It has taken a while, but the UK now has a compassionate refugee programme responsive to the crisis unfolding in Ukraine, which is the worst refugee crisis seen in Europe since the end of World War II. It is a programme which is generous and welcoming, and one of which we can be proud, not least because ordinary people in ordinary homes in ordinary communities will take the lead, and the Government will contribute modestly to the costs of their hospitality.
‘Homes for Ukraine’ is the programme: if you know a refugee you want to support, or find a refugee family through social media or an NGO, you can apply together to be paired up. The application will be vetted digitally for any security issues, but in an age of malign political infiltration and suicidal terrorism, this is a sensible precaution.
The programme also allows churches, charities, refugee and diaspora organisations to vet and approve groups of sponsors to take groups of refugees. This should enable the scheme to grow with speed and scale. Hosts will be given £350/month to help defray expenses. Some say this isn’t enough to feed and care for a Ukrainian family, but it isn’t supposed to be: the founding ethos of ‘Homes for Ukraine’ is individual compassion, benevolence and generosity; not the prospect of breaking even or making a profit.
Most importantly, refugees will be able to work in the UK, and then access all the benefits and services of the State – but not housing, because that will be provided by individuals and communities themselves. The offer by the sponsor is for a home for six months. It isn’t clear what happens thereafter, but in a community-led fraternal approach, refugees aren’t going to be left homeless on the streets. It is simply a case of the government trusting this ‘bottom-up’ hospitality, and supporting those who open their homes to those in need.
There are some who say the policy is racist: we didn’t do this for the 80 million refugees who have fled war, poverty and repression from Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, DR Congo, Iraq, Nigeria or South Sudan, so what’s so special about the two million fleeing Ukraine? Channel 4’s Lindsay Hilsum tweeted ‘Refugee Blues’ to remind people that Ukrainians were not the first:
“We have to deal with them equally,” says Angelina Jolie. “There is no difference between Europe refugees and middle east countries refugees.” And such pleas are accompanied by photographs of white refugees from Ukraine juxtaposed with black or browned-skinned refugees from Syria (etc), with an acerbic challenge to spot the difference.
Angelina Jolie is right, of course: there is no difference in human worth, dignity or value between a Ukrainian refugee and one from the Middle East of Africa, but, in making a plea for the Government to drop all security checks Lord Dannatt explains there is a different level of risk: “We’re not dealing with people coming out of Syria or Iraq, where there are concerns about terrorism and Islamist terrorism or whatever: these are European people whose country is under threat – Ukrainians – and I think frankly we need to be prepared to take a risk and let people come in, and if necessary vet them once they’ve got here. The really important thing here is that we are open-armed, that we warmhearted, and that this country plays its part to the maximum degree possible.”
Now some might say that Lord Dannatt’s argument is the very definition of racism, or, indeed, that he is himself racist: white Europeans tend to be Christian and civilised; brown Asians and Africans tend to represent and higher degree of risk. So we should be open-armed and warmhearted to the former, but view the latter with suspicion.
And some will quote Scripture in abundance:
And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself (Lev19:33f).
He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment (Deut 18:18).
Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction (Js 1:27).
And oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor (Zech 7:10).
Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex 22:21).
And there is much more: the Lord is Father of the fatherless and protector of widows. Our task is to feed them, clothe them, and ensure justice for them. The exhortation to love one’s neighbour doesn’t cease at the borders of Europe.
But it is important to balance this with the order of natural fraternity, because we are not dealing with a nation of Christians, or even with a ‘Christian nation’, but one made up of diverse groups of all faiths and none, and each will have their own limits on expressions of hospitality. ‘Homes for Ukraine’ acknowledges this, because human compassion flows organically from the individual to the family, and from the family to the community, and from the community to the nation, and often from the nation to the continent where the ties that bind tend to be historic, economic, cultural, philosophical and religious
‘Homes for Ukraine’ is not only profoundly Christian, compassionate and generous; it is fundamentally conservative because it inclines toward instinctual human fraternity over dogmatic assertions of equality. From the individual to the family, and thence to the local, variable, private institutions of organic association. This is the how welfare should flourish. Perhaps now the Government might trust and support individuals and communities in helping to house our own homeless, impoverished and destitute.