The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) is the world’s leading agency for the monitoring and care of uprooted people. In the year 2000, its total population of concern—refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and stateless people—hovered around 22 million. The majority were in Southwest Asia and Eastern and Southeastern Europe.
That number actually decreased to about 19 million in 2005, and the epicenters of displacement shifted, especially toward South America.
Five years later, the total number of displaced people skyrocketed to nearly 37 million, and hotspots erupted in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. By 2015, UNHCR raised its total population of concern to 60 million.
The specter of refugeeism is moving in the wrong direction, and at a rate much faster than can be explained by global population growth. What is more, the international effort to address this menace continually comes up short.
Funding calls by leading aid agencies are left only half met.
Much of the money and resources provided are difficult or impossible for displaced people to access.
Problems of discrimination and corruption are rampant.
Political, economic, and social ills plague refugees and potential host communities alike.
And the West is so painfully and wrongfully afraid.
Eyes to See
The twenty-first century is richer, healthier, and better educated than any century before. At no time in history have the corners of the globe been more closely connected and more intimately tied by both dreams and data. And yet, some corners have been folded back. Some people are left amassed together in smothering heat and poverty, a problem hidden in plain sight.
So let us lift up the buried corners. Let us have eyes to see the people, the problems, and the promises that must be seen.
The problem, in the end, runs far deeper than any pocketbook or political powerplays could. As essential as cashflow and congressmen are, they are not sufficient to answer the plague of refugeeism. Other pieces of the puzzle include wise strategy, an army of volunteers, and, frankly, love. A country can give heaps of money and do all manner of helpful things with it—administration, security, distribution, monitoring and evaluation—but pure purchasing power is not nearly as good at showing compassion. Money is essential, but it is cold and unfeeling. Political will is important, but it is never selfless.
As the problem of uprootedness reaches new depths, the global response must find new pinnacles. There is only one entity that is capable and, at least potentially, committed enough to turn the tide of refugeeism. It must be the Church.
It must be.
An American Ailment
It is among the great and tragic ironies of history that a nation born from the fuel of immigrants and the resolve of refugees should today be little more to the displaced person than a distant light hid behind a sordid wall. By resisting what made America beautiful—that crucible of diversity and determination—we become ugly. By shying away from the challenge before us—the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War—we become a stumbling block to progress at home and influence abroad.
The United States is neither aloof nor unresponsive to the world’s forced wanderers, but it is not adequately moved. The country is not entirely cold; it is, as it were, too cool.
It is the coolness of wealth, the pacification of distance, the delusional and indulgent fear, and the self-righteousness of a comfortable cultural bubble that has left our response to modern refugeeism so profoundly lacking. The sin of America—our sin and the sin of the whole rich West—is nothing more nor less than the sin that first made refugees of Adam and Eve, cast as they were from the sacred garden. The sin was, and is forever, pride—manifested in self-centered nationalism and naive consumerism.
The sin of nations is real, but it is not the end of the story. We must be wary that pinning this problem on governments is likely our first impulse. The problem is too big for anyone else, we suppose. It is the job of politicians and lawyers to sort out the ends of wars and the fates of stateless people. To be sure, with a problem as massive and obvious as this, compounded by a clearly inadequate response, critiquing countries and their representatives is fair enough.
But it is equally important to realize the shortcomings of this kneejerk reaction.
An American Advantage
For too many, it is among our more cherished hobbies to bash our country and especially our government for sins we suppose it has committed. Washington is always an easy target because it is rich and powerful and because its tentacles are everywhere. The world, however, is bad enough without us making things up about it. As such, I will not propagate the rallying cries and rallying lies that condemn the United States for allegedly horrific policies pertaining to aliens. Some of our dissatisfaction is legitimate, but much of it is not. Let us be thoughtful and serious, critical of what is wrong, but fair toward what is right.
As Christians, we are not apologists for our countries. Neither, however, should we be unthinking haters.
Americans like to complain about America, but a lot of our whining is really an ironic example of the privilege that is ours for living here. And as easy as it is to poke a million pretty holes in my country’s policy toward refugees, it must not escape our notice that the United States has resettled more refugees and given more aid than any other country in the world.
The United States leads, but it is not alone. Especially in the six months after Aylan Kurdi’s tiny body was photographed facedown in the sands of the Mediterranean, Europe shifted gears dramatically to accommodate incoming refugees. In Germany, aid agencies were literally turning volunteers away because they came in such droves. Across the Atlantic, Brazil ramped up its private sponsorship offerings to meet the generous demand of its people. And in Canada, the issue of refugeeism proved a deciding factor in national elections, leading to the inauguration of a prime minister keen on resettlement. By the end of 2015, private sponsorship in Canada had gone through the roof. All told, in recent years the wealthy West has opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of refugees—though, not always happily.
The humanitarian actions of the West are philanthropic, but not purely so. Generosity can be selfish.
During World War II, the only era comparable to our own as far as refugeeism goes, the Allies sought to respond to the issue of displacement at the 1943 Bermuda Conference. For all its bells and whistles, the effort proved weak and its weakness revealing. Rabbi Israel Goldstein of the United States reflected, “The job of the Bermuda Conference apparently was not to rescue victims of Nazi terror, but to rescue our State Department and the British Foreign Office.”
We should be equally skeptical today.
Are we trying to save people or save face?
Taking the Lead
Whatever we’ve been taught, the United States is no paragon of nobility. No one outside of America’s borders talks about its “moral leadership.” In the Middle East in recent years, almost no one was talking about the United States fixing the problem at all. If they were talking about anyone, it was Russia (for its military action in Syria) and Canada (for its refugee sponsorship program).
Politicians and their agencies have not done nothing, but neither have they done enough. We must give credit where credit is due, and criticism where that is due, too—and cast our ballots accordingly.
But even if politicians were going all out to address global refugeeism, statecraft and legislation and fundraising are not sufficient.
These are not even the main thing.
The proactive, humanizing movement of people—especially of the Church—on behalf of refugees is the main thing.