The tragic loss of life among those crossing the Mediterranean in search of security and opportunity in Europe has been a prominent story in recent weeks. They risk the journey for a variety of reasons, with some fleeing civil war and persecution while others look for work and the chance to support their families. However, what they all have in common, the force that drives them, is the desire for a better life. Often that better life will simply be further poverty in Europe and few undertake the arduous journey with the hope of riches and wealth at the end. Yet the promise of such meek rewards is still sufficient to compel them to risk their lives.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that so many risk the journey though. After all, many are coming from a place where each day seems to bring equal chance of life or death and, in such circumstances, it is easy to see how one might believe the dangers are worth it. Who are we to judge if they determine that it is better to die whilst striving for a better life than to accept the one you have?
For many though, this journey to Europe was not their first choice. A great number of migrants now seeking the safety of Italy and other EU nations wanted originally to settle down in Libya. However, when Muammar Gaddafi lost power in the country in 2011, civil war and chaos has rendered the country far too unstable, and often hostile towards immigrants, for it to serve as a more permanent destination. Israel too was once considered a primary destination for those seeking a better life in the region. Yet recent threats to its security and escalating internal turmoil have contributed to the nation’s decision to largely close its borders.
Europe is aware of the problem and has tried to help, though with varying degrees of success. Italy has been particularly active the past few years in attempting to regulate the passage to its borders from North Africa. Its Mare Nostrum rescue program, launched in November 2013, rescued as many as 130,000 migrants before it was shut down this past October due to budget constraints among other reasons. It has since been replaced by Operation Triton at 1/3 the cost of Mare Nostrum. Triton is a more collaborative effort, relying on boats from other nations instead of only those in the Italian navy. Unfortunately, it has not been as effective in meeting the ever-growing number of those making the dangerous journey.
However, not everyone has been impressed by Europe’s efforts. Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, warns that many European governments have begun to make “keeping foreigners out a higher priority than upholding asylum standards.” He fears that human lives are becoming “collateral damage” in attempts to secure the borders. Indeed, the other primary reason that Mare Nostrum was closed was that its success in saving lives was making the journey across the Mediterranean less dangerous for potential refugees. This, in turn, increased the number of people willing to risk the voyage. Essentially, the program was, in many ways, a victim of its own success.
While the media will eventually move on to the next story, this issue isn’t going away. One European Union official estimated that roughly a million migrants will cross the Mediterranean into Europe this year alone. So how should Christians view this topic? On one hand, Paul tells us in Romans 13 that we have an obligation to obey the authorities and those crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better life often do so illegally, many without the intent to ever become full citizens. Article 31 of the Refugee Convention says that refugees should not be penalized for having entered a country illegally as long as their lives were at risk in their country of origin and make themselves known to the authorities. While some fit that description, many do not. Should they be viewed solely as victims when the harm that befalls them is the result of illegal activity, even though it is often justified?
On the other hand, scripture is very clear that we have a responsibility to help those in need. Deuteronomy 10:19 instructs God’s people “to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” Leviticus 19:33-34 tells us to treat them as we would our fellow citizens and to love them as we love ourselves. And in Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that one of the things that will separate those who are truly his followers from those who are not is their willingness to help those in need. That’s not to say that our salvation is determined by our actions as we are saved by faith rather than works (Romans 3:28). Rather, Christ said that to call attention to the fact that the desire to help those in need should flow naturally from a relationship with him. The redeemed should not have to be told to help because it should be an innate part of our identity as disciples of Christ to do so.
Ultimately, what is going on in the Mediterranean is a tragedy only exceeded by the circumstances that have driven people to attempt the dangerous journey. While they are making this trip of their own accord, and thus are not free from responsibility when it ends in disaster, we must take into account the circumstances from which they flee. As Christians, we should pray for those who see such a voyage as their only chance to escape the conditions in their homeland and strive to help wherever possible. That means not only providing aid to those who are crossing but also providing aid in their homelands as well.
However, we must also remember that there are those in our cities and our neighborhoods in need of our help as well. The call to help those around you is not less than the call to help those across the world. God cares equally about every person. The need of your neighbor is just as important as the need of the distant stranger and often far easier to meet. God has put the least of these in all of our lives not only for their sake but also for ours. And when they see Christ in you, don’t be surprised if you look back and see Christ in them.