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26.01.2021 Opinion

Remember, you were once an alien in a foreign land

By Aondoer Cyprian Chia
Remember, you were once an alien in a foreign land
LISTEN JAN 26, 2021

Migration is not a modern phenomenon, it existed since time immemorial. But, as international migration gains increasing attention in policy debates, understanding key trends in migration policies is crucial. It is important and relevant to debate this subject both at national and international levels.

These debates bring different perspectives and opinions be it political, social, economic, religious or legal implications. But our topic is solely inspired by some striking phrases of the Torah about the treatment of immigrants or strangers in the foreign land. In this article, we shall stress on the biblical view-point on how to treat a stranger by using both the Old and the New Testaments as our fundamental sources of inspiration. We shall also present the current immigration and migration situation of the world. Finally, we shall make some recommendations for better, humane and fair treatment of immigrants or strangers seeking asylums on foreign shoes by using the encyclical of Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti as our case study.

What is the biblical perception on foreigners?

In his book, “Justice for all: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics”, the biblical scholar Jeremiah Unterman affirms that “it is startling that the legal portion of the Torah contains more than fifty references to the resident stranger…” [1] The Torah has some striking phrases that provide formidable historical empathy towards foreigners. Some phrases like, “you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22, 20). Also, “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Lev 19, 34). And, “you too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in his land” (Deut 23, 8). All these and many other biblical verses in the Old Testament attest to the importance of living in harmony and protecting foreigners who are seeking refuge in our land.

The New Testament has given us two good examples as epitome of immigrants. In the first instance, Jesus himself experienced the reality of being an immigrant. As a child, Jesus and his parents ran to Egypt to seek asylum because of the fear of Herod. His family had to escape to a foreign land leaving behind their relatives, possessions, and culture for a new adventure and struggle. They had to communicate with other people using perhaps a different language, they ate different food and had to get used to the customs and tradition of the Egyptians. His foster father, Joseph, had to leave his profession as a carpenter to look for a new job in a foreign land for survival.

Another instance is that, all Christians are also considered as immigrants in this world. The glory of eternal salvation makes Christians to be citizens of heaven and therefore, foreigners in this world. They are total strangers and aliens on earth. In this too, many biblical verses attest to this reality. Saint Paul affirms that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3, 20). So then, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints” (Eph 2, 19). Other verses like 1 Peter. 2: 11; Hebrews. 11: 13; all affirm the reality of Christians being the passport bearers of heaven so, strangers to the world.

Moreover, in all these analysis about the reality of immigration in the Holy Book and the divine recommendation about the treatment of immigrants and foreigners in general, what is our perception on foreigners? Are they human beings with dignity or they are beasts that must be killed? Are these immigrants having some intrinsic value and dignity regardless of their origin or social status?

Are we ready to protect and uphold the right of these immigrants on our land? Are we looking at them with Jesus’ eyes of compassion and love? In simple term, how do we treat foreigners who live in our various localities or cities? These questions would help us to analyze critically whether we are faithful to the Yahvistic and Jesus’s approach to strangers and immigrants of today. This brings us to the situation of the world today as far as the subject of immigration and migration is concerned.

The number of immigrants today is something alarming in the world. It is true that everyone has the right to move from one place to another but the migration situation now is attracting another attention. According to the United Nations Population Fund, “in 2015, 244 million people, or 3.3 percent of the world's population, lived outside their country of origin. The majority of migrants cross borders in search of better economic and social opportunities. Others are forced to flee crises – the current mass movement of refugees and displaced persons has given rise to xenophobia and calls for tightening borders” [2] . Some statistics have shown that 258 million people migrated in 2017, an increase of 85 million, or 49 percent, compared to 2000 [3] .

Furthermore, “the number of persons forcibly displaced globally is the highest since the aftermath of World War II, with the number of refugees and asylum seekers reaching nearly 26 million”. [4] The causes of this migration are the result of political, social and economic instability in most countries especially in Asia and Africa. It is also the result of ethnic and religious crisis as well as the clamoring for political and economic independence in some regions of the world.

Also, “the unfortunate reality is that there have been major migration and displacement events during the last two years; events that have caused great hardship and trauma as well as loss of life” [5] and property. Foremost have been “the displacements of millions of people due to conflict (such as within and from the Syrian Arab Republic, Yemen, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan), extreme violence (such as inflicted upon Rohingya forced to seek safety in Bangladesh) or severe economic and political instability (such as faced by millions of Venezuelans).” [6] Today, there has also been growing recognition of the impacts of environmental and climate change on human mobility in the world. Large-scale displacement triggered by climate and weather-related hazards occurred in many parts of the world in 2018 and 2019, including in Mozambique, the Philippines, China, India and the United States of America [7] to name but a few.

What is more, we shall try to update these migration tariffs both nationally and internationally. In 2019: 272 million people (3.5% of the world’s population) migrated in the world, 52 percent of international migrants were male; 48 percent were female. And in terms of individual countries, India had the largest number of migrants living abroad (17.5 million), followed by Mexico and China (11.8 million and 10.7 million respectively).The number of internally displaced persons due to violence and conflict reached 41.3 million and this is the first population ever since the creation of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre began monitoring in 1998. And in terms of individual countries, the Syrian Arab Republic had the highest number of people displaced (6.1 million) followed by Colombia (5.8 million) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (3.1 million) [8] . All these figures show that the human person has become hostile and brutal to his fellow person. Despite all these pains and anguish, the immigrants still undergo some inhuman treatment and torture in the hands of some governments and people in the name of border and landscape protection.

The maltreatment of some refugees or immigrants is an underscore of the expansion of racism. For example, the brutality of the Algerian security forces towards some immigrants and asylum seekers was unlawful and unwarranted. According to Human Rights Watch, “security personnel have separated children from their families during mass arrests, stripped migrants and asylum seekers of their belongings, and failed to allow them to challenge their removal or screen them for refugee status. Scores of asylum seekers registered with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, are among those arrested, with several already expelled.” [9] Moreover, “on October 3, Algeria expelled 705 adults and children of 18 nationalities to the desert, followed by 957 Nigeriens forcibly returned in a convoy on October 5, and 660 people of 17 nationalities expelled to the desert on October 8.” [10] The question is how can they survive in the desert without water to drink? Only God knows! This savagery and brutality is just one in a many.

As if this is not enough, “in June and July 2018, thousands of children were cruelly separated from their parents and held in cages at the US border on the order of President Trump's administration.” [11] These children were held in tents and massive warehouses that were extremely hot in the day and extremely cold in the night. This separation has also caused some mental and psychological trauma on these families. Also, between 2014 and 2018, about12 thousand people died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. While in 2019 and 2020, the number of deaths amounted to 1.9 thousand and 979 respectively. [12] And these deaths were sometimes provoked by the security agencies of some destination states.

The world is chanting giggles of war today because of political ambition for naked power. And, one of the fundamental causes of immigration today is political instability. The situation is so terrible that the Pope laments that “today, in many countries, hyperbole, extremism and polarization have become political tools. Employing a strategy of ridicule, suspicion and relentless criticism, in a variety of ways one denies the right of others to exist or to have an opinion.” [13] In other ways, “political life no longer has to do with healthy debates about long-term plans to improve people’s lives and to advance the common good, but only with slick marketing techniques primarily aimed at discrediting others.” [14] The effect of this is the result of “exchange of charges and counter-charges, debate degenerates into a permanent state of disagreement and confrontation” [15] which may lead to wars and conflict that affect directly the commoners of the society. In all this barbarism, the Pope made some recommendations in his new encyclical Fratelli Tutti which will be useful for this reflection.

Looking at the barbarity and savagery of humans towards their fellow beings, Pope Francis in his encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, demands for the acknowledgement of the dignity of each human person as part of rebirth for a universal aspiration for human fraternity. He aspired for a human community where citizens or non-citizens, immigrants or strangers, Muslims or Christians, Jews or Hindus, Africans or Americans, Europeans or Asians etc use their diversity for common good and for God’s glory. He foresees a “single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her voice, brothers and sisters all.” [16] All this commentary is summarized in a simple phrase, love for your neighbour.

The Pope also uses the image of the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate the reality of immigrants today. Who is my neighbour? A neighbour is every human being especially, those who are in need of me. He is the one that desires my love. Saint Paul exalts the Galatians to expand the territory of love, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Gal 5, 14).

This is because, “whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness” (1Jn 2, 10-11). We can better understand the parable of the Good Samaritan towards these suffering immigrants under the context of love and respect for humanity. Pope Francis affirms thus: “love does not care if a brother or sister in need comes from one place or another. For “love shatters the chains that keep us isolated and separate; in their place, it builds bridges. Love enables us to create one great family, where all of us can feel at home… Love exudes compassion and dignity.” [17] The theology of love is the only key for arriving at this human communion and fraternity of the nations of the world.

Furthermore, the Pope calls for all human beings despite their origin to listen to the plea of the strangers. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25, 30). It was in the same light that Saint Paul urges the people of Rome to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rm 12, 15). Despite all these plea and supplications, it is unfortunate according to the Pope that some people still “support verities of narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even maltreatment of those who are different.” [18] But in reality, “human beings are so made that they cannot live, develop and find fulfillment except “in the sincere gift of self to others” [19] .

The authenticity of our human existence is expressed only in communion and fraternity. That is to say, “life exist where there is bonding, communion and fraternity, and life is stronger than death when it is built on true relationships and bonds of fidelity.” [20] In this case, we must love, cherish and protect the lives and dignity of immigrants and asylum seekers who are different from us in terms of colour, race, religion, countries but the same with us in humanity.

The world belongs to all of us. And “if every human being possesses an inalienable dignity, if all people are my brothers and sisters, and if the world truly belongs to everyone, then it matters little whether my neighbour was born in my country or elsewhere.” [21] Therefore, “in the name of God, who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters, in the name of orphans, widows, refugees and those exiled from their homes and their countries; in the name of all victims of wars, persecution and injustice; in the name of the weak, those who live in fear, prisoners of war and those tortured in any part of the world, without distinction,” [22] we urge everyone to protect and uphold the right and dignity of every immigrants because, you were once a stranger in a foreign land.


[1] Cf. https://jps.org/for-you-were-strangers-in-the-land-of-egypt/ (5/12/2020).

[2] Cf. https://www.unfpa.org/migration(5/12/2020).

[3] Cf. https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/policy/international_migration_policies_data_booklet.pdf (5/12/2020).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cf. Ibid.

[8] For more details about these figures, Cf. UN, World Migration Report 2020 in line with International Organization for Migration (IOM) in https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/wmr_2020.pdf (5/12/2020).

[9] Cf. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/10/09/algeria-migrants-asylum-seekers-forced-out (5/12/2020).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Cf. https://www.amnesty.org.uk/usa-how-trump-administration-violated-childrens-rights (6/12/2020).

[12] Cf. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1082077/deaths-of-migrants-in-the-mediterranean-sea/(5/12/2020) .

[13] Cf. Pope Francis, Fratelli, Tutti, no. 15.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Idem, no. 8.

[17] Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, no. 62.

[18] Idem, no. 86.

[19] Idem, no. 87.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Idem, no. 125.

[22] Idem, no. 285.

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