Words can get you worried, and the confusing collection of what to call millions of people who are “refugees, migrants, illegals, forcibly displaced, asylum seekers, homeless…” worries me. I agree with Pope Francis who recently told reporters, “fear of migration is making us crazy.” With too many people border crossing their way into Canada and the U.S., my integrity as a Christ follower has been challenged. I am not good at welcoming the stranger.
Good thing international law was created with more compassion. The horrors of the Holocaust helped trigger the system we now have which allows people to run across borders if they are seeking protection from persecution. Every person who wants to cross a border is allowed to do so – temporarily – and it’s far from “free pass” to another country.
Once people cross a border, they are evaluated and sometimes detained. Do they have a legitimate claim or are they simply economic migrants? Lawbreakers or frauds? All that gets checked by border agencies and refugee systems around the world, and if the claimants are not deemed to be in need of protection, they are turned back. That is our world’s international human rights standard of law. It is also enshrined in our Canadian law. As Anne Woolger, founder of a Toronto refugee claimant shelter, Matthew House, told me: think of it like an ambulance – ambulances, unlike other cars, are allowed to break the law of stopping at red lights because they are deemed to be in emergency – then the emergency is evaluated and treated.
That is the case of each migrant border crossing – they have the right to cross – what makes it tough sorting out who is an economic migrant and who is fleeing for safety. Economic migrants get deported, but it takes months for that to happen.
It was not always this way – think of the 907 Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis ship in World War II. Seeking safety from Nazi Germany, they were turned away from Canadian docks on June 7, 1939, where 254 of the people on board were sent to their deaths in the Holocaust. The director of the Canada’s Immigration Branch, Frederick Blair rejected the ship saying there were too many refugees for Canada to admit: “No country could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe: the line must be drawn somewhere.”
We said, “none is too many,” …. and from those historic mistakes, we now have international law protecting every migrant who feels they need to leave their country due to a fear of persecution. The great global corrective is the international refugee law which millions are engaging for a safer life. We’ve seen this international law help Rahaf Mohammed, the Saudi teen who fled her family, country, and religion. When Rahaf appealed through the UNHCR, Canada stepped up to fast track her to safety.
The UNHCR 1951 Refugee Convention is clear that countries cannot refuse asylum seekers arriving at their border asking for protection:
“No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his [or her] life or freedom would be threatened on account of his [or her] race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
To prohibit or “ban” an asylum seeker ( or “refugee claimant” as we call them in Canada) from setting foot on territory and asking for protection, would be breaking a requirement as laid out in the international Refugee Convention. A refugee claimant must not be turned back at the border if they are asking for protection from persecution.
Any human deeming themselves in distress has the right to cross the border of any of the 146 countries who have signed the UN 1967 Refugee Protocol. It is the international UN law that allows people to look for safety.
I am deeply uncomfortable with Jesus’ command to welcome the stranger. The one key story Jesus used to teach this is that of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan did not do a “security screening” of the man in the ditch, he knew nothing about him, just that he was hurting and in need of support. He took him to an inn, possibly even shared the same room with him over night, risking his own security, bandaged his wounds and even offered to PAY for any extra expense he incurred. This example in Luke 10: 29-37 is a dimension of Christianity that fits solidly into this global crisis, and our episode on migration was part of the struggle to answer the call.