USPG Theological Adviser Dr Evie Vernon offers her thoughts following her attendance at the World Council of Churches’ World Conference on Xenophobia Racism and Populist Nationalism, held at the Vatican in September.
A first step is to acknowledge the growing disaffection of grassroots populations in the West. To do this, we need to engage with those who feel overwhelmed by the stranger – we need to understand their perspective.
With shrinking social services, many UK people feel upset that their families are not being looked after so well or can’t find jobs – and it’s easy to blame this on the idea that migrants are using up all the resources
Many are feeling the pinch and feel abandoned by the government. For these people, it’s easier to blame the migrants – and this suits the government because then the anger of the people is focused on the minority stranger rather than on the government.
But while we recognise the despair of those who turn to xenophobia and racism, we also need to point them towards the bigger picture – namely that, historically, those in positions of privilege have largely gained their wealth by plundering the world’s resources, while also exacerbating global conflict by supporting the arms trade and dubious regime change.
The West is also to blame for the industries that created global warming, leading to mass migration around the world in the face of climate change.
The simple truth is that what we do in the West has created many of the problems that have led to global migration. And the irony is that we in the West are ourselves migrants – for example, historically, the UK is comprised of Angles, Saxons and Jutes.
Our key focus needs to be on education to establish more accurately the roots of disaffection, namely the historical and contemporary issues of injustice that have led to the unequal distribution of global resources.
My vision is well illustrated by the story of an Iranian refugee in Sheffield.
At first, he and his peers were the recipients of conventional hand-outs and aid – traditional acts of charity which run the risk of painting the “other” as objects of pity.
But then the refugees were invited to help with painting and renovating the local church. Suddenly the refugees were working side by side with church members, not as outsiders, but as insiders. It is this sense of being one body that we must aim for.
• The event at the Vatican was attended by representatives of the UN Court of Justice, as well as Pope Francis, who offered his support. It is hoped the event will encourage the world church to have a stronger voice in the global debate on migration and xenophobia.