Thought for the Day - 18/08/2014 - Canon Dr Alan Billings

Last week I flew back to Britain from Australia. On the final leg of the journey - from Dubai to Manchester - we crossed northern Iraq. I was troubled. Not because I thought the militants of the Islamic State somewhere below might have acquired sophisticated ground to air missiles – though that did cross my mind. No. My discomfort was more conscience than fear.

Conscience because as the plane flew over Iraq, we were being asked to select from the breakfast menu – scrambled eggs, exotic fruits, yoghurt – while far below thousands of Yazidi people had no food at all as they fled for their lives in the baking heat. We might have been at 30,000 feet; it still felt like passing by on the other side.

Those last words, of course, are from Jesus's story of the Good Samaritan which makes the moral point that we have an obligation, a moral obligation, to do what we can to help those in need, even if that comes at some cost to ourselves. That's a moral position that most of us would probably accept and we have no difficulty in applying it to the situation in Iraq, supporting any measures that give protection to those ruthlessly pursued by the Islamic State.

But what if the person in need, the refugee, turns up on our doorstep? Increasingly this is happening as people from many places seek to escape persecution or poverty and head for stable western states. The story now unfolding of the men, women and children found in a shipping container at Tilbury Docks is just the latest desperate example. How does our conscience about this translate into policy that's workable?

The danger is that in our attempts to manage growing numbers of migrants we begin to act in ways that are not only harsh for them but do something bad to us as well.

This issue was preoccupying Australians when I was in Darwin last week. Like other western states, Australia accepts a number of refugees. But more come unauthorised, making long and dangerous journeys in small boats that are then intercepted at sea. The refugees are taken to offshore islands – Nauru and Christmas Island – where they face an uncertain future. But the policy also affects the naval personnel that carry it out. Some are deeply disturbed by what they do and haunted by what they see – children weeping; adults drained of hope. Others cope by hardening their hearts.

I mention this not as a criticism of Australia - all western countries including our own have to manage the complex issues around unauthorised arrivals - but to make the point that such processes have the potential to dehumanise everyone involved. We should think carefully about that. It's not just the humanity of the refugees that's at stake. It's ours as well.

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