Unable to survive in their war-torn or impoverished homelands, migrants are easy prey for illegal smugglers who charge as much as $5,000 for passage to what is touted as paradise. But paradise is rarely found.
More than 800 migrants were killed when the smugglers’ boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya on April 18. The 2015 death toll from failed passages could top 30,000, nearly 10 times the 2014 total of 3,279, the International Organization for Migration has warned.
While some European countries are praised for their treatment of migrants who make it safely ashore, Christian aid workers on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus said that migrants there face maltreatment and are economically disenfranchised.
“I will say that God has really changed my heart through this project,” one aid worker said. “He has increased my faith, caused me to get on my knees in prayer, has mercifully reached Muslims and provided protection to the persecuted.
“But more than this, He has shown me the meaning of Acts 17:26-27. God in His sovereignty allows things to happen in their lands, that these people might go to other lands, and in this land they would cry out to their Creator because He isn’t far from them.”
Migrants who are crammed into smugglers’ boats “are told of a paradise. They are willing to do whatever they can to reach this paradise,” an aid worker at a Cyprus center for migrant refugees stated by email. “Unfortunately, on the island of Cyprus this paradise doesn’t exist. … Smugglers paint a picture that this is a safe way, this is the only way, etc. and they will reach paradise, they will get a job. Most migrants who have come to Cyprus have paid up to $5,000 per person to get here.”
Cyprus is struggling economically, and Cypriots themselves have difficulty finding employment. Migrants typically are reduced to work as housecleaners, on farms or at petrol stations, with little pay and poor treatment, aid workers said. The government of Cyprus doesn’t enforce European Union laws designed to protect migrants and there is no access to higher education.
“Cyprus has over and over again been reprimanded by the EU for their inefficiency. The slow process by which they process their documents and set up interviews, this can be years,” one aid worker said. Welfare checks for refugees from funds provided by aid sources can be delayed for months.
About 100 refugees enter the center each week, most of them Muslims fleeing Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Somalia or Ukraine, the aid workers said. Volunteers from five Christian churches serve at the center, providing food and clothing, teaching English and the Bible, and offering craft activities, movie nights and discussion groups. In addition, the center conducts weekly visits to about 200 migrants at a detention center for undocumented foreigners and a camp that holds about 100 migrants.
“Those who are recognized as refugees don’t go through the process of citizenship as in other EU countries. Instead they are given a temporary residency visa that they need to renew every three years,” an aid worker said. “Parents and children are left hanging in the balance for years — no passport [or] travel documents. … This isn’t true in other countries of Europe. Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands have all been praised for their treatment of migrants.”
Disclosing the aid workers’ names or the name of the center would risk their security.
Christians in the U.S. and elsewhere should pray for the security, safety and economic prosperity of migrants and their children, one aid worker said, and they should pray for their own understanding of God’s heart for foreigners.
“Prayer is really important, especially that the churches would understand God’s heart for the foreigner in their land,” the worker said. “The Old Testament is really specific about God blessing a land for their treatment of foreigners…. Along with this, the Bible talks about the expectations of the foreigners who have come to the land to embrace the laws and beliefs of the land.
“[Pray] for peace in the lands from which these people are coming,” the worker said. “Ultimately, peace can only come from a relationship with the Prince of Peace.”
In the U.S., pastor Raleigh Sadler has been working to recruit churches to stand against the human trafficking and labor trafficking that often victimize migrants. While the April 18 mass death in the Mediterranean may look like a failed smuggling operation, Sadler said it has some earmarks of slavery.
“It has been reported by The Wall Street Journal that many on the boat were kept in a state of deprivation, with some beaten by their smugglers. To make matters worse, as the boat capsized, many migrants were trapped behind locked doors,” Sadler said. “Though at first glance the situation looks as if it were simply a smuggling operation gone wrong, the locked doors and the deprivation tell a different story. As these men were forced into cramped living quarters, we see the makings of human trafficking. Though sex trafficking is more prevalent in the media, the United Nations asserts that of the at least 21 million in forced labor, 22 percent are in forced sexual exploitation while 70 percent are trafficked for labor.”
Two of the smugglers, a Tunisian captain and a Syrian crew member of the capsized boat, have been arrested, charged with favoring illegal immigration. In addition, the captain is charged with reckless multiple homicide. Only 27 of the more than 850 aboard the boat survived, and few bodies have been recovered.
Sadler, pastor of collegiate and justice ministries at the Gallery Church in New York, said Christians especially should be abolitionists and advocates of justice for mistreated foreigners.
God “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing,” Sadler said. “Each and every person on that boat had a name. Each was made in the same divine image as you or I. This passion for the vulnerable, especially the immigrant, is seen throughout the Scriptures as He calls His people to care for the widow, orphan and sojourner.”
Christians and migrants share the need for a Savior, Sadler said.
“This is a story that, believe it or not, is our story. Because of our vulnerability and sinful captivity, God became vulnerable to the point of death on the cross,” he said. “On that day, rescue came in the form of a vulnerable man dying a tragic death. May His vulnerability for us drive us to care for those who are vulnerable among us.”
Protestant churches are rare in Cyprus, but the migrant center there has received aid from the Christian community, aid workers said.
“Currently, we are mainly supported by U.S. churches,” one worker said. “For two years in a row we were given a grant through Lange’s Trust, a British trust. A few individuals and some churches in Great Britain have given us a one-time gift. This covered our rent. The local Protestant churches are very small in number, so they are unable to support us. However, the volunteers come from these churches and they support our fundraising events.”
Aid workers who serve at the center report blessings flowing both from and to them.
One worker who teaches English at the center said God used her service there to open her eyes to the plight of refugees.
“I didn’t know anything before this,” the worker said. “I desire to meet their needs and share God’s love to them. I have witnessed humility in the refugees and [therefore] I am becoming more humbled.”
Yet another aid worker has become more convinced of God’s sovereignty.
“He is in control even when it doesn’t look like it,” the worker said.
— by Diana Chandler | BP