I am writing this on the morning after the government announced that it will accept into the UK some (no number has been given) unaccompanied children from refugee camps around Syria. That is good news – and must be celebrated. Children whose life chances were fragile at best will have a chance to discover security, to receive a good education, to grow into healthy and secure adults.
But … why is it that we won’t accept those – even unaccompanied children of equal vulnerability – who have already made the crossing into Europe? What is the difference between the ‘bad’ asylum seekers who try to board ferries and lorries, and the ‘good’ refugees who sit waiting patiently in camps in the Middle East? My fear is that we now have a contemporary version of the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. The deserving poor know their place, they sit quietly waiting for things to get better, they’re grateful for what they receive and don’t ask for more. The undeserving poor don’t do any of those things. They are as irresponsible, demanding and full of themselves as the rest of us; they don’t think of themselves with the right degree of humility; they aren’t grateful. Asylum seekers who have made it to Europe have taken extraordinary risks to get there. They are desperate to reach a place of safety and security by their own efforts. For that we penalise and criminalise them.
People in need are people in need – and that is enough. When Jesus commends the ‘sheep’ in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 he does not differentiate among those whom they helped: in all the hungry, all the thirsty, all the imprisoned, all the strangers: in all of them you welcomed me, he says. Some of them will be bad people, but that does not let us off the hook of offering help to their need. In them too we serve Jesus.