The Greatest Humanitarian Crisis of Our Time

It was a year ago. I sat in a room filled with pastors, seminarians, and local church members. We gathered for the day to learn about one thing—the Syrian refugee crisis. It was already five years into the civil war which would send millions fleeing for their lives, but as horror piled on horror we were finally asking "What do we do?" 

After lunch, the World Vision presenter diverged from his presentation to draw our attention to a young woman quietly sitting in our midst. With tear-filled eyes, he passed the microphone to her. She had only recently come from this war-torn world we were talking about in the safety of a New England seminary. Curling hair framed her face as she shyly spoke in accented English. Her words were simple: "I just want to say, thank you for caring for my people." Even now, my eyes get watery.

In the year since that day, the refugee crisis has become an increasingly charged topic. The word "refugee" swirls in the midst of a political firestorm. And sadly this political battle has spilled into our Christian communities, creating division, anger, and pain. I'm convinced, though, this is an issue Christians could surround with united concern and compassion. We have a uniting call—to fight our way through the mess of the conflict to see the path of Jesus. We can work together—as the body of Christ—to clear away the fog of politics and of culture and the stories we see on social media to see what Christ-likeness looks like in these particular circumstances.

With this in mind, I want to take the time to talk here about the current refugee situation. Please, as much as you’re able, check your politics at the door for the time being. My desire is that we approach this (as with any issue) from the perspective of Faith and Facts. We think Christian-ly through the facts available to us, and through this path discern the best course of action. My desire is not to make a divisive political statement, but rather to guide us through this process of looking at our world's issues through the Christian lens. This is admittedly a longer post, but I’m hoping you take some time to think through this with me.

My admitted bias upfront...Knowing what we know of the character of God and of the nature of the unprecedented refugee crisis our world is facing today, I find it impossible to argue from a Christian perspective that our hearts should not break over this or we shouldn’t be looking for a way to help. There is room for conversations over the best means to carry this out—but there is no room not to care. 

I recognize the magnitude of the refugee crisis is overwhelming. I know a natural human response is to distance ourselves or become numb, losing sight of the people behind the statistics. But part of loving those who are hurting—part of caring—is baring ourselves to their pain by choosing to see it for what it is. Imagine what this would be like for your family or community. Remember throughout all of this that we are talking about precious people, flesh and blood, made in the image of God.

The Facts—What do we know about the refugee crisis?

Who are the refugees?

Official definition according to the United Nations: “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence.”

Let’s be clear here: refugees are not leaving their homes to seek economic opportunity or to “better” themselves. This situation is different than questions of immigration. Refugees are fleeing horror. Fleeing impoverishes them. In the case of the Syrian refugee crisis, most of them are middle income families, who had successful careers, happy families, comfortable homes, and modern convenience—but all of this has crumbled in front of them. They have no home because home has been ripped from them.

According to UNICEF, about half of the world’s refugees are children. Not only have these children been ripped from stable homes and rhythms, like school and play and a normal family structure, they have experienced unspeakable trauma, both in their home country and in the process of fleeing from it. Many have lost or been separated from their families. These are some of the world’s most vulnerable children.

Putting the numbers in context

In Syria alone, 4.9 million refugees have fled a country fractured by violence and war. I know that number is staggering and fairly incomprehensible for most of us, so here’s a comparison. Many of you watched the Super Bowl this year, hosted at NRG stadium in Houston. The stands were packed—what a mass of humanity. Now, imagine 68 of those stadiums side by side, each packed to capacity—it’s a staggering amount. Still a bit too staggering, perhaps?

Many of us have been to New York City—what a mass of humanity there. You squeeze onto the train, you bump into people on the sidewalk, you cram into cafes and restaurants. Imagine if half of the population of New York City suddenly were uprooted—their apartments left vacant, with the belongings they couldn’t carry collecting dust, their job positions suddenly unfilled—doctors and nurses missing from the hospital, lawyers not there to represent clients in court, classrooms half-empty without teachers to teach lessons. I’ll let you imagine for yourself the ways this would unsettle the place, as desperation and death lead to a chaotic dismantling of all that was once good and beautiful. It’s like a storyline out of an apocalyptic movie…but it’s happening in real life. 

And Syria is not an isolated incident. It’s one piece in a larger context. Today, more than 65 million people around the world are displaced, having been forced to flee from their homes. Of these, 21.3 million have fled to other countries as refugees. All fleeing death. All fleeing violence. All aching for the homes they’ve left behind. All unable to return.

Where are the refugees coming from?

We have been hearing the most lately about Syrian refugees. This attention is warranted, as they are the largest group of refugees in our world today. But all refugees are not Syrian. There are also significant numbers of refugees from Afghanistan (2.7 million refugees), Somalia (1.1 million), and South Sudan (about 1 million). These are only the top four. Finishing out the top ten countries of origin are Sudan, DR of Congo, Central African Republic, Myanmar, Eritrea, and Columbia. Ethnic violence, civil war, religious persecution, and conflict of all sorts have decimated communities across the world. 

Where do the refugees go?

We’ve all heard the reports of refugees fleeing into Europe, and this has certainly garnered the most media attention. But the majority of refugees flee to neighboring countries and remain there. The vast majority of Syrian refugees, for example, will remain in the Middle East in neighboring countries such as Turkey and Lebanon. The UNHCR estimates less than one percent of all refugees are resettled in third countries, such as the United States, and they are refugees who have been determined to be the most vulnerable and at risk.

The top ten host countries of refugees are all developing nations, and five of these top ten are in sub-Saharan Africa. These top ten host countries hold approximately 58% of the world’s refugees. 

At the top of the list is Turkey, with at least 2.5 million refugees within its borders. Lebanon, the third-largest host country, has 1.1 million refugees. This means approximately 1 in 5 people in Lebanon are refugees, most of which are crammed into grossly overcrowded planned or impromptu refugee camps. The surrounding nations are already hosting unsustainable numbers of refugees, and as the refugee crisis continues to grow, the stress on these host countries will only become more extreme. 

Refugees and the future of global poverty

Steve Haas, of World Vision, (and others) says that the refugee crises in our world are pictures of where the future of global poverty is going. In other words, if you care about poverty and vulnerable communities in the world, you should care about the world’s refugee situation. While global poverty has improved significantly over the last twenty-five years, it has become more concentrated. About half of the world’s poor are found in the world’s top 50 fragile states. Some estimate that by 2030, two-thirds of the world’s poor will live in fragile states. 

The fragile states index uses twelve political, economic, and social factors to assess the stability of a country. The social fabric of a fragile state is torn. Governments and public institutions cannot or will not provide basic services or security. These states don’t have the resilience to bounce back after a natural disaster, social unrest, or economic crisis. Their stability and sustainability is in question. 

These fragile states are where our world's refugees are coming from. The top seven origin countries I mentioned earlier-Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, DR of Congo, and Central African Republic-all fall in the top ten fragile states in the world. 

Fragile states are also where the refugees are going to. All but two of the top ten host countries are within the top 50 fragile states (Haas estimates a staggering 86% of the world's refugees can be found in these 50 nations). The nations currently bearing the heaviest load in hosting refugees are already strained themselves, and the high levels of refugees pouring into them only add to the stress and long-term instability. This makes me seriously question that they will be able to sustain and support the refugees they host long term without significant support or some sort of "release valve" allowing refugees to resettle elsewhere.

Faith—How does the Bible speak to this?

In the Old Testament, we read time and time again that our God cares deeply for the poor and the oppressed. He hates it when the vulnerable are taken advantage of and are exploited. He cares for those who have no one to defend them—in the society of the day: the fatherless, orphans, and widows. He put in protections for those who were foreigners, who were landless, who were destitute. Don’t just take my word for it: Read the prophets and notice how much the Lord is railing on the Israelites for not living up to his standard in social issues. Compassion and justice were to be hallmarks of God’s people—but Israel was failing miserably, and God was…angry. 

Jesus lived out so perfectly this elegant, shocking, beautiful balance of Truth and Love, of Justice and Mercy. He had a zero-tolerance policy for sin (of course He did—He was God), but he bestowed grace and love, and lifted people from shame and marginalization at every turn. He touched the untouchable. People were scandalized by who he chose to associate with, including the least-powerful and least-desired people in his society. He engaged with the political and cultural enemies of his people. He befriended those who were part of systems of oppression (tax collectors) and those who were trying to overthrow them (one of his disciples was a radical zealot). He welcomed those his culture and his religion's leaders wanted nothing to do with. He embraced any who came to him in faith and humility. And He of all people knew how costly this welcoming embrace would be—it led Him to the Cross.

From my understanding of the Bible, it is clear that God cares deeply about the plight of refugees, just as He cares for every group of people who are hurting, in great need, exploited, defenseless. As Jesus-people, our response should be compassion and love. We can debate the best and most effective strategies for carrying this out, but I don’t think we can debate God’s concern for refugees and the necessity for a response from us, His people. Our God is for refugees. We should be too.

A note here about fear. Underneath so much of the rhetoric I’ve been hearing surrounding the refugee situation, I hear fear. It’s fear of violence, fear of welcoming those of different cultures and religions into our neighborhoods. There is nothing wrong with wanting safety and security. These are good things. But nowhere in Scripture do I see room to allow fear to make our decisions—for fear to override compassion. Our Christian duty overrides fear. For Christians, we should operate from faith and fact, in love and compassion. 

This loving compassion is not abstract, and it's not just a feeling. It is an active love. Genuine concern and genuine care typically become cruciform. It is a messy business. It hurts. It makes us uncomfortable. It requires sacrifice. It doesn't hold people at arm's length or make them someone else's problem. It offers an embrace that says, "I see you, and I willingly make your problems my problems."

This is why, for generations, Christians have joined together in compassion and justice related ministries. We see the character of God. We see how that propels us to fleshed-out love. And we act. Individuals, church communities, and charity organizations have lovingly made the great needs of our world "our problem." The current refugee crisis is the latest presenting global humanitarian need. The love of God compels us to action. It should compel us here.

Over a year ago, Michael Gerson, an op-ed columnist at the Washington Post took a trip with one of these Christian organizations, World Vision, to the Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon. He concluded this:

“Whoever is responsible for this radiating wave of misery — and many are responsible, through action and inaction — the Syrian refugee crisis is now the greatest humanitarian challenge since the height of the AIDS pandemic. As with that tragedy, it is a generational test.

If the global refugee response is insufficient here, it is insufficient. If American churches and charities are not relevant here, they are irrelevant.”

Where do we go from here?

After looking at all of this information, I am left with the question "Now what?" The problem is seemingly insurmountable. What can I do to help?

As I've said already, there is some room for conversations about the best ways to help, as long as those conversations are ruled by the compassionate faith-fact paradigm I've offered here. Some will become advocates. Some will travel to war torn areas to offer specific skills. Prayerfully wrestle through your response personally and within your faith community.

I offer four practical steps we can all consider: 

1. Do your research. 

As I said, our standard of operation should be faith plus fact. There is a lot of false information about refugees—their situation, the process of how they come to the U.S., etc. Take some time to do some careful research of the facts. Go beyond the viral threads on Facebook, and look at multiple credible sources, that are well researched and share first hand accounts or primary source data (statistical research, polls, demographic studies, etc.). Talk to real people, if you know them, who have firsthand experience with refugees. Understand what’s going on. 

For example, many people don't know the process refugees go through before they can come to the United States. By the time a refugee is resettled in the U.S., they have gone through an 18-24 month screening process, first through the UN and then through the collaboration of nine U.S. government agencies. They will have been approved through multiple in-person interviews, background checks, and biometric screenings, a medical exam, and a cultural orientation class. This makes them the most thoroughly and rigorously screened group of people to enter the United States. To learn more about this process, check out the descriptions at the State Department, the White House, or this recent New York Times piece.

UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency) has extensive resources on the global refugee situation. See their Refugee Figures at a Glance. For more information, you can also access their full report on refugees. This report is thorough (read: hefty), but I found it extremely helpful for getting a sense of the current scope of the problem (for those of you who are wondering, the 2016 report will not come out until mid-year—this is currently the best data we have).

Another organization I trust greatly is World Vision. They have “boots on the ground” and can report on the situation first hand. They have assembled a great host of information on their website, particularly about the Syrian refugee crisis

2. Pray.

The scope of the size and duration of the refugee crisis is overwhelming. We cannot do everything. Our nation cannot do everything. Pray for God’s wisdom for how you can be involved and make a difference. Pray for our national leaders as they debate this issue. Pray for those working with refugees around the world. Pray for refugees, who are facing uncertain futures, who are bearing great pain and trauma. There is power in our prayer.

3. Support refugees in your area. 

Refugees from a local resettlement agency and folks from my church share food and listen to music together at a potluck. Your presence, even with a language barrier, can be a great message of welcome.

Refugees from a local resettlement agency and folks from my church share food and listen to music together at a potluck. Your presence, even with a language barrier, can be a great message of welcome.

There are organizations throughout the country who work to resettle refugees in the U.S. Find the one closest to your area and see how you can help. They may need help with organizing and gathering donations and supplies, English tutoring, showing refugee families around your area, or getting refugees connected with jobs in your area. Consider gathering a group of people—or even better yet your church!—and developing a partnership. These resettled refugees are typically overwhelmed by all of the changes they have experienced, and because of the political climate, they feel even more unwanted and unwelcomed. Consider ways to build relationships and friendships with them. 

Do you have any friends who are refugees to this country? Do you know them and know their story? Do you see the fear they’ve felt over these last months? Do you see how they are being used as political pawns? Do you see how they are desperately trying to make a new life for themselves here and restore normalcy for their children? 

We can combat the fear I mentioned earlier through relationships. When we take the time to know someone and their story and share life with them, we realize that what we feared isn’t who they actually are. As Scott so often says, “It’s hard to hate someone you understand.”

4. Support organizations working with refugees overseas.

The vast majority of refugees are still scattered close to their home country. There are many wonderful organizations working with refugees overseas. They are supplying basic needs such as housing, sanitation, nutrition, and medical care while they are in camps, and working to address the trauma refugees have endured. There are many good organizations doing important work with refugees internationally, but for the sake of brevity, I will offer you three: World Vision, Doctors Without Borders, and the International Rescue Committee. These organizations are also excellent resources for information on refugees throughout the world.

A note about comments: I welcome your dialogue, but I do ask that it be done in a respectful and constructive manner.