Garry’s ‘Talking Point’ topic tonight was on the contentious and highly topical issue of immigration, one of the major debating points during the recent EU referendum. Many people in the UK are afraid of the rise in numbers of immigrants and refugees entering the country, often associating these with an Islamic agenda and being angry that these people are ‘taking our jobs’ and using our services (such as the NHS and claiming social security benefits.) Some of the prejudice against immigrants borders on xenophobia and certainly this topic arouses feelings to an extent few others do.
Britain has a long history of people from other countries settling here, most recently Jewish refugees during the period 1930-1940 (70,000) and Hungarian refugees in 1956 when Hungary rose up against Soviet rule. Asian Ugandan refugees fled here from the dictatorship of Idi Amin in 1972 and the Vietnamese boat people fled from the incoming Communist government in the 1970s and 1980s. Kosovar refugees settled here in the 1990s and since 2011 over 5,000 Syrian refugees have fled to the UK. A refugee is someone who flees persecution, conflict or war, whereas a migrant is someone who voluntarily moves to another country, intending to live for at least a year there. Net migration in 2015 in the UK form the EU was 184,000 and from non-EU countries was 188,000.
Thursday’s EU referendum vote for the UK to leave the European Union will obviously have an impact on this situation, for according to EU laws, one of the four freedoms enjoyed by EU citizens is the free movement of workers. This includes the rights of movement and residence for workers, the rights of entry and residence for family members, and the right to work in another Member State and be treated on an equal footing with nationals of that Member State. Restrictions apply in some countries for citizens of Member States that have recently acceded to the EU. The rules on access to social benefits are currently shaped primarily by the case law of the Court of Justice. EU citizens living and working in the UK are estimated to be about 3 million, with Vote Leave giving unequivocal assurances that any new immigration system would not affect EU citizens already in the country. “There will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK,” it said, promising on its website that such people would “automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present.” Such guarantees will not necessarily apply to UK citizens living and working in other European countries after the referendum.
There is no doubt that a simplistic view of immigration may seem to offer easy answers, but the true situation is more complex. Fears of infiltration by ISIS members are real; the terrorist attack in Paris last November demonstrates that clearly (see The Washington Post.) Nonetheless, many of those fleeing persecution are Christians, and it should be noted that being granted asylum is by no means a foregone conclusion (only 43% of asylum cases were successful in 2015; indeed, the UK is home to less than 1% of the world’s refugees, according the UNHCR.) Many UK Christians would fail the asylum questions on Christianity, and it does not help that the Home Office answer to the question ‘Why did God send Jesus to earth?’ is to ‘teach us how to behave’, rather than to ‘save us from our sins.’ Though the political situation is clearly fraught with difficulties, it does not help to treat all immigrants and refugees as enemies, and as Christians, we are called to look beyond the surface to the individuals for whom Christ died. There can be no place for hatred towards people in our debates on immigration, even though we may deplore the actions some take. As Paul wisely reminds us, our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Eph 6:12) and our opinions and solutions to problems must be rooted in Biblical thought.