

Instead of totting up the numbers, Albinson is looking instead to the Bible and specifically Psalm 107:4-8:

Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to a city to dwell in;

hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.

He led them by a straight way till they reached a city to dwell in.

Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love

In the Bible, he finds the example of a caring God providing people in distress with refuge, often at a cost to others, and it is this that is his guiding principle.

While he exhorts Christians to be prayerful in thinking about their response to the present crisis, he is also adamant that there is a clear biblical mandate to open our doors – and borders - to people fleeing their homelands in desperation.

"Christians carry a divine mandate to love the alien and to welcome the stranger," he writes.

"Our response to human desperation and migration is not to be fear, but love. The default posture of our hearts is to be open, not closed."

As chaos and violence are ongoing realities in many countries close to Europe, the region can expect many more boat loads of desperate people arriving on its shores.

For Albinson, shutting up the borders and shipping the survivors back home is not the answer.

"As Christians, we need to avoid falling prey to those trying to manipulate public opinion by inciting fear," he said.

"When we picture the women, children and men coming across the sea, we must not envision them as potential terrorists and criminals. The truth is that the majority are seeking refuge from terrorists, violence, war and persecution. They are the threatened ones."

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