Opening hearts and minds
The former director of SCIAF addressed the issue of attitudes to refugees and asylum seekers at service in Glasgow Cathedral on 13th January, the feast of St Mungo, as part of the city’s annual St Mungo Festival.
It’s a great privilege to speak on St Mungo’s feast day about refugees, asylum seekers, migrants and all people on the move, especially within earshot of his tomb in the crypt. When we in Glasgow think of St Mungo or St Kentigern as he is also known, we think of the motto of the city ‘Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of His Word’, now curtailed to ‘Let Glasgow Flourish’, and the icons of some of his miracles – the bird, the salmon, the tree and the ring.
His memory has been brought up to date by the beautiful murals in George Street and High Street. In George Street, the mural is a kind of GIesga pietà with Mungo’s mother, St Enoch, in jeans and blouse cradling her boy with a robin perched on her finger. In the High Street, the mural is of St Mungo looking like a young Tom Weir with his bunnet on, ready to tackle another Munro, but he too is gently holding a robin, testament to one of Mungo’s first miracles. The story is that while at St Serf’s monastery school in Culross in Fife, some of the other pupils threw a stone at a bird and it fell to the ground dead. Mungo picked it up, caressed its feathers and prayed over it, and it flew away, singing.
Stung by the bullying of the boys, Mungo had his first taste of exile – from Fife to the Kingdom of Strathclyde, where he settled down as a monk at the Molendinar Burn in the glas cau, the ‘green hollow’ that became Glasgow. Then he experienced a further exile in Wales.
There are many myths surrounding St Mungo and, though we have only sketchy proof of his actual life in the 6th century, we know that he was exiled because his life was threatened, that he was kind and that he served the poor.
In our own day, there are many myths surrounding the exiles we call refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. People who have to leave their homelands not because they have been the butt of youthful bullying, but because they have been persecuted, often to the point of death threats, over their ethnicity, race, sexuality or some other difference. When they cross an international border for these reasons, they are covered by the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, signed by the UK and most countries in the world, and their safety should be guaranteed. There will also be some people who leave because they want a better life for themselves and their families, trying to escape a poverty which dehumanises them and eats away at their self-esteem, grinding down their God-given dignity.
We should be aware of the myths surrounding refugees, migrants and asylum seekers spread by xenophobic and racist social media, so that we can counteract them not only through fact but through the ethics of our Christian faith.
One myth is that people on the move are ‘illegals’. No-one is an ‘illegal person’ and seeking safety and asylum is recognised as a universal human right. What is illegal is to dismiss those seeking asylum without hearing their cases. Viewed through the Christian lens, of course, all people are created in the divine image giving everyone an inherent and equal dignity. Human dignity is not conferred by a treaty or a decision made by prejudiced individuals, but is given universally without exception by our Creator. That is our starting point in dealing with other human beings.
Another myth about asylum seekers and refugees is that we Western countries cannot afford them because we already shelter a huge number of refugees. This is a falsehood. Eight out of ten of the world’s refugees are cared for in so-called ‘developing’ countries. Of the 15 million refugees worldwide, 86 per cent live in some of the poorest countries such as Pakistan and Tanzania. As for not affording them, evidence-based research shows that asylum seekers in Europe have actually positively benefited the economies of their host countries. After refugee flows, GDP per capita rose while unemployment rates fell. The so-called ‘refugee burden’ on schools, NHS and other public expenditures is more than outweighed by the increase in tax revenues. Rather than starting an economic crisis, refugees provide an economic opportunity for themselves and their host countries, especially in countries like Scotland with ageing populations.
Seen through a Christian lens, of course, we don’t concentrate on our national interest. We are urged by the scriptures and traditions of the Christian faith to welcome the stranger and to find Christ in the face of the migrant fleeing poverty, the asylum seeker escaping persecution and the refugee seeking safety. Our task is to enable their flourishing through the exercising of this solidarity. As Pope Francis said, ‘The duty of solidarity is to counter the throwaway culture and give greater attention to those who are weakest, poorest and most vulnerable’. And if you’ve gone in a flimsy boat across the busiest shipping lane in the world, you belong to the Pope’s categories. To welcome is a moral imperative.
The final point I’d like to make is more personal. I still work with refugees from Burma who live in camps along the Thai side of the border with Burma. I teach in a programme from the Australian Catholic University where I used to work, giving young refugees whose families fled violence and oppression in Burma a chance for tertiary education after graduating from a secondary school in the camps. They are some of the most extraordinary young people I have ever met. Almost to a woman and man, they wanted a university education so that they could serve their own people, not line their own pockets.
Most have gone back to Burma and are working in schools, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) serving the poor and some have gone back to the camps as leaders. One is the head of the Karen Human Rights Group which distributes information internationally on the ongoing human rights abuses in Burma. Others work for the Backpack Medics who take medicines from Thailand over the mountains to the displaced within Burma, at great risk to their lives. Others have gone on to do full degrees in other universities. But they were taught not just subjects but ethics, a view of the human person with an inherent dignity that is universal and cannot be undermined. Their confidence increased, their self-esteem bloomed and their passion for education and serving others changed not only their own lives but the lives of the lecturers.
The reason for this human transformation is that when we listen to the stories of people on the move, learn from them and interact with them, our minds and our hearts and our horizons open and our selfishness oozes away. That is the beginning of the blossoming of our spirituality and the point when prayer results in action for the suffering. Mindful of St Mungo, let us all commit on this, his feast day, to prayerful action on behalf of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Remember that Jesus didn’t beat about the bureaucratic bush when it came to welcoming the stranger. He merely instructed: welcome them. St Mungo, patron of Glasgow, make our city even more a place of welcome for all fleeing oppression, poverty and violence.
Duncan MacLaren KCSG is a former secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, the confederation of Catholic aid and development agencies.