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Was Jesus a refugee?

A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave his or her country of residence in order to escape danger. That danger can be from persecution, war, or even natural disaster like drought or famine. The gospel of Matthew records that an angel of the Lord told Joseph to, "flee to Egypt… for Herod is about to search for the child [Jesus], to destroy him" (Matthew 2:13). Joseph obeyed the Lord and protected Jesus by escaping Bethlehem under the cover of night and continuing his journey toward safety until he reached Egypt (Matthew 2:14). So Jesus and His family fled their country of residence, escaping in the middle of the night, to avoid the persecution of their home government that was unjustly seeking to kill Him due to his perceived political threat. Matthew records that Joseph's fear was well-founded as Herod then ordered the government-sanctioned slaughter in and around Bethlehem of all male babies and toddlers under the age of two. During this period, then, Jesus and His family were refugees in Egypt awaiting the time it would be safe to return home to Judea. Matthew 2:22 records that an angel informed Joseph when Herod died and he could safely take his family home, although he was told to settle in the region of Galilee away from Herod's son Archelaus.

Most scholars believe Jesus spent about four years in Egypt between the ages of two and six. There was a Jewish community in Egypt during this time, so Mary and Joseph likely found a home among them, but it still would have been a different cultural context than the one they were used to in Judea. They had not chosen of their own volition to immigrate to Egypt, but instead were there only as a result of seeking refuge from an unjust government seeking to kill them back at home.

Because of the desperate situations that cause refugees to flee their homes, most refugees arrive in neighboring nations with little to no resources. Jesus' situation was different. Because the magi had just presented Jesus their gifts of great value, His family likely used these resources to finance their journey to and from, as well as their stay in, Egypt. In this way, Jesus was more like an asylum seeker. Asylum seekers also flee their home countries due to persecution, but they use their own resources to travel to a country of their choosing and then apply for asylum (or protection) from their chosen country.

Both refugees and asylees are normally given long-term legal status with the expectation that the family build a new life in this new land. Since Joseph always intended to return to his home country, perhaps Jesus' family was more similar to those with Temporary Protected Status in the U.S. These immigrants are granted only temporary legal status with the expectation that when the situation in their home country resolves, they will return home.

Of course, there is no evidence that Mary and Joseph ever officially sought legal protection in Egypt. They likely used the magi's gifts to finance their escape and then patiently waited until the Lord directed them safely home again after Herod's death. They also technically never crossed an international border as both Judea and Egypt were part of the Roman Empire. Due to the way the Romans set up local governors, Herod had no authority in Egypt and Jesus could remain safe there until Herod's death.

While Jesus and His family were refugees during their time, their circumstances were far different than the ones most refugees face today.

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