An interesting article in The Local (Swedish news in English) recently is about refugees from Iraq to Sweden. It seems that Iraqis fleeing their war-torn homeland choose Sweden above all other European countries. There are now nearly 80,000 Iraqis living in Sweden, and at present there are hundreds of new applications for asylum from Iraqis every month (over 2500 in the first six months of 2006). There is no indication that this trend will change in the immediate future. These Iraqis are said to come from all religious and ethnic backgrounds. Iraqis now constitute the second largest group of immigrants to Sweden after Finns, who number over 170,000.
Why do so many Iraqis choose Sweden? No doubt because they are much more likely to be successful in gaining permanent residency (80-90% compared to 1-2% in Germany). But also, according to the article, because “they already have relatives or friends there … Sweden has the reputation of being a humane country, a safe and democratic country that respects human rights,“ said Hikmet Hussain, the head of the Iraqi Federation in Sweden.
Democracy is attractive to people, especially, it seems, to people who are oppressed or suffering. Human rights, safety and security are important to people. Iraqis have fled Iraq because these things are apparently not in abundant supply there. They have come to Sweden because they are. Why are these things so difficult to find in Iraq? Is it Islam? Is it racial tension? Is it poverty? Why are they present in Sweden? Is it Christianity? Is it secular humanism? Is it wealth?
Refugees bring with them their religion, their world view, their values and behaviours, their prejudices, and in many cases their relative poverty. The big question for all western nations is whether refugees will change them, and particularly their cherished ideals of democracy, freedom, security, wealth and safety, or whether they will change the refugees. The prevailing fear, it seems, is that the former will happen. That refugees will change the nations that receive them, and not for the better.
The experience in Tamworth recently has shown this. Sudanese refugees in Tamworth have been seen as a threat. A threat to peace and quiet, a threat to the water supply, a threat to health. African refugees in Tamworth are not welcome. There has been something of an outcry since Tamworth Regional Council recently made the decision to “say no to refugees.” Many disagree and are now speaking out to accept refugees. But the decision still stands, as far as I know, and the doors to refugees remain tightly closed.
How should we Christians respond to the refugee issue? It is not a simple question, and yet there are some aspects that seem simple to me. We should welcome the outcast. We should invite strangers in. We should care for the suffering, regardless of who they are. That surely is part of Jesus’ message. Saying no to refugees is not “welcoming the outcast.”
So is Sweden more Christian than Australia? I don’t think so. Sweden certainly has a very different immigration policy. Is it more compassionate? Is it just naïve and foolish? Is it right or wrong? Why does Sweden welcome immigrants and refugees with apparently open arms? Is it for moral reasons or are there pragmatic reasons behind it?
I have lots of questions and not many answers. Jesus’ parents knew what it felt like to have doors closed in their face. Jesus’ family were refugees for awhile in Egypt. He eventually returned to his homeland, once the danger had passed. Who knows how the Egyptians treated his family? Joseph and Mary would surely not have had much money, they presumably did not speak the language, and they had different beliefs and customs. Was Jesus’ family taken care of by an ex-patriot Jewish community? Were they taken in by the Egyptians? How did they feel, being strangers in a strange land?
It is one thing to go home when “the danger has passed.” But what of a world in which the danger never seems to pass? There are refugees who have been living in refugee camps in Africa for 20 years waiting for the danger to pass. The refugee camp has become their new homeland. Returning refugees to their native land is certainly the ideal outcome according to the UNHCR. But it seems to be an increasingly elusive goal in many places.
One thing seems certain. Most Iraqi refugees do not want to come to Sweden. They want to go home. According to UNHCR, “at the beginning of November, there were more than 700,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan, at least 600,000 in Syria and 100,000 in Egypt.” These countries are all near neighbours to Iraq. One can only assume that those who have taken refuge there are waiting for the danger to pass, and that when peace is eventually restored to Iraq, if it ever is, they will return to their devastated homeland.
In the long term, most Iraqis are going to stay in Iraq, not move to Sweden or anywhere else. Swedish society will certainly change as a result of the ones who do come. But that surely does not need to be a bad thing. Iraqi people will also be changed, but that does not need to be a bad thing either. In our world, change is inevitable. It is scary but it is not always bad. Hopefully the changes will be the best for everyone concerned. Hopefully each will receive the best the other has to offer.