The other day when I was travelling through Paniar, a small town in Punjab, I learned that this town, and the whole area around it, used to be one of the largest refugee camps in the state. This would have been decades ago, at the time of the independence in 1947. The elderly still remember the heartrending stories of the refugees, who took shelter themselves or were brought there by state agencies. Even the Prime Minister at the time visited this refugee camp. Locals often supported and helped those in the camp. Today, however, we read the stories of the refugees, in one country or the other, living lives of misery and utter neglect.
Refugee … the word itself describes pain, agony, hopelessness, uncertainty and darkness. A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home because of persecution, war or violence. There is a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Refugees are vulnerable, having lost all their belongings and livelihood. They need help regaining their voice, becoming self-reliant and rebuilding their lives. They are scared to return home in any circumstances.
According to different reports two-thirds of all refugees worldwide come from just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. By the end of year 2017, 68.5 million individuals had been forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. Each day war and violence force thousands of families to flee their homes in search of safety.
Across the globe, 1 person in every 110 is an asylum-seeker, an internally displaced person or a refugee. Nearly 3 million more people fled their countries in 2017 compared to 2016 — the greatest year increase ever seen. More than half of all refugees are women and children. When forced to flee, women and children are among the most vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence.
Reports say that “India is home to over 3 lakh refugees from more than 30 countries.” Over 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims live here after being forced to flee Myanmar following the brutal campaign of violence by the Myanmar army, followed by Afghan asylum-seekers, who continued to arrive in increasing numbers.
In the Bible, Moses was a refugee, who fled from Egypt because the locals threatened to kill him. Moses was not an Egyptian. He was forced to flee for his life but God sent him back to deliver the people of Israel from slavery and lead across the Red Sea. That day the LORD saved Israel from the power of Egypt.
In the book of Exodus, it is written, “Don’t oppress an immigrant.....” and Leviticus 19:33-34 says, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
God is always with those suffering from disasters and He wants us also to help those in such need. They are worthy of respect and dignity. We need to recognise this strong biblical mandate to love, welcome and advocate on behalf of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.
The Church needs to respond to this crisis openheartedly with the love and care. Let the whole world know that everyone, even refugees, deserve to live with peace, security, and dignity. The cries of refugees need to be heard.
-Alwan Masih, General Secretary for the Church of North India Synod