Refugee Week this year will be celebrated off the back of the British government’s attempt to transport 130 asylum seekers to Rwanda following an agreement with the authorities that will cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds. While the chartered plane never took off as a result of an eleventh-hour injunction granted by the European Court of Human Rights, this increasingly authoritarian government has declared that it will continue to attempt to remove more asylum seekers to Rwanda regardless. To that extent, it is prepared to subject asylum seekers to electronic monitoring (normally reserved for criminals or dangerous individuals) and even withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, a decades-old human rights treaty signed at the conclusion of the Second World War to ensure that governments would never again be allowed to dehumanise and abuse people’s rights with impunity.
While the government’s attempts to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda drew fierce criticism from various quarters including from the future king of England, who described it as ‘appalling’, and the entire leadership of the Church of England, which labelled the policy ‘immoral’, there has been relative silence from the leadership of the Muslim communities in the UK on the issue. This may stem from a lack of confidence in their own status as citizens of this nation or from a lack of interest in the issue. Whatever the excuse, an opportunity is being lost to demonstrate the mercy of Islam by propagating its policies on how to handle asylum seekers and migrants.
The history of Islam, even before the Prophet Muhammad’s (ﷺ) time is replete with examples of mass migration, requests for protection and the granting of refugee status. Indeed, many of the messengers and prophets were compelled to leave their homes and lands as a result of persecution. The Prophet Ibrahim (ﷺ) was forced out of Mesopotamia and migrated to Palestine. The Prophet Yusuf (ﷺ) was a victim of human trafficking when he was enslaved and taken from Palestine to Egypt. The Prophet Musa (ﷺ) fled from Fir’awn’s tyrannical rule in Egypt twice, firstly on his own to Midian and thereafter with his people when they miraculously crossed the Red Sea to escape that apartheid state. Later, the Prophet Jesus (ﷺ) became a refugee as a baby when his mother Maryam (‘alayha al-Salām) attempted to protect him from Herod’s infanticide by leaving Bethlehem for Egypt and thereafter to Nazareth as an internally displaced person.
After the intensification of the persecution of the early Muslims in Makkah, the companions of the Prophet Muhammed (ﷺ) travelled to Abyssinia and sought asylum in the Christian kingdom of the Najashi. Even after the Quraysh, with whom the Najashi enjoyed excellent political and trade relations, sought their extradition to Makkah on fabricated charges of creating social disharmony, the Najashi refused to surrender them to a people who would persecute them. The Prophet Muhammed (ﷺ) himself fled an attempt on his life escaping to Madinah with his companions after the ruling tribes of that city agreed to grant them asylum.
The Islamic approach to migration and refugees entails varying responsibilities and duties on the asylum seeker, the protecting state and members of the general public.
The Asylum Seeker
Islamic theology views the asylum process differently from the current practice which involves individuals having a right to claim asylum with no corresponding duty on state authorities to grant protection, albeit the latter are prohibited from expelling them or returning them to a place where they are at risk of being persecuted.
Islam seeks to empower asylum seekers and refugees by giving them moral agency in choosing to flee in order to protect their human dignity, their religious practices and future generations rather than remaining oppressed in their homes. Migrating—or making hijra—is perceived as an honourable deed in obedience to Allah’s commandments to free oneself from oppression.
The above verse indicates Allah’s displeasure with those who chose to remain living under oppression, describing it as a sin against their souls. In essence, Allah is imposing a duty on the oppressed to be free from persecution, travelling to seek protection where resistance to tyranny has become futile.
Elsewhere in the Qur’an, Allah encourages believers who are oppressed in their homelands to make hijra to other lands promising them ample rewards in this world and the next [Qur’an, 4:100, 16:40].
In doing so, the framework within which we view the arrival of refugees on our borders switches from one of charitable sympathy for a persecuted people to respectful admiration for those who have sacrificed their homes and belongings to obey the divine commandment to emigrate in order to protect their dignity and their faith. This completely alters the dynamics of our relationship with refugees whereby they are now defined not by their persecution but by their liberation and the role they played in that.
The Protecting State
The moral action of fleeing persecution however remains incomplete without the interlinked moral action of the receiving state granting protection. Viewed as such, the relationship gains a level of parity rather than one of charity.
The general rule is that Islam encourages the granting of asylum or protection to the extent that it can be seen as a corresponding duty to the one who has fulfilled his duty of seeking protection. In Islamic law, granting sanctuary to refugees is grounded in the notion of amān, which literally translates as ‘protection’ or ‘safety’. Since the very essence of amān entails the sanctity and protection of the life and property of the musta’min (the one seeking protection or asylum), it is prohibited to expel or return an asylum seeker or refugee to a land where there is a risk of their lives and freedom being threatened. This is similar to the modern-day principle of non-refoulement, which is widely understood to be the cornerstone of international refugee law.
There are numerous ahadith that encourage the granting of protection and assistance to those in need:
Indeed, when dispatching his companions, including his daughter, to Abyssinia, the Prophet (ﷺ) praised the Najashi, a man who he had never met or spoken to, as a just ruler under whose rule they would be safe and able to practice their faith. We can take from this that providing a haven to those in need is linked to justice and something considered praiseworthy by Allah.
Indeed this principle is so beloved to Allah that it even applies to disbelievers who are at war with the Muslims. Allah says in Surah Taubah:
In other words, even if an enemy of the state were to seek protection, he should be granted it temporarily and then transferred to a place where he feels safe; he cannot be refouled to where he feels at risk of harm, even if there is no actual risk of harm to him there.
This is in line with the general encouragement to demonstrate compassion to others irrespective of colour, creed or nationality. The Prophet (ﷺ) is reported to have said:
Islamic history is filled with incidents of the Islamic state granting asylum to the masses without discriminating on the basis of faith or ethnicity. In the 13th century, the Muslim sultanates of India accepted refugees en masse fleeing from the Middle East in the wake of Mongol devastation of the region. In 1492, the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II welcomed over 150,000 Jews fleeing Spanish persecution to Turkey, granting them citizenship and then building beautiful synagogues for the newly arrived refugees. In 1860, when local Druze attacked the Christian quarter in Damascus, Emir Abdelkader of Algeria saved over four thousand Christians by giving them refuge in his compound. In the late 19th Century, the Ottoman Empire granted safety to approximately 1.5 million Circassian refugees fleeing Tsarist ethnic cleansing in the Caucasus, after the Queen of England refused to come to their assistance.
Members of the Public
But what should the role of ordinary members of the public be who are not in a position to grant security or protection?
In the Qur’an, Allah praises the Ansār in Madinah for their attitude towards the Muhājirūn who arrived in their city seeking to rebuild their broken lives. Specifically, Allah mentions three qualities which we should all strive to implement in our relationship with asylum seekers and refugees.
Firstly, we should love those who migrate to our lands. That love will manifest itself in treating them with respect, honour and dignity and wanting the best for them. Rather than simply providing charitable handouts, this love will result in those seeking protection also having their emotional needs met at a time when they will most likely be suffering from significant trauma.
When the Muhājirūn emigrated to Madinah, the Prophet (ﷺ) set up a bond of brotherhood between each Muhājir and Ansāri specifically to fulfil that emotional vacuum and engender a sense of belonging. This contrasts starkly with the UK Home Office policy of subjecting migrants to the ‘hostile environment’ whereby they are prohibited from working, housed in severely substandard accommodation, and restricted from developing meaningful relationships. They are the subject of constant criticism, blame and ridicule by political leaders, bigots (of both the street and courteous types) and the mainstream media, even after having been granted asylum, leaving them forever feeling as strangers in a foreign land.
Secondly, we should not desire or feel envious of what migrants are given by the state or by members of the public, whether it be in the form of accommodation, jobs or other financial benefits. While the public reception towards Ukrainian refugees has been incredibly warm and welcoming, inevitably as the economy declines and the cost-of-living crisis deteriorates further, this hospitality will give way to misgivings as to why our limited resources are being exhausted on others. Allah recognises this aspect of human nature and encourages us to behave in the opposite manner.
Finally, to help steer us towards achieving a mindset of such purity, Allah encourages us to give the migrants from what we have, even if we are in need of the same and it leaves us in hardship, linking this level of sacrifice with true success.
One of the primary reasons given for refusing to allow asylum seekers or indeed any migrants into the country is that there is a scarcity of resources to go around. The other primary reason which is not vocalised of course is that they look different to us. Focusing on the economic argument, imagine a country in which refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are welcomed as above by both the state and the public, and where they are granted protection with the full rights to be able to study, work and live as equal members of society. Not only will it lead to deeper integration but it will create jobs and generate much needed revenue for the exchequer. They would essentially be paying for themselves as well as others. In fact, it can be argued that the government’s policy towards Ukrainian refugees and the public’s hospitality and sacrifices for them is a working example of this model. Unfortunately, the institutionally racist nature of the government means the same is not being rolled out to asylum seekers of colour in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia who the government proposes to offshore to Rwanda.
The Prophet (ﷺ) also connected the granting of asylum to those in need to the prosperity and success of the receiving state. He (ﷺ) advised his ummah that victory and economic prosperity were inextricably linked to how a society treated its most vulnerable members. We see this hadith come to life in the khilāfah of Umar ibn Abdul Aziz who was known to never turn his back on anyone seeking his protection. His reign is romanticised as a golden age of Islam when the economy had flourished to the extent that the state could find nobody in need of zakah. Of course, there were other factors at play as well but there is no doubt that his justice towards all people, including migrants and refugees, was instrumental to his success.
On the flipside, abrogating your responsibility towards those in need can have catastrophic consequences for a nation. In another hadith that should shake the core of every political leader who has sought to deport refugees and asylum seekers, the Prophet (ﷺ) said that:
Could it be that the current political and economic woes the UK finds itself in today are directly linked to its long-standing policy of demonising asylum seekers, refusing them protection and denying them the ability to live a dignified existence?
A short note on economic migrants who are often distinguished from refugees as ‘bad migrants.’ These are people who simply by the lottery of life have been born into poverty that itself is a consequence of Western colonialism and imperialism. They are striving to make a better life for themselves and their families. We are asked by Allah to tend to the needs of those burdened with hardships, no matter who they are or what land or nation they fled, even if they have done so for economic reasons, because the earth and all that is in it belongs to Allah, and Allah’s servants have the right to travel in the earth seeking provision:
As Muslims, we must be fully engaged with the asylum debate, proposing positive solutions for the government and fulfilling our individual duties to those arriving on our borders. By so doing, we may be able to put in place the mechanisms by which asylum seekers and refugees are treated humanely and with both compassion and respect, as a result of which we receive the divine mercy which we are all so desperately in need of in these difficult times.