One of my great joys this past year has been welcoming into our large Notting Hill parish house (15 decent size rooms with sink, reviews on Trip Advisor welcome!) three refugees from different countries through the agency of the wonderful Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) based in East London. One of the side-effects of the COVID pandemic was that some of them had to stay longer than the standard three months envisaged by JRS, which was a blessing for us, and I hope for them.
Intellectually I accept that a country like ours with a high standard of living can only accept a limited number of immigrants without losing its identity and compromising its prosperity, but having grown up in an outer suburb of London where the only non-British child in my primary school was – horror of horrors! – a boy with a Greek name, I find myself greeting every manifestation of other cultures as a most welcome enrichment (with some reservations in the case of the Notting Hill Carnival!).
And up to a point, I feel proud of the way our country has given refugees a home. Through a Vietnamese parishioner, I have met numerous young Vietnamese who have braved appalling hardships to get here, including the dangers of stowing away in lorries like the 39 whose bodies were discovered in Essex in October 2019, but once arrived on our shores were treated quite humanely and allowed to appeal for asylum through the justice system. I have attended three such court hearings and was impressed with the fairness of even the Home Office lawyers who wanted them expelled.
On the other hand… Try to get hold of one of the “Refugee Tales” series and read the heart-wrenching stories of indefinite detention, unrecorded bail hearings, unannounced interviews by police from the very countries refugees are fleeing from, and sudden abduction to airports to await forcible repatriation. Yes, here in England, not in Soviet Russia. Home Office officials who take it upon themselves to determine whether an illiterate Chinese is truly a Catholic by asking him when the feast of Corpus Christi is, or whether someone is gay by – no, let’s not go there… Berlioz’ ‘L’Enfance du Christ,’ which I listened to several times last Christmas, portrays vividly what it must have been like for the Holy Family to arrive in Egypt, fleeing the tyranny of Herod, only to meet with much hostility before finding a welcome. Hostility is understandable when people feel threatened economically or culturally. But the baby Jesus was no real threat to Herod. Refugees, so fragile but usually highly motivated to contribute to our prosperity, are the least of our threats.