By Baroness Julia Neuberger Senior Rabbi, West London Synagogue
Nearly 3,700 migrants were rescued off the coast of Libya last weekend, picked up from wooden and inflatable boats by Italian and French ships. A couple of weeks ago, nearly 800 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Many were women and children, locked into the lower decks of an ageing fishing boat with not a chance of escape.
They came from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali, Sierra Leone and Senegal, and made up nearly half of the 1,750 people who have already died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean – a 20-fold increase on 2014.
Why are they all coming?
Look at what’s happening in Libya. We need to accept some responsibility for this as a nation. We caused a terrible state to become a failed state, and then we failed to act. Now ISIS is killing Christians for no other reason than that they’re Christians, north and central Africa are in meltdown – yet the EU has decided to stop its Mare Nostrum search and rescue, and to concentrate on the ‘people traffickers’.
If you listen to politicians talk – from all parties – about the tragedy, they offer a bit of sympathy and then say that something must be done about the illegal trade in people. That response is just not good enough.
All of us Jews, unless converts, came to this country as migrants or refugees. We understand the tribulations of desperate people, because our folk memory, and more recent events, remind us. People are leaving because they’re desperate.
They were desperate before and in search of a better life. Now, many of them are terrified for their lives, and risk those lives coming to Europe’s shores. Meanwhile, we dither and wring our hands. We all share responsibility for this.
We share the political climate that has become so negative about asylum seekers and migrants. A horrific human tragedy is rolling out before our eyes, and, much of the time, it hasn’t even been making the front pages of the news. Even if the people traffickers are pretty terrible people – as they must be because of the condition of the boats – they wouldn’t have a business if things were not so desperate.
If we look at pictures of Christians being beheaded on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea – a video released by ISIS showed Coptic Christians being led to their deaths – we feel sick. But we ought to be able to make the connection.
Libyans and Egyptians are fleeing for fear of being slaughtered by ISIS, and we in the West do nothing. We should be making a fuss and saying that this is an EU responsibility. Europe has to try to rescue these people and save their lives.
The fact we don’t want them within Europe – and apparently we don’t – doesn’t justify letting them die terrible deaths. Especially not the children.
We have a responsibility. And yet Fortress Europe wants to send a message to desperate people who might be killed by ISIS that it’s very dangerous, and you might die if you come to Europe.
Well, you might well die if you stay…… We all know that desperate people will take desperate measures. When we Jews reflect on what happened before the war in 1939 in much of Europe, we criticise the authorities.
How could they deport people to a certain death?
How could they ignore the horrors?
Yet exactly the same is happening now. The horror is unfolding, and we’re doing absolutely nothing about it. This series of tragedies should make us want to speak out about migrants and refugees.
We can’t take everybody – we all know that. But Christians in fear of their lives in Libya? Isn’t that a legitimate reason to flee?
In his Easter message, at Pesach, the festival of freedom, the Archbishop of Canterbury highlighted the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa. He argued that the treatment of Christians was the worst it had been since the 13th century.
We should support Justin Welby in this and persuade him to talk to whatever government comes in after 7 May.
We should join him, in apolitical, humanitarian, independent concern, arguing that at least some Christians fearing for their lives should be granted asylum in the UK and Europe more widely. And we should be prepared, as Jews, to take some action to help the migrants, and to persuade the government to change its negative discourse surrounding all migrants – whichever government it may turn out to be.
Nothing less will do.