Fear, faith, asylum seekers

Excerpts from Susanna Snyder, “Encountering Asylum Seekers: An Ethic of Fear or Faith?” Studies in Christian Ethics 24/3 (2011) 350-366:


Cosmopolitanization and fear for asylum seekers

‘International migration is part of a transnational revolution that is reshaping societies and politics around the globe’ (Castles, S.; Miller, M.J. 2009). This profound ‘reshaping’ is contributing to a widespread sense of crisis within western societies, and immigrants, particularly asylum seekers, act as the focus for much of this fear and anxiety…in ‘virtually every world capital, the flow of people is regarded with alarm’ (Weiner, M. 1995). Hostility towards immigrants can be found among the general public and in the press, and governments have progressively closed national borders more tightly and introduced legislation and procedures to deter those migrants they would rather keep out…The lives of people seeking asylum are themselves also often full of fear. (351)

… People are moving in all directions across the globe, often having transnational commitments and identities rooted in more than one place, and communities are increasingly diverse in terms of culture, ethnicity and religion. Beck describes this as ‘cosmopolitanization’ – a reality not chosen as elites chose cosmopolitanism in the past – but rather a frightening sense that ‘My life, my body, my “individual existence” become part of another world, of foreign cultures, religions, histories, and global interdependencies, without my realizing or expressly wishing it’ (Beck 2006). People feel as if they are being forced into multiculturalism and engagement with those who are different. They are terrified that that world they know is shrinking before their very eyes and are determined to defend their people and their way of life. Kundnani has coined the phrase ‘kith and kin’ racism to capture this phenomenon… The fact that asylum seekers are liminal figures or strangers – near yet unknown, present but without the possibility of belonging which comes with legal refugee or immigrant status – only exacerbates this fear. (352-353)

We are not dangerous

An ecology of fear

… These fears have multiple consequences: they lead to the stereotyping of asylum seekers and to their scapegoating for wide-ranging societal problems. They become… ‘symbolic bearers of a complex pattern of change, diversification and “loss” for which they are only the most convenient scapegoats… people seeking sanctuary experience hostility in the media and from the public – sometimes violent – and they are subject to increasingly restrictive immigration policies and practices. These restrictive policies only serve to intensify the anxieties of the established population and exacerbate the fear already experienced by asylum seekers, leading to stress, depression and anxiety, and in some cases even suicide.

There is thus a vicious circle in which a number of disparate worries escalate into a generalized, widespread paranoia – something which can be called an ecology of fear. … I use ‘ecology’ here to indicate a material and ideological environment in which mutually reinforcing patterns of thinking, feeling and acting define relationships between individuals and groups. ‘Ecology’ indicates a space within which different kinds of encounter can happen. (354-355)

… Encounters with strangers in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures can be broadly grouped into two strands – those which take place within an ecology of fear and those which take place within an alternative ecology of faith. These two strands represent very different ethical stances towards ‘outsiders’. An ecology of fear is a space primarily rooted in fear and generating hostility. An ecology of faith is a space rooted in trust and generating compassion. (357)

Ecology of faith: Ruth

Ruth the Moabite, metaphorically, excellently represents ‘the other’. She was a woman in a man’s world; she was a widow and without child in a group for which infertility was a mark of shame; she was a foreigner and also an enemy – in short she represents perfectly what psychology calls ‘the repressed’. Her arrival in Bethlehem, inevitably, shakes the Judeans’ socio-political foundations. (LaCocque, 2004)

Ruth is portrayed as the ultimate stranger. What is interesting then is that it is Ruth who brings new life to Boaz, Naomi and Israel at the same time as she receives new life through her relationship with Boaz. It is perhaps no coincidence that the name ‘Ruth’ probably means ‘to water to saturation’… ‘The story of Ruth demonstrates that openness to and incorporation of the vulnerable migrant is the way of restoration or salvation… the blessing of salvation comes from without (God) not from within (ourselves).

How then does such transformation and new life come about? what makes for the ecology of faith within which the encounters between strangers take place in Ruth? Laws pertaining to the [ger], meaning sojourner or resident alien, were an important backdrop and help to explain why, for example, Ruth was allowed to glean (2:2-9, cf. Deut. 24:19). Other factors are nevertheless also significant. Personal one-to-one human encounter is key. The large proportion of dialogue compared to narration in the book suggests the importance of embodied interaction… Finally, risk-taking and courageous boundary-crossing are required on the part of the ‘stranger’ and of the ‘host’ – the person with power. (363-365)

… The connection with encounters between those seeking sanctuary and members of established populations today are perhaps obvious. Asylum seekers, while multiply on the ‘outside’, have the potential to act as bringers of new life, insight and glimpses of God. Encounters between strangers do not have to be threatening:they can be mutually transforming and enriching. The ecology of faith within which such mutual transformation can take place are rooted in hospitable laws, one-to-one embodied encounters – personal contact is vital; they allow migrants to be real – to be complex people with mixed motivations rather than simply either vulnerable or wily; and they require all involved to take risks, crossing cultural and social boundaries as well as the boundaries of self, being willing to be challenged and changed. As Volf (1996) suggested, embracing another involves welcoming, self-giving and readjusting our own identities to make space for them.

Living out theological concepts

‘the greatest single antidote to violence is conversation, speaking our fears, listening to the fears of others, and in that sharing of vulnerabilities discovering a genesis of hope’ (rabbi Jonathan Sacks)

… fears ‘need to be communicated and negotiated…. It is a long-term process of building new communities, during which such fears and anxieties cannot be dismissed but need to be worked through’ (L. Sandercock, 2003).

At the same time, Christians should hold up a vision of a more hopeful future – an ecology of faith … This of course involves more than re-enacting aspects of stories of mutually enriching encounters in the Bible: it also requires the living out of theological concepts such as solidarity, justice, hospitality, the imago dei and the sacredness of family life in pastoral care, advocacy and worship. Many are already inhabiting and performing such an ecology and it is through this that … people of faith alongside asylum seekers might be able to reignite ‘utopian hopes’ and act ‘as [an] engine of social transformation’ (Forrester, D. 2001). (366).

See also Susanna Snyder, Asylum-Seeking, Migration and Church, Farnham: Ashgate, 2012.

Editors’ note:  The Lunteren Ecumenical Conference just released a statement in line with Snyder’s perspective: Have no Fear(June 2016). 

This entry was posted in Being human, Vulnerability and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Fear, faith, asylum seekers

  1. Jacques Baeni Mwendabandu says:

    One’s deliverance from fear is the faith. I really appreciate the way Snyder develops this topic of feeling fear and finding alleviation in faith for asylum seekers. Quoting Castle and Miller (2009), Snyder is right that “international migration is part of a transnational revolution that is reshaping societies and politics around the globe.” What she calls a “profound reshaping” is not only contributing to a widespread sense of crisis within western societies, as international migration is also observed within Africa. For example, here in Malawi, Dzaleka refugee camp receives people from other African countries especially from Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
    Fleeing from their countries, these people have the fear of being killed or persecuted because of their opinion, race, or political affiliation. To reach Dzaleka refugee camp, they experience other fears of the need for and lack of travel documents and the annoyance of police and migration officers. Most of asylum seekers leave their home countries without travel documents. And those who have travel documents often do not have the money to pay for a visa. Furthermore, for the lucky ones who can afford visa fees, the procedures of getting Malawian visa are complicated. It is not easy to get it at the border. When the migrant reaches their border, the migration officer recommends that he or she goes Dar-Es-Salaam to the Malawian embassy there. From the Kyela border to Dar-Es-Salaam, the essential point is to know if there is enough money and energy to travel for someone who is fleeing his or her home country. In short, apart from escaping a difficult life, asylum seekers face other challenges related to their journey and to their entrance in the new country where, for instance, they have to acquire a new language to acquire rapidly.
    Snyder is in agreement with other investigators call those challenges the ecology of fear. She is right because to reach the transition camp of Karonga, some refugees lose their telephones, laptops and other valuable assets. Nevertheless, even though reaching Dzaleka is the beginning of hope because refugees start to experience UNHCR compassion; they also experience stress because they are still comparing their current lives’ conditions with their home countries lives conditions.
    From the transit camp of Karonga to Dzaleka, fear decreases little by little and gives place to hope and faith. When new asylum seekers reach Dzaleka, they experience the compassion of the UNHCR and its partner organizations employees. They are also welcomed by other asylum seekers and refugees. The refugees start a new life experiencing new forms of stress such as, for instance, of living in small clay-brick houses covered by straw. Also no one is allowed to leave the camp without an exit document. Because of this, most of the residents compare Dzaleka camp to a prison of the devil and believe that only God can deliver people and make them free.
    Snyder is also right when she says that “the story of Ruth demonstrates that openness to and incorporation of the vulnerable migrant is the way of restoration or salvation”. Actually, refugees and asylum seekers from Rwanda and Burundi who arrived since 1994 play a key role in the Malawian market economy. They become great business men and employ many Malawians. I think that this shows as Susan Snyder says, that risk-taking and courageous boundary-crossing are required on the part of the ‘stranger’ and of the ‘host’.

  2. Gakwaya says:

    When going through the article “Fear, Faith, Asylum Seekers” I encountered some interested topics including the issues of fear among the asylum seekers who leave their country because of some problems, but still, even when they expect to find refuge they are being treated unfair.
    As the article mentioned about asylum seekers and refugees that “We are not dangerous we are in danger”, it reminds me of my personal experience when we were fleeing from our home country to Malawi. The journey was not that easy including the bad experience of having to make a journey without plans and money. The surprising thing is that those who preach about inequality are those who are in a powerful position. When you tell ordinary citizens that you’re an asylum seeker one can treat you different from the way the police can treat you.
    This tells me that there is a problem somewhere in these governing systems. Because those who have to take care of the nation, and the people in it seem to have different understandings toward asylum seekers and refugees which makes it hard for these people and puts them in fear of being received by other countries.
    While outsiders have many good things to offer toward the hosting country, still there are these new laws that are being fashioned, as the article suggests, in an ecology of fear. Looking at the bible teachings we encounter many examples of how outsiders contributed to different communities starting with Yusuph who was bought as a slave in Egypt. He contributed a lot to the country’s economic growth.
    An interesting issue is that people don’t seem to take into account that the people coming from elsewhere have their own history and culture, their own background and that they should take into account that these things cannot be left behind. That to ask someone to do so, would be like asking them to deny who they really are . What I see that is missing in the world is that the people who receive asylum seekers and refugees in their country should realize that they had to flee their country because of things that happened to them, not because of choices they made.
    In conclusion, faith can assist those that trust in it because if there is something hard and challenging to have it is true faith. Not all who leave their country have the faith of expecting changes but they decide to reduce some pain from that particular time so that they can try to have another chance in life. The host country has to have faith in the outsiders and vice versa.

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