When Barbara Streisand discovered that Kenneth Adelman had posted a photograph of her home online, she was outraged. She decided to sue him.

After all, she didn’t want people looking at photos of her home on the Net. Up until the point the case came to court, the site had received 6 hits. 6 people had looked at the pictures of her house. Once the court case started (she failed anyway) 42,000 had downloaded the photos and gawped at her house. It wasn’t what she had intended at all. It had the opposite effect. She had made it so much worse.

When the British ruled India, there was a real problem with cobras in Delhi. Some well-meaning pen pusher had a bright idea. ‘Lets offer a bounty for every dead cobra people turn in to the police stations.’ It started off working very well. After a while some enterprising people began to breed cobras just of the purpose of killing them, turning them in and collecting the reward. So when the authorities got wind of this the responded by scrapping the scheme. This led to the cottage industry of cobra breeders finding themselves with loads of worthless cobras on their hands, so they just released them. The end result was many more cobras loose in Delhi than there ever had been when the problem started. Their bright idea had consequences they hadn’t foreseen. They made matters so much worse.

And that brings us very neatly to the Church of England’s House of Bishops. Over 80 of them have written a letter to the Government about refugees. They think that the number should be increased from 20,000 to at least 50,000 – or perhaps more. (In fact that was the same number that the Labour leadership candidate Yvette Cooper put forward – not that there is any formal link between the bishops and the Labour party of course.)

None of the details of this process reflect terribly well on the bishops. They got a bit miffed when the Government didn’t bother answering their letter, so they went to the press to get themselves some publicity to see if that would help. The press is something of double-edged sword of course. One of the leading signatories of the letter was the Bishop of Manchester. He lives in a  6 bedroomed house that the press rather unfairly now calls ‘a mansion’. He was asked if, since the house was only lived in by him and his wife, he would be prepared to offer some of the space to any of the 50,000 refugees himself? He rather thought not. Wherever the 50,000 refugees went, none of them were welcome in his house. He suggested that it would be awkward “trying to share the breakfast table with a couple whose language they don’t understand and whose culture is alien to them.”

One of the more impressive bishops, who didn’t sign this letter, was the Bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres. He thought the matter was a bit more complex than his colleagues had grasped.

“We are only at the beginning of a global refugee crisis. It’s not just a question of responding to the current wave of displaced people entering the European Union, but devising long terms strategies for the huge population movements not confined to the Middle East.”

He is right of course. This is only the beginning. And even if the bishop of Manchester was prepared to share his breakfast table in his 6-bedroom house with a Syrian couple that had poor English and different tastes in breakfast menus, it doesn’t make any difference to the scale of the problem coming.

But it is a bit reminiscent of the Delhi cobra scheme; well meaning, but not very well thought out. It’s not just that only 21 of those bishops could be bothered to ask for help for persecuted Iraqi Christians whom you might think would be a priority for them. It’s also that if they had ever bothered to ask the Archbishop of Aleppo (a Syrian) what he thought, they would have heard something very different.

He said that Europeans should stop luring away Syrians from their home country and focus instead on providing a solution there. “I understand that the bishops may write moved by love and charity…but we suffer when people leave our country.” When asked if taking in more refugees would harm Syria, he replied “Yes, of course. It harms Syria and harms the refugees…it’s not just a question of accommodating people.”

If I had a message for the bishops and those who think like them it would be ‘Beware the law of unintended consequences; and to be well meaning but under-informed is not good enough if you really want to help people. Remember Barbara Streisand and the Delhi cobras.

October 2015

©  Gavin Ashenden,