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Why turning away asylum-seekers means turning away from God

The debate around migration is complex, but the way we should treat people in need isn’t. 

Written by Gideon Heugh | 10 Mar 2023

A man embraces two people

A family from Ukraine hug each other. They have been forced to flee their home because of the conflict | Image credit: Credit: Michael Kappeler/dpa

We should be wary whenever someone says, ‘the Bible clearly states that….’ This is because, quite often, it doesn’t. Like life, the Bible is full of nuance. Yet there are some areas in which we can safely say that the Bible is clear. And one of those areas is how we treat people the Bible describes as ‘strangers’ and ‘foreigners’. People who might have been forced from their homes. People who might be the victims of trafficking. People who might be asylum-seekers and refugees.

Different opinions, shared truths

The debate around migration and people smuggling is complex, difficult and sensitive. There is such a thing as illegal immigration, but there isn’t such a thing as an illegal asylum-seeker. While there are many differing and strongly-held opinions on this issue, the fact that every person arriving in a country has the right to apply for asylum – and their case be considered fairly and be confirmed or rejected – is a long-established principle of international law. Furthermore, it mirrors the principles of the Bible.

Jesus tells us that how we treat other people is a reflection of how we treat Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40). We must see Christ in everyone. To turn away an asylum-seeker without hearing their case is to do the same to God. It is an act of oppression. And God is always on the side of the oppressed – as we should be.

It is our duty to speak up on behalf of the vulnerable (Proverbs 31:8-10), because poverty is not God’s plan. The church is. Caring for people who have fled their homes is part of our biblical call.

‘God is always on the side of the oppressed – as we should be.’

How does Tearfund help people around the world who have fled their homes?

Tearfund supports people who have been forced from their homes by conflict, disaster, persecution and extreme poverty – working through the church and other local partners in countries like Colombia, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Rwanda and South Sudan.

This work can include:

  • Helping people who have lost their homes understand their rights, and training them to represent themselves at local authority meetings.
  • Working with local churches in refugee camps and host communities to welcome people and serve their needs. This involves providing food, shelter and hygiene kits, as well as offering cash grants, training and work opportunities.
  • Helping ensure camps are safe by providing electricity, solar lights and accessible toilets and showers.
  • Offering trauma support to vulnerable people and setting up safe areas for children and youth to play, learn and grow.
  • If refugees are safely able to return home, we work through local churches to support reintegration into their home communities.
  • Working with local authorities to support them on how to spot signs of human trafficking, as refugees are vulnerable to this.
  • Training people in camps to spot signs of and report abuse, and refer women and girls to specialist support.
A woman and three children stand around a water pump

A water station at a camp for people forced from their homes in Jos, Nigeria | Image Credit: Tom Price/Tearfund

While Tearfund does not work with people who have fled to the UK, we are passionate about speaking out against injustice so that all people have the opportunity to reach their God-given potential.

What does the Bible say about caring for asylum-seekers?

God cares for and defends the oppressed

The Bible describes a God who is fierce and uncompromising in his defence of vulnerable people.

God ‘defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing’ (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).

God is described as ‘a refuge for the oppressed’ (Psalm 9:9) and goes as far as saying that anyone who mistreats people from other lands is ‘cursed’ (Deuteronomy 27:19).

The Bible commands us to love foreigners and strangers

Since caring for such people is part of the character of God, there are frequent commandments in the Bible to do the same:

‘Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.’ (Jeremiah 22:3)

‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.’ (Hebrews 13:2)

‘The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.’ (Leviticus 19:34)

As with everything, it goes back to the ‘golden rule’: we must treat other people the way we would want to be treated.

‘Every single person is God’s handiwork, made in God’s image, and should be treated as such.’

We are all made in God’s image

‘So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1:27, New Living Translation)

Every single person is God’s handiwork, made in God’s image, and should be treated as such.

To mistreat people fleeing their homes is ungodly because to mistreat any human being is ungodly. All people have the right to a free life – one in which they can flourish. To mistreat God’s creation – a creation made in God’s own image – is to dishonour the creator.

Faith without action is dead

The Bible tells us that the only ‘faultless’ religion is to ensure that we look after people who are vulnerable (James 1:27). It says that ‘faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.’ (James 2:26)

The Hebrew prophets repeated this theme frequently. In Isaiah 1, God ignores the prayers and worship of his people because there is injustice in the land (Isaiah 1:11-17).

When Jesus told the parable of the sheep and the goats – people who were either accepted or rejected by God – his main criteria was how we treat the marginalised and oppressed. In Jesus’ own words: the hungry, the thirsty, those without clothing, the imprisoned… and the ‘stranger’ (Matthew 25:31-46).

‘Turning away asylum-seekers without hearing their case fairly is not only a violation of their rights, it is a violation of God's call to care for the vulnerable and oppressed.’

Answering God’s call

While we all must continue to be sensitive to the nuance of the debate around asylum seekers, what we cannot do as Christians is bury our heads in the sand. This is not something that the church can ignore.

Turning away asylum-seekers without hearing their case fairly is not only a violation of their rights, it is a violation of God's call to care for the vulnerable and oppressed. As the church, we are called to treat all people with love and compassion, regardless of their nationality or background. May all of us – through prayer and action – always strive to do exactly that.

Pray with us

A prayer for people fleeing their homes

God of love,

You are the God who takes the side of the oppressed.
You are the God who is close to the brokenhearted.
You are the God who raises high the humble.

We pray for people around the world
who have had to flee their homes.
May they be welcomed with open arms.
May their needs for food, shelter, clothing and safety be met.
May their wounds – emotional and physical – be healed.

We pray that the world will listen to their plight.
We pray that the world will have compassion and empathy.
We pray that the world will take action on their behalf.

In Jesus’ name, amen.

Written by

Written by  Gideon Heugh

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