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Refugees are a gift, not a problem

14 June 2021

They make a significant contribution to our economy and society, says Paul Butler


Dr Waheed Arian, a doctor and radiologist who came to the UK as a child refugee from Afghanistan in 1999, outside 10 Downing Street, in 2018 

Dr Waheed Arian, a doctor and radiologist who came to the UK as a child refugee from Afghanistan in 1999, outside 10 Downing Street, in 2018 

IN OUR churches, we often tell the inspiring story, from the book of Gensis, of Joseph: a young man, displaced — through no fault of his own — to a new country. His unexpected, enforced journey led him to become the governor of the whole of Egypt, second only in command to the Pharaoh. It was in this position that he was able to acquire grain supplies to help not only his adopted country, but also his former home, to withstand and survive famine.

In light of this scriptural example, how do we view those who have come to rebuild their lives in our communities: as a problem or as a gift?

Migration is an issue that attracts attention owing to the complexities and sensitivities surrounding it, but we often neglect to speak of the tremendous contribution that migrants and refugees make to our economy and wider society.

This has been demonstrated during this pandemic, which has highlighted our reliance on essential workers and the invaluable skills that migrants, including refugees, bring to our workforce, such as in health, social care, and hospitality. It is clear that we benefit from their gifts, talents, and involvement in our shared life together.

They also make a fiscal contribution, through paying their taxes and engaging in the economy. As the theme for this year’s Refugee Week puts it so well, “We cannot walk alone.” If there is one thing that this pandemic has shown us, it is that all our lives and our health are interwoven.

TODAY, more people than ever live in a country other than the one where they were born. The United Nations estimates that 79.5 million people have been forcibly displaced. These are people who have skills, talents, and motivations, and hope to be able to build their lives and contribute in a new country.

As the UK transitions out of Europe, the Government is shaping a new immigration system. We need to think carefully about how we support displaced families, including refugees and asylum-seekers, in participating fully in civic and economic life, while meeting the UK’s critical skills shortages.

Freedom to work, for those who can, is an important part of our humanity. It is how we support ourselves and our families, how we contribute to the common good, and how we share, through taxation, the financial burdens of our common life. But many people who are waiting to hear from the Home Office about their request for asylum have the skills that the UK needs and want to work, but are prevented from doing so.

The Government, instead, has chosen to provide a minimal taxpayer-funded benefit rather than allow them to provide for themselves and their families. This is while the share of asylum applications that received an initial decision in six months fell from 87 per cent in 2014 to 22 per cent in 2020. The UK, therefore, misses out on additional tax revenue, while talents and much-needed skills are wasted.

By taking this approach, the Government is denying refugees the basic human dignity of work. Employment would not only enable them to contribute to the economy, but would also help them to be integrated into their new communities. It does not make financial or moral sense to stop people from working. This ban urgently needs to be lifted.

As a bishop in the House of Lords, I have spoken up regularly on asylum-seekers’ right to work (Comment, 4 September 2020). I will continue to press ministers on this important issue, through the passage of the New Plan for Immigration Bill, which is expected soon. The reason for my motivation is, as Ecclesiastes states clearly: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This I saw, is from the hand of God” (Ecclesiastes 2.24).


LET us then, this Refugee Week 2021, celebrate refugees, who are integral and valuable members of our society. The UN believes that it is an important moment to learn from each other, and to find out what we can build together.

Nowhere have I found this to be more true than in churches up and down the country, where believers from all walks of life and nationalities join as one family of God to worship, serve their communities, and live life together.

I also want it to be true that no family is excluded from participating in our shared economic life, especially as we seek to rebuild after the pandemic. We must aspire to be a country where a family, forced from their home, will not need to face potential destitution on living here, but will be given the opportunity to thrive, study, and contribute.

We may then be a nation in which a refugee, like Joseph, can rise to high office and use their skills to support the country to prosper. We have a responsibility to enable people to flourish and to live in dignity, expressing their full humanity by sharing their skills for the benefit of us all.


The Rt Revd Paul Butler is the Bishop of Durham and a parliamentary representative of the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy (RAMP) project.

Refugee Week 2021 runs from 14 to 20 June.

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