Dear Friends for Life: Sidah Hawa stares towards the horizon. The scorching sun filters through the sparse shade of the tree under which she sits. Her six children huddle close as she breastfeeds Asanti, her 18-month-old baby. “I have suffered a great deal; these past few days have been really bad,” she says after a long silence. “I didn’t have enough food. I had raw cassava. This is what I fed my children. When they were tired, we rested then I gave them some water.”
Sidah, 30, is only one of 1.5 million refugees who have now been forced to flee South Sudan and seek safety. This makes South Sudan Africa’s largest refugee crisis and the world’s third largest after Syria and Afghanistan. In Syria, the number of refugees who have fled the war now exceeds five million with another 6.3 million displaced internally. Afghanistan follows with 3 million, not included are those internally displaced.
In the past few years, record numbers of refugees worldwide have been forced to flee their homes. In South Sudan alone, UNHCR William Spindler states: “More than 60 per cent of the refugees are children, many arriving with alarming levels of malnutrition… Recent new arrivals report suffering inside South Sudan with intense fighting, kidnappings, rape, fears of armed groups and threats to life, as well as acute food shortage.” Refugees from other countries report similar crisis.
Instead of providing protection to refugees on a global scale, many countries are slamming their doors shut. To be more specific, the wealthiest nations are leaving other, poorer countries to cope alone with nearly all the world’s 21 million refugees, while politicians and powerful media portray refugee people (running for their lives) as “illegal” or faceless “invaders” who are “a security threat“.
By dehumanizing people in need of international protection, rich countries are ducking their responsibility to protect those fleeing violence, persecution and conflict. One might wonder if new laws are required to protect the rights of refugees. WE DON’T. International refugee law and human rights law provide a sophisticated and well-balanced system to allow people in need to escape war and persecution AND to access protection in a third country.
It is becoming increasingly common to see the terms “refugee” and “migrant” being used interchangeably by media and politicians. However a tremendous difference lies between the two. REFUGEES are human beings who cannot return to their own country because they are at real risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations. MIGRANTS are persons who move mainly to improve their lives by finding work, better education or other reasons.
As equal citizens of this planet, what basic human value is essential for us to co-exist? We each have a strong obligation to treat strangers with dignity and hospitality. The most often cited passage dealing with welcoming the refugee is from Matthew 25: 31-40. This section speaks of the Final Judgment, when the righteous will be granted paradise and unrepentant sinners will be consigned to eternal fire. Christ says you are “blessed” because “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger (refugee) and you welcomed me.” The righteous then ask, “When did we see you, a stranger, and welcome you?” Christ replies, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
The New Covenant makes it very clear that we should see everyone as “Christ” in the flesh. The rich countries, with their tremendous power, money and resources, must observe basically God’s law and protect the lives of those 21 million refugees “Who have no place to call home!”
Jerry Novotny, OMI