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Secular and Christian Responses to the Refugee Crisis in Europe

The attention of media in recent months has rightly fallen upon the refugee crisis in Europe. So far this year hundreds of thousands of refugees, both asylum seekers and economic migrants, have flooded into Europe through Turkey and across the Mediterranean from North Africa. In one fell swoop it seems that the concept of national sovereignty has become a thing of the past; the European Union’s borderless Schengen concept (named for the Luxembourg city where it was enacted in 1985) has actually facilitated the mass movement of displaced people, the likes of which has not been seen since the end of the Second World War.

So far European countries have been disunited and disorganized in dealing with the crisis, with Germany and Sweden welcoming the refugees and some Eastern European countries reasserting their national sovereignty and moving the refugees on. Christian responses have been relatively uniform in speaking the language of compassion and welcome for the stranger. But realism is also a Christian ideal, and the Australian model is one worth considering in this context.

Around the turn of the millennium, Australia became the preferred destination for hundreds of boats carrying thousands of asylum seekers from the same countries which are providing today’s refugees in Europe. The Conservative Australian government of the time, led by Prime Minister John Howard, introduced a policy that became known as the Pacific Solution, which succeeded in stopping the flow of refugee boats. When the Howard government lost the elections of 2007, incoming Labour Party leader Kevin Rudd immediately abandoned the Pacific Solution and almost overnight the flow of boats resumed. Over the next six years, some 50,000 refugees entered Australia illegally in this way, with well over 1,000 drowned en route. In 2013 the Labour government was ejected from power, and the incoming Conservative government under Prime Minister Tony Abbott reinstituted the previous policy in a slightly amended form. Known as Operation Sovereign Borders, this policy is still in place at the time of writing and, like its Howard government predecessor, has succeeded in stemming the flow of illegal boat arrivals.

Both the Pacific Solution and Operation Sovereign Borders work on several simple principles: First, any boats encountered in international waters that are seaworthy are turned around and are not permitted to land on Australian territory. Second, where refugee boats prove to be unseaworthy, the refugees are transported to a third country—Papua New Guinea or Nauru—where they are registered and processed for settlement. Third, the Australian government has made very clear that any refugees attempting to enter Australia illegally by boat or other means are not to be considered under any circumstances for settlement in Australia but are to be settled in other countries in the Asian region. Fourth, at the same time, Australia continues to accept refugees from official refugee camps in different world locations, thereby sending out a clear signal that any would-be migrants to Australia should plan to come through official channels.

Similarly, Europeans could first issue a clear statement to the effect that, from a particular date, refugees arriving by unofficial means will not be considered for permanent settlement, thus sending a message to would-be refugees. The most that anyone from the current waves of refugees in Europe should receive is a temporary protection visa pending return to their place of origin. Second, European nations should work together to accept a healthy intake of refugees from official camps in Turkey and Jordan while at the same time providing generous inputs to those camps to make life more bearable for the refugees who find themselves there.

It’s worth noting that the Howard and Abbott governments in Australia faced much criticism from churches for their policies, which many Christians considered harsh and inhumane. But viable borders and gracious responses are not an either-or proposition. Where Christians do have a crucial role to play is in giving compassion and care to refugees caught in the middle, namely, those who have reached Europe during a time of policy uncertainty. With several hundred thousand refugees drifting across Europe at present, Christians can and should extend hospitality and provide support in myriad ways. At the same time, Christians should support governments as they seek to register and regularize the presence of these new temporary arrivals. In this way, governments and churches can in fact work in concert; indeed they will need to do so to emerge from the present mess.