An inflatable boat slips into a cove near Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos. It is packed with Syrian asylum seekers wearing orange lifejackets. They have just crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey.
One of them waves a lifebuoy triumphantly to the man wading into the water to greet them.
The sun is setting. The last rays of hope are receding behind the horizon. In a few moments it will be dark, and no one wants to spend a perilous night at sea in a small craft.
The UN worker or government official holds his hands high to greet them.
They’ve made it! They are safe.
This poignant photo was taken by Aris Messinis in February, 2016, nearly a full year ago.
Since that time we have heard countless reports of how miserable life is for thousands of Syrian refugees in Europe. Countries like Germany, Austria and Sweden have been remarkably generous, but many asylum seekers, including quite possibly those in this very photo, are still stuck in limbo.
This week’s cold snap across Europe has only made matters worse.
In Lesbos, snow blanketed the Moria refugee camp, home to more than 4,000 people, most of whom subsist in small tents. Some of those tents have collapsed under the weight of the snow. The UN has tried to find hotels for the most vulnerable refugees, but could only find rooms for 120 of them.
An Amnesty International report said of conditions in Lesbos, “Asylum-seekers on the Greek islands face overcrowding, freezing temperatures, lack of hot water, violence and hate-motivated attacks.”
All the relief and hope expressed in Aris Messinis’ touching photo has been dashed. The joyous orange-clad seafarers in that inflatable craft are now among the world’s poorest and most desperate people.
Bryan Stevenson, the founder of Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal practice dedicated to defending those most marginalized by our society, describes poverty this way:
“I believe that in many parts of this country, and certainly in many parts of this globe, the opposite of poverty is not wealth. I think, in too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society, not by how they treat their rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated. Because it’s in that nexus that we actually begin to understand truly profound things about who we are.”
The opposite of poverty is not wealth, it’s justice.
In his book, Just Mercy, Stevenson argues that improving access to courts, lawyers, and legal information for the poor and marginalized fundamentally reduces poverty. Where we prevent the poor from accessing justice we also entrench and exacerbate their deprivation.
Refugees in the Moria refugee camp are trapped from entering the European mainland by a deal done between Turkey and the EU. They have no access to the courts to challenge that ruling.
Similarly, refugees applying for asylum in Australia have been incarcerated on Pacific islands with no access any legal avenues for improving their lot.
We are consigning whole generations of vulnerable people to entrenched poverty.
It’s one thing if the governments of Turkey and Australia or the EU are doing this. But it continues to astonish me that Christians, followers of Jesus, who was himself a refugee infant, are unmoved by the plight of asylum seekers.
We live in a xenophobic age of open vilification toward outsiders, but surely the church ought to be expressing the opposite – welcome, hospitality, generosity, justice!
God often comes to us as the naked, the hungry, the incarcerated. Xenophobia is not only irrational, it is sinful. Bryan Stevenson says when we’re confronted by such injustice we “begin to understand truly profound things about who we are.”
So, who are we?
God’s concern is for the least, the lost, and the left out, and so should ours.