Monday, 18 April 2016

Give Refuge to the Stranger

In March 2016, Linda Rabben gave a talk at the Kingston Quaker Centre on her book, Give Refuge to the Stranger: the Past, Present and Future of Sanctuary (Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek California, 2011). 

Sanctuary is the giving of refuge to the threatened, vulnerable stranger.  It is universal and older than human society. From its origins in primate populations to its elaboration in ancient religious traditions and the modern legal institution of asylum, Rabben tells the story of sanctuary as it evolved over thousands of years.  She then examines asylum today, analyzing policy in the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia and linking them to the experiences of courageous individuals to show how immigration and asylum are under attack around the world.  Her book is both an academic study of sanctuary and an impassioned call for the humane treatment of asylum seekers.

An important point she makes, which is often overlooked in the current heated debate about the migration crisis in Europe, is about the advantages, and indeed the delight, of rescue.  Human beings, and indeed other animals, naturally move about in order to flourish, migrating from one feeding ground to another.  Furthermore, we have in common with other species a tendency to act altruistically.  Rabben refers to the concept of reciprocal altruism, helpful acts that are costly in the short term but may produce long-term benefits if the recipients, or other members of the society, return the favour.  As much as there may be a tendency to emnity amongst humans and primates, there is also a tendency to develop social norms and enforce them, to develop the capacity for empathy and sympathy, mutual aid and a sense of fairness, mechanism of conflict resolution and so on.  In other words, welcoming the stranger is not only a natural thing to do but is also helpful.  It is at the heart of how societies grow and flourish, morally and economically. 

It goes beyond Rabben's subject to deal with trade and its history, but there are economic as well as moral advantages in migration and in welcoming the stranger, because of the gains in skills and knowledge as well as cultural enrichment.  Intermarriage and the strengthening of the gene pool is another benefit from movement of peoples.  Sadly, many opponents of migration just perceive the negative side, such as pressure on local services and infrastructure, without seeing that the vital ingredient of economic and moral growth is people.

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