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From the Manger to the Camp

After the Magi had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him. Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. (Matthew 2.13-14)

Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus reminds us that migrants were part of the human experience even in ancient times and that providing refuge for those threatened by violence, poverty, and persecution is a time honored practice. In Cairo small, ancient churches of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the old city commemorate this tradition of sanctuary offered to the Holy Family.

Today is International Migrants Day. It comes at the end of a year in which nearly 5,000 migrants died escaping intolerable circumstances in their home countries. Over 3,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean fleeing violence in Palestine, Syria, Lybia, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan. Over 500 Muslims died in the Bay of Bengal escaping oppression in their native Myanmar. Over 300 died crossing the southern border of the United States, a figure that probably underreports the actual numbers. Others died in the Red Sea crossing to Yemen from the Horn of Africa seeking work in the Gulf States. This makes 2014 the deadliest year for migrants on record, with double the number of last year’s deaths. International agencies report that the number of persons forcibly displaced by conflict is at its highest level since the Second World War. One in seven people across the globe is a migrant, having been displaced internally or moved across national borders.

These staggering numbers should rouse us from the peaceful sentimentality of nativity scenes to the plight of hundreds of millions of people whose “flight into Egypt” is imperiled by dangerous crossings, unscrupulous smugglers, hostile “welcoming” countries militarizing their border security, rising xenophobia in Europe, political stalemate in North America, all on top of the physical and psychic wounds and deprivations that prompted them to flee in the first place. Ambassador William Swing, the Director General of the International Organization for Migration, puts it this way: “We must address the drivers of desperation migration and act in concerted and coherent partnership. This is a battle we must fight together. We need more political leadership and the courage to counter the worrying rise in xenophobia.”

One approach to all of this is to secure borders with ever more draconian methods. This is neither humane nor effective. Desperate people fleeing desperate conditions will not be deterred from seeking refuge for themselves and their families. Another approach is simply to ask international agencies and NGO’s to establish and maintain massive temporary refugee camps where migrants can wait for conditions to improve at home. On a modest scale this can be effective. But too often conditions never improve at home; temporary camps settle into permanent dwellings, becoming danger zones of their own. We should recall that in Matthew’s tale Jesus never got home to Bethlehem, but was forced to settle with his family in Nazareth.

A third approach is simply to open borders completely, allowing migrants free access to receiving countries. The rising popularity of right wing parties in Europe and our own anti-immigration politics here in the US suggest that this is not a viable political option. And the current experience of Lebanon and Jordan reminds us that large numbers of refugees can bring their own form of destabilization to fragile nations sowing seeds for future violence. The conflict in Syria and Iraq is not producing an iconic holy family, but rather enormous numbers of families who have no immediate prospect of returning home.

The one approach we seem least willing to attempt is precisely what Ambassador Swing commends: Address the drivers of desperation migration. This requires international political will to combat human rights abuse as well as deal with political and ethnic conflict, and a global economic policy and program that truly benefits the poorest nations in the global south. Sadly, cherry picking the migrants we’d like to accept, then filling the moat and pulling up the drawbridge seems like simpler solution. As we observe International Migrants Day in this Third week of Advent we would do well to remember that what Jesus needed as an infant is precisely what millions of holy families need today – someone to deal with Herod and some place prepared, like Egypt, to provide sanctuary.

John H. Thomas
December 18, 2014

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