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Bishops: ‘Stop the rhetoric and act humanely to prevent another Channel tragedy’

26 November 2021


A further group of migrants picked up in the Channel on Thursday, after the news that a boat had capsized with the lost of 27 lives

A further group of migrants picked up in the Channel on Thursday, after the news that a boat had capsized with the lost of 27 lives

THE Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, has expressed her anger and outrage at the disaster on Wednesday in which 27 migrants — 17 men, seven women, and three children — drowned when their inflatable boat capsized in the English Channel.

Migration must stop being used as a political football, she warned. “I am feeling a deep inner rage that the world continues to allow this to happen, couched with political rhetoric as to whose fault it is. It is all our fault, we must all take responsibility,” she told BBC Radio Kent.

The new Immigration and Asylum Bill, backed by the Commons at its First Reading in July, will make arriving in the UK without permission a criminal offence, and gives powers to return asylum-seekers to “safe third countries” if they passed through any before arriving in the UK. Border Force officials will have the power to turn back boats that attempt to cross the Channel “and use reasonable force if necessary”.

Speaking in a House of Lords debate on Thursday, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, said that a policy of deterrence that did not also provide adequate and safe alternatives for migrants was insufficient. “I fear that, in seeking to preserve life, it may not only fail to do so but also harm our underlying commitments to the dignity of life and the promotion of justice,” he said.

“Many of those migrants have so little to lose, will have suffered so much in their homeland, and are so close to the finishing line, that Britain will always be worth aiming for, no matter how difficult we make it for them. They will not be deterred by yesterday’s events — in fact, we know from today’s crossings that they are not — nor by our efforts to make things even more difficult for them.

“As we know, family connections, linguistic considerations, and their trust in the deep traditions of British tolerance, sanctuary, and human rights will always make Britain a worthy prospect for them. They are right to be hopeful that their applications for asylum will be successful; of the 400 people in Coventry hotels awaiting the result of their applications, we expect at least 60 per cent to be successful.

“We would therefore need to stoop very low and become very hostile to make a journey to Britain truly unappealing to them.”

Dr Cocksworth called on the Home Office to “be ambitious” with the new UK resettlement programme, and to explore a regulated model, such as a humanitarian visa system, to allow people to enter directly from France. He described Wednesday’s events as resulting from a crisis of politics rather than numbers.

“They stem from a failure to acknowledge that we cannot deal with this issue in isolation through the mere securitisation of our borders,” he told the Lords. “Doing justly by those suffering the world’s ills means working collaboratively to tackle the underlying causes of migration, all of which are staring us in the face.”

A former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, also called for the problem to be managed “humanely and fairly, with common sense and a sense of perspective”, and for it to be a responsibility equally shared between different parts of the country.

“There will continue to be truly desperate people fleeing oppressive regimes, areas of violent conflict and acute starvation — a situation which will be accentuated in future years because of the effects of climate change,” he said.

“People are desperate enough to undertake hazardous journeys over long distances, because the alternative, quite simply, is worse. We can be very grateful that the UK is acting humanely where it matters first and most of all — actually rescuing people in danger of drowning in the English Channel. That is and must remain the first priority.

“Then, the refugees, whether they are genuine asylum-seekers or economic migrants, must be housed humanely while their cases are processed.”

Bishop Hudson-Wilkin later commented on Premier Radio: “We must all take responsibility. We keep contributing to the rhetoric around migrants, asylum-seekers, refugees, economic migrants, whatever terms we want to use. We bump up the rhetoric, which then goes towards the politicians and then they accentuate it, because they think that that is what the people want. They’ve got to stop that.

“It’s too late for blaming people. Traffickers are wretched people, and they are abusing those who are most vulnerable, and that is despicable. But this is not about blaming that group or that country, etc. This is something epic. This deserves the international community to sit down together and not leave the table until they find a solution.”

Domenica Pecoraro, Kent Refugee Project Officer, said on Friday: “On Wednesday, we died 27 times. Those who died, before being labelled exiles or asylum-seekers, are our brothers and sisters. Those lives could and should have been spared.”

Efforts needed to be made towards finding durable solutions, such as creating humanitarian corridors and implementing safe routes to asylum in the UK, she said.

“It is right what officials say regarding the need to ‘break’ the people trafficking gangs and ‘the business model of the gangsters who are sending people to sea in this way’. However, these deadly dynamics are to be tackled by offering people safe alternatives to exercise their rights to claim asylum in the UK.”

The Nationality and Borders Bill needed to be positioned to expand resettlement and, crucially, to spell out a clear commitment to continuing it, Mrs Pecoraro said. “Addressing what is happening on our doorstep is to rethink resettlement pathways and develop safe passages with France.”

News of the tragedy led to “a song of lament” in the head of the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines. In his Thought for the Day on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, he reflected: “This is not just a time for politics; rather it is a time to be digging deeper emotionally and being touched by tragedy.

“Each one [who died] had a name, a history and people who loved them. God knows their name, even if I don’t.”

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