Faith Communities and refugee integration
By Rt Revd Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani (Vice-Chair of the Commissioner) and Dr Ed Kessler (Convenor of the Commission)
January 4, 2023
Many of today’s refugees come from countries that are deeply religious, often escaping religious persecution. While this has led some to the conclusion that religion is a cause for some of the world’s most intractable conflicts – in Israel and Palestine, in Bosnia, in India – it also highlights how religion must be part of the solution. That’s one reason we are both sitting on the Commission, which is formed of commissioners with a variety of views and experiences, secular and religious, to consider practical improvements to the current UK refugee and asylum system.
Our faith was one reason why our families were persecuted – as it is for millions across the world. Bishop Guli’s Father was the first Persian Anglican bishop in Iran. In the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution, she was forced to leave with her family after the tragic murder of her brother and an attempt on her father’s life. Dr Ed Kessler’s parents fled Vienna because of the Nazi persecution of Jews and arrived in the UK as child refugees just before the Second World War.
Both our families were very lucky to be able to build new lives in the UK and to receive hospitality as well as sanctuary. Many were not so lucky. Today, the number of refugees displaced on account of their religious identity is rising. Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar remain languishing in Bangladeshi internment camps. The decades old Christian exodus from the Middle East is continuing apace.
A less familiar story is the positive role religious communities and institutions can and do have in integrating refugees. Across the UK and much of the world, faith communities undertake the lion’s share of work to welcome refugees and provide support. We know from personal experience that churches, synagogues and mosques play an important role in helping refugees adapt to a new home. Providing sanctuary is a long-standing prophetic theme found in all religions, which is why faith communities have a vital role to play.
Faith groups have been enthusiastic adherents of the Community Sponsorship scheme for refugees and have played a key role in welcoming Ukrainians. Often it is religious communities of every shade who provide for the immediate needs of refugees facing poverty and hardship, deliver services such as English language, employment training, befriending and much more. Newly arrived refugees have enriched faith communities, diversifying congregations and enlivening rituals and worship.
More often than not, the welcome that faith communities provide is not to refugees of the same religion. Displaced peoples cross all types of boundaries, and the process of integration has become a vibrant and productive interfaith space. It was Syrian Muslim refugees who provided the food for Ed’s family when they were mourning the death of his father. It was Muslim friends who supported Guli’s family in the difficult days before they left Iran.
We both understand the value of interfaith initiatives and spaces for creating harmonious communities and social cohesion. Unfortunately, such spaces are much rarer than they ought to be. We believe that one of the reasons integration can be such a difficult process in the UK relates to a lack of cultural understanding, a lack of religious literacy, between new arrivals and host communities. Without spaces for refugees and host communities to meet each other and share ideas, beliefs and experiences, successful integration will remain elusive. We hope the Commission will prompt an informed public debate around these issues and help heal some of the divisions.
The Commission, which launched in November, is striving for a society where everyone – irrespective of their faith or lack thereof – feels welcome and part of a strong, cohesive community. Not only does this mean highlighting the hugely significant role of faith communities in furthering refugee integration. It also means drawing out best practice and helping each community learn from the work of their peers.
Both our families were forced to leave their homes because of their faith. Both our families have seen how faith communities can bring support and care to refugees here in the UK. We know from first-hand experience that the global problem of forced migration is one manifestation of the long human history of religious persecution. Thankfully, our experience also tells us that faith and interfaith initiatives can offer one of its enduring remedies.
Read the Commission’s first publication now for more information.