I attended a service at the invitation of the various Churches of the Wokingham Christian community, and joined them afterwards in the Marketplace to see their Easter play. I am grateful to all who produced it and performed in it. It was thought provoking and hard hitting.
This year in line with the messages from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope they tackled the difficult issue of refugees and migrants. They captured well the dangers and troubles faced by migrants who travel long distances by sea in search of a better life. They appealed to our common humanity. None of us want to see people suffer. We all feel great pain when we see the plight of children trusted to the people smugglers.
The play implied criticism of Wokingham Council for not accepting more refugees. It did not consider the pressures on Wokingham housing from people already here, and the obvious shortage of affordable housing. Nor did they consider whether perhaps it is better as well as quicker to accommodate more refugees in parts of the UK with lower house prices and a surplus of homes with empty properties available.
The play also stated that no-one would trust their children to the sea unless that was safer than where they were fleeing from. The worry is that people smugglers taking children from Turkey are endangering young ones who would not be at so much risk if they were kept off the overloaded and unsafe little boats and inflatables that the traffickers use for their profit. The trade is shocking, leading to the deaths of too many people and taking money from many who have little in the first place. We need to find a way of making sure this trade does not pay.
The play was effective at getting over the shock and the scale of the dislocation of the current mass migrations, but was not able to consider the wide range of actions the UK is rightly taking to tackle the problem closer to its source. The best way of helping the migrants is to work for peace and economic reconstruction in their own countries. It is good news that there is a kind of truce in more parts of Syria, and peace talks have begun their slow and difficult way.
Helping the most able and energetic to leave a country intensifies the difficulties of the country losing its talent. These countries will need much energy and ability to rebuild as peace slowly takes hold. We need to find ways of allowing more to stay and more to be near at hand to return as soon as peace does permit.
The UK also thinks it is better to help migrants closer to the country they are fleeing. It is cheaper so we can help and feed many more. It means they are better placed to return once their own country becomes safer. It keeps them more in touch with their own culture, friends, relatives and homeland. The UK’s overseas aid programme for Middle Eastern refugees is the largest in the world after the USA.
The play asked the question who is our neighbour? In a way I agree with their answer, that all mankind is our neighbour. They cannot all become our next door neighbour. I also think we have stronger obligations to those who live with us and need our direct help, as we are bound by not just our common humanity but also by ties of fellow citizenship, and mutual obligations over the years of living under a common rule of law. Being part of the UK we all accept that the richer pay more tax and poorer receive more benefit wherever they live. We are not able to extend that system of redistribution to all the rest of the world given the numbers involved and the very different average living standards in many countries.
The UK should play a leading part in the worldwide response to the Syrian, Libyan and wider Middle Eastern and African crisis, as we are doing. We need as we have tried to do to rally more of the richer and stable countries of the world to share in the task. We also need to make sure that we do not send out a signal to people traffickers that their business model is a good one which many more people should pay to use. We need to be careful lest the answer to every trouble in a country is the exodus of that country’s brightest, most determined and best to live somewhere else.