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Compassion for those crossing the Channel      

11 November 2022

It is right to deter dangerous journeys — but dehumanising those who seek sanctuary is not the right approach, says Paul Butler

OFTEN, when reading the passage of the Good Samaritan, we take away thoughts about how to be a good neighbour to those in need. This is good and true, but could we be missing a greater meaning? Jesus told the parable in answer to a question from a lawyer: “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus answers the question through a story, helping the man to imagine, who might he need his neighbour to be? And the difference in nationality, between the injured Jew left on the side of the road and the Samaritan who assisted, simply was not relevant.

Just last week, a national newspaper ran the headline “Migrants side by side in hotels with public”, and the Home Secretary referred to the high numbers of individuals seeking to cross the Channel to claim asylum as an “invasion” of the south coast (Leader comment, 4 November).

This language, the politics of othering, is dehumanising, and serves only to inflame damaging rhetoric surrounding the plight of refugees. Instead of seeing those families in neighbouring hotel rooms as neighbours in need of sanctuary, it peddles the untruth that they are too different and less worthy of dignity, compassion, and respect. This language may lead not only to an apathetic response to serious humanitarian issues at our borders, but also encourage disdain towards, rather than empathy with and understanding of, those in need.

The numbers of people crossing the Channel increase yearly, and it is right that the Government should seek, through a range of appropriate measures, to deter crossings that endanger the lives of those who undertake them. But what would a policy response led by compassion, and a rejection of us-and-them thinking, look like?

FIRST, it would acknowledge that those who are crossing the Channel have a right to claim to asylum on arrival, and that the majority have a credible claim, but that the system is currently not processing their applications efficiently.

Last year, 98 per cent of those crossing the Channel claimed asylum, but only four per cent of those have been processed so far. Those who have been considered have an 85-per-cent grant rate. By way of comparison, between July and September this year, France made more than 31,000 initial decisions on asylum applications. That is the same total as the UK in 21 months.

Politicians and the media alike often refer to those crossing the Channel as “illegal migrants”, but the top nationalities of those making dangerous crossings include Eritrea, Syria, and Afghanistan, and for 97 per cent of these people asylum claims are granted.

Second, a policy response led by compassion would acknowledge that there are very limited legal, safe, and accessible routes for families to claim asylum in the UK. Families are, therefore, left with an impossible choice, and are at the mercy of smugglers taking criminal advantage.

To claim asylum in the UK, a person has to be physically present here, but, for those most likely to be in need of protection, there is no visa available for this, and there are no UK consulates on European soil where asylum can be claimed before beginning a journey.

Further co-operation is needed with France and the wider European Union to explore ways in which people can apply for safe travel to claim asylum. The UK also still has not replaced elements of the Dublin system which were in place when it was a member of the EU. These allowed people to be reunited safely with family members in the UK. Safe and legal routes would severely disrupt smuggling operations.

FINALLY, and of the utmost importance, a compassionate policy response would acknowledge that words matter, and that they influence how vulnerable groups are perceived and treated. As a country with a rich history of providing sanctuary to refugees, the UK and its citizens should ensure that they never risk maligning groups, or believe that they are justified in persecuting — or even perpetrating acts of violence against — asylum-seekers and migrants. As I type these words, “ILLEGAL immigrants” is trending as a hashtag on Twitter. This is simply intolerable.

Grown-up policy discussions are needed urgently to help to solve issues surrounding dangerous crossings and prevent humanitarian crises at processing centres. The way to reduce the number of people travelling dangerously to the UK is to create more safe ways for people to do this. The Government should be looking at expanding resettlement routes and instigating humanitarian visas that people could apply for at embassies. Alongside this, action needs to be taken to tackle the backlog of asylum applications at home.

Just before Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, the lawyer said that he knew that the way to inherit eternal life was to love your neighbour as yourself. And that is the key: to view ourselves as equal to our neighbour, and as deserving of empathy and compassion; to see ourselves in need of sanctuary; and to act as we would want to be welcomed. Jesus’s view of neighbour is not limited — and neither should ours be.

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

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