The challenges of mass migration - my speech to delegates at Birmingham's Annual Justice Service

It is a privilege to be asked to speak at this event, in this beautiful place whose acoustics complement the beautiful music.  I welcome the chance to share the perspective of a legislator with so many members of the legal profession.

Let me confess straight away that I am not a lawyer.  I have to point that out to people who seek my help, for often you, as lawyers, are better placed than me to advise.  But as an MP, I do have to pass laws.

This in part is what prompted me to tackle the difficult subject of migration, as this is what came to my mind as I looked at the readings.

I want to be clear that I'm talking today about refugees. Too often there is a blurring of the motives of migration, between those who are, for example, economic migrants and those who are asylum seekers in desperate need.  So I'm examining our responsibility to those who flee war and oppression in fear of their lives.

To treat those in need justly, the readings remind us that we need both wisdom and humility in our conduct.

The New Testament reading reminds us that Jesus lived a life of humility, putting others first, even to the point of death on the cross. In verse 5, we are called to have the “same mind” as that which was in Christ Jesus. That is quite a challenge.

The letter of Philippians was written in the context of a church that was disunited, and struggling with the selfish ambition of its members.  But I think it has broader application for how we treat the poor, needy and vulnerable more widely.  In our current political context, it is pertinent to consider how it applies to refugees.

So what is the example of Jesus laid out in this passage?

It is one of humility and the laying aside of privilege for the benefit of others.

The apostle Paul tells us that Jesus had a significant claim to emphasise his power and authority.

But we read in verses 6 to 7 that he “did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited; but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

He “emptied himself”. He chose it. He did it willingly. He set aside his rights, becoming human, for our benefit.

Jesus humbled himself to die for us.  We had done nothing to deserve this and yet Jesus paid a high price.  He took the punishment that should justly and rightly have been ours, because of our sins, so that we could be brought into a right relationship with God.  Jesus paid the price so that those who believe in him do not have to.

When we truly understand the cost that Jesus paid, it doesn't seem too much for us to do something to help those less fortunate than ourselves.

And as we think about the refugee crisis, we can reflect on Jesus’ example further. For of course, he was a refugee himself. His family fled to Egypt when King Herod threatened to kill all first born sons. 

As we remember this, how can we show our solidarity with those refugees fleeing Syria?  What can we do to ensure that our treatment of refugees, of those effectively exiled from their own country, is just? How can we ensure we follow the Biblical example?

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” Paul says in verse 5.  

As privileged people, with a privileged position of influence, we should strive not to use our privilege for our own advantage, but to serve others, as Christ did.  How can I ensure that I am not using my privilege selfishly?

Historically, the UK has always provided a safe haven for refugees. My forebears were Huguenots, and most people in this room will have some migrant genes. We are the better for it. 

I studied population geography and there are certain laws of migration.  For example, migrants often outperform the indigenous population.  This sometimes causes resentments but on the upside our country is enriched by these highly motivated incomers.  

I saw this for myself with an Afghan family who were sent to live in my constituency, as Solihull is a dispersal area for asylum seekers. Their daughter suffered bullying when she first started at school here, but this talented girl went on to be a BBC children's storyteller with her gift of writing in her acquired language - amazing! 

Of course, I hear all the arguments that we are a small island, too small to take more people.  I am not belittling the problem of taking in more refugees, when public resources are already stretched.  And of course, as the Prime Minister has said, the burden of caring for the world's poorest must not fall in the poorest here.

But just consider the sacrifices made by Lebanon in taking 1.4 million Syrian refugees when its population was only 3 million. That means there are more Syrian children in Lebanese schools than Lebanese. The situation is the same for Jordan. 

The UK is the world's sixth largest economy and yet we spend less than one percent of our total expenditure on the world's poorest people. Indeed, the value of the food we throw away each year is more than we spend on overseas aid.

“Let each of you not look to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” says verse 4.

Of course it is tough. In a world where we have limited resources, accepting people who are different is always hard for human beings. We instinctively protect our own first.

But following Jesus’ example means crushing that instinctive selfish ambition in all of us.  It means ignoring that inner voice saying that the problem is too great for us to even attempt to tackle.

What does it mean to look to the interests of others?  Will we take a refugee in?  Will we scour the closet for clothes for our miserable cold winters that they are ill equipped for?  Will we challenge racism and prejudice at the dinner table?  What will we do differently after today?

Let me try a specific challenge for the legal profession.  The existing legal support for asylum seekers does not work especially well.  A significant proportion of my surgery caseload are asylum seekers who have been waiting years to have their cases resolved.  Often they hear nothing from the lawyers appointed and paid to help them.  I accept that they can be difficult to keep track of as they move around, but the legal support could definitely be better.  Can you help raise that standard and campaign with me to tackle the Border Agency over lost papers and passports?  This whole area needs to improve, and certainly before the 20,000 or so new migrants get here.  As the saying goes, “justice delayed is justice denied”.  We owe it to those who wait unjustly to sort this out.

This current wave of migration does need to be seen in context.  A little history will tell you that we drew the lines on the map that welded over a hundred different tribes into a country called Iraq, and of course the North West frontier of our former empire in India is where the trouble continues to this day in Afghanistan. The legacy of our empire means that we do still have an obligation to countries in Asia, Africa and elsewhere. 

We are also signatories of the Geneva and Hague conventions, drawn up after the Second World War by countries committed to preventing such genocide happening again.

So whether we are in or out of the EU, many of these obligations remain. 

I will never forget a refugee from the Congo who lived in my constituency.  She spoke of the agony of seeing her husband shot in front of her.  When she escaped to the UK she was raped.  She came to see me with her two year old son, a product of that rape.  She was utterly depressed.  The Border Agency had lost her papers and in the chaotic Congo she had little chance of replacements.  It took me 8 years to sort her case but one day I walked into my surgery to see her beaming from ear to ear.  She is now working as a care assistant, having been given leave to remain. 

One of the side effects of the refugee crisis and increased immigration seems to be a heightened level of unease with religion and people of faith in our increasingly secular society in Britain.

We need to demonstrate that the positives that come from religion can far outweigh the damage done by the minority who misuse it.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury observed, when he came to Birmingham to mark the Cathedral’s tercentenary earlier this year, we have an opportunity to show the world how people of different backgrounds can live together in peace right here in this city.

In December, Birmingham City Council became the first local authority to sign a ‘Faith Covenant’, a commitment between faith communities and the local authority to work together. Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council also signed a similar agreement last week.

The Near Neighbours funding from the government facilitates this cross faith cooperation. It aims to increase social interaction and social action, bringing diverse people together to work for the good of their communities.

The cathedral is also embarking on an arts programme across the faiths to promote understanding.

Once again, what is that you and I can do to support these initiatives or take our own action?

But what do we say to ourselves when all this imitation of Christ’s humiliation is just too hard? When our service and humility comes at too high a personal cost?

The reading from Philippians gives us a further reason for following Jesus’ example, by seeing how his genuine humility and obedience to God were rewarded.

Ultimately, Jesus was “highly exalted” and given “the name that is above every name” [verse 9].

Christ teaches us that the way ‘up’ is ‘down.’ The Christian life now is a life of servanthood and humiliation.  The Christian life to come is, as the poet John Donne put it in today’s anthem “one equal eternity”.  Christ teaches us that the way to go higher is to go lower now.

Humiliation is not a popular concept, but genuine humility is an attractive quality in others: someone who is prepared to wash your feet, metaphorically speaking. I speak as a politician where this quality doesn't always abound.

Paul shows us that humility is the glorious thing to do.  It is the way of exaltation but also, as the Proverbs passage suggests, this is the way of Wisdom as personified in Christ.

“Wise warriors are mightier than strong ones” says the passage from Proverbs in verse 5.

Immediately, I thought of the defeated vote on going to war in Syria. There were consequences of failing to intervene and this in part explains the mass exodus of refugees from Syria.

Judging by today's headlines I may be asked to vote again at any time on further military action in Syria and ask for your prayers for that.

What is a wise warrior in this case? How can we ensure that we too are wise warriors?

Our understanding of what justice means comes from seeking counsel with God. When I have a difficult decision to make, or a controversial vote, I take the time to pray, to see what wisdom the Bible might offer, and to ask myself “what would Jesus do?”. I then try to act accordingly.  Of course, I don’t always get it right!  But humility and seeking God’s will is the wise approach.

The challenge of mass migration is here and it is now.  There is an absolute moral imperative to play our part.  As Justin Welby said, let us be a beacon to other parts of the UK. We need to offer a Christ-like welcome to those who seek safety here.  How will this humanitarian crisis on our doorstep change us – not just for one day but for good?