Recent debates about government policy on asylum seekers and refugees are making it clear that we need broader radical reform on our immigration policies. What can the story of Ruth teach us about how we respond to people seeking asylum and refuge?

On Maundy Thursday, the government announced a scheme that would see asylum seekers flown to Rwanda in East Africa, to be processed there, as part of its immigration policy to tackle unlawful entry into the UK. This has caused outrage from the public for various reasons.

Complexity and confusion

First, is the amount of money this new scheme will cost to process asylum seekers, about £120 million. Part of the problem is also the amount it will cost to fly people from the UK to Rwanda on a one-way ticket. There is also talk of £50m in funding for new equipment and specialist personnel for Channel operations as well as a new government facility to house migrants, described as a reception centre, in Linton-on-Ouse, in North Yorkshire.


Second, is the questioning around Rwanda’s human rights record. Rwanda has been through a genocide in 1994 that has led to Rwandan refugees being scattered in different parts of Africa and Europe. Conversations with some Rwandan Christians in the UK also highlight the other side of this deal, particularly about the dictatorial leadership of the Rwandan president. In effect, while it looks good on paper for Rwanda’s economy, it appears that such a deal will probably only favour the leadership and not the Rwandan people.

Although having said this, it has been interesting to observe the condescending tone and reaction to Rwanda’s involvement in a deal to take asylum seekers from a western nation. These sometimes suggest the question, can anything good come out of Rwanda as an African country?

A third issue is the complexity and confusion around UK migration policy. The Nationality and Borders Bill is supposed to be the government’s policy addressing (among other issues) better protection and support for asylum seekers. It has now been found wanting because the proposed legislation does not make provisions for safer and legal routes for asylum seekers. The Evangelical Alliance is one of the organisations advocating for safer routes for people fleeing war, conflict and persecution, commenting in previous weeks and months on the cost of efforts to take back control” and the two-tier asylum system).

While the bill is going back to the House of Commons due to heavy criticisms, the Ukrainian crisis as a result of Russian invasion, has seen the UK open its homes to Ukrainian refugees, despite what some see as the government’s reluctance to welcome refugees. The response to Ukrainian refugees seems in contrast to sending asylum seekers (mostly from the majority world) to Rwanda and therefore raises questions about British fairness and justice.

Not straightforward”

Bishop Joe Aldred, a senior church leader and theologian, commented on this in a Facebook post which can be read here, reflecting on the complexity of the matter, including that both countries are responsible for what is being proposed and their motives interrogated.”

If the UK government policy on asylum seekers and refugees is complex and appears confusing for all sorts of reasons, what do the scriptures have to teach us about people seeking refuge? And what in particular can the story of Ruth teach us about welcoming, integrating and giving a sense of belonging to people seeking asylum? To find out, we must first trace her ancestor Joseph’s story.

Joseph’s story: a trafficking victim, and a family of economic migrants

The God of the Bible is certainly interested in all types of migrants, as a casual perusal of the Old Testament reveals. For example, the story of Joseph’s family, is an example of the journey of people who could be regarded today as economic migrants. Through jealousy and unfortunate circumstances, Joseph found himself as a slave in Egypt, and later his family became economic migrants there to escape the famine in Israel.

He was sold by his brothers to traders – in essence trafficked as a slave labourer. His experience reminds us of the victims of modern-day slavery, human trafficking and people smuggling as a global economic business impacting all continents. Modern human trafficking and people smuggling includes slave labour, domestic servitude, sex trafficking, prostitution and child labour. Joseph found himself in a strange land and difficult situations such as being wrongly accused by Potiphar’s wife (see Genesis 39).

Later Joseph became the Prime Minister in Egypt and this led to the community of Israel being welcomed in Egypt initially, but when the government of the day changed, the new government in power felt there were too many foreign people in their country and therefore needed to tighten controls. The new Pharaoh introduced and implemented oppressive policies that would control the many new immigrants in Egypt.

The first oppressive policy Pharaoh introduced was forced labour and exploitation so that the Israelites helped build and develop the cities in Egypt (see Exodus 1:11 – 14). When it appears that this measure neither worked nor stopped the migrants increasing, Pharaoh introduced a crueller measure. This was in asking the midwives to systematically eliminate all the boys born to the Israelites families (see Genesis 1:15 – 20). This would mean reducing a community of people to nothing as men were the backbone of society in those days.

When this policy failed as well, Pharaoh implemented another sadistic measure to combat the growth of the Israelites. This time he decided to wipe out an entire generation by committing infant genocide through drowning (Exodus 1:22).

Following the pattern of hospitality

It was in response to this injustice and oppression that God decided to liberate the Israelites from slavery. In order for them not to forget but to learn from this experience as people seeking refuge and asylum, God instructed them on how to treat strangers and foreigners:

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands… Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.” (Deuteronomy 24:17 – 1922)

This scripture is of significance because it not only states why the Israelite community have to care for foreigners and strangers seeking refuge, but adds in detail how to care by making provisions available for migrants. It was in following this pattern of hospitality that Ruth, a foreigner, was welcomed into the community of Israel by Naomi and Boaz (Ruth 1:15 – 16; 2:1 – 7).

Ruth was not only welcomed but was integrated into the community of Israel through the generosity and hospitality shown her through food provision, care and freedom to make provisions for her widowed mother-in-law. Lastly, Ruth marrying Boaz, a relative who has the right to redeem the situation, gave Ruth a sense of belonging affirming her dignity as a human being.

This story teaches us something of welcoming the stranger who is seeking sanctuary into our midst. In this climate, when the UK government appears to be focusing on how to deter people seeking asylum, and continues to tighten its borders, the UK church can exemplify this hospitality and follow the gospel policy we see in the story of Ruth by how we welcome, integrate and offer a sense of belonging to people seeking refuge.

"Ruth was not only welcomed but was integrated into the community of Israel through the generosity and hospitality shown her."