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Churches slam Tory asylum move


A STORM of protest followed Michael Howard's pledge this week that a Conservative government would withdraw from the 1951 Refugee Convention, under which member states of the UN provide protection and safety for those fleeing persecution.

Mr Howard's immigration-control proposals include a maximum annual quota for refugees, to be voted on annually by Parliament; an Australian-style points system; new curbs on spouses and dependants from the Indian sub-continent; priority for asylum-seekers with skills; and a bar on asylum applicants making claims from inside the UK.

The Churches Commission on Racial Justice (CCRJ) said that withdrawal from the Convention would deny a place of safety and support to vulnerable people.

"This is particularly alarming at a time when significant numbers of people are fleeing persecution and the real threat of death because of the 'war on terror' and its consequences," said the CCRJ secretary,  the Revd Arlington Trotman. "As Christians, and people of faith, Britain has a moral duty to offer compassion and justice, and, at the very least, a modicum of peace to those who are oppressed and pushed out of their homelands."

The chief executive of the Refugee Council, Maeve Sherlock, said on Tuesday that the proposals would end the right to claim asylum in Britain. Those who managed to make the journey here would be turned away. "About 70 per cent of the world's refugees are in the poorest countries, many of them in Africa," she said. "It is surely not right that a wealthy nation such as the UK shirks its international responsibilities, while expecting other, far poorer countries to maintain theirs."

One of the forgotten tragedies of the Holocaust was that many of those who perished could have been saved, said Ms Sherlock. "While some families were fortunate enough to be allowed into Britain, many others were refused. The point of the 1951 Refugee Convention was to make sure this never happened again."

The Rt Revd Patrick O'Donohue, the RC Bishop of Lancaster, described the proposal to withdraw from the Convention as "a very dangerous threat". He said on Wednesday: "It would show lack of generosity on our part and a break with a tradition: this country has a tremendous record of accepting people who are fleeing persecution."

The Bishop said that he hoped the proposals were not "an opportunistic tactic in the run-up to an election".

A spokesman for the Church of England Board of Mission said on Tuesday: "To see immigration in terms of threat and burden does pose a genuine risk to good community relations. We would prefer to see the issue in terms of bonus and not burden."

Politicians had a duty to speak about difficult subjects, but they also had a responsibility to educate and lead the public, said Rachel Lampard, secretary for parliamentary and political affairs for the Methodist Church. She also said that asylum should not be conflated with wider immigration for work and family purposes.

A spokesman for the office of the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, said that, while Dr Sacks could not comment on specific policy areas, his book The Dignity of Difference was his own raw view on how people should treat those different from themselves. Dr Sacks has described his book as "the most forceful argument I could make for tolerance in an age of extremes".

 
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