GOVERNMENT plans to tackle the asylum-seeker crisis came under fire from the Bishops of Chelmsford, Durham, and London in the House of Lords on Wednesday of last week.
During a debate on the Nationality and Borders Bill, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said that the Bill failed in its attempt to stop criminal gangs and increase the fairness of the asylum system. The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, expressed concerns about its effect on victims of modern slavery. The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, gave a unique perspective of the case as a person who came to Britain in 1980 as a refugee from Iran.
Bishop Butler said that the Bill would make the asylum system “more complicated and cumbersome, be less fair, provide fewer safe routes, and be more expensive”. The proposed different treatment of refugees, depending on how they come to the UK, caused him “very deep concern”.
He continued: “The Government’s underlying premise in this approach is that the harder we make it for asylum-seekers in the UK, the less they will come. We have seen no evidence to support this approach. Indeed, if making conditions harder for asylum-seekers had the desired effect, we would not be faced with this Bill today. We have an asylum system which is set up to establish the veracity of an asylum claim. Let us rely on that, not on the method of entry.”
The Bill proposes “safe routes” to Britain, but provided no detail, he said. “We will not put criminal gangs out of business without expanding safe alternative routes. Reuniting families is a vital safe route, but, under the Bill, family reunion would be in effect, non-existent.
“I am proud that the UK has been a global leader in refugee resettlement since 2015. However, sadly, this is no longer the case,” he said. “Only 1163 people resettled to the UK in the first nine months of 2021, compared with the 28,000 people arriving across the Channel. We must build on our proud history of resettlement for the future. We need an ambitious yet deliverable target of at least 10,000 places per year.
“The Bill should be an opportunity to create a fair, compassionate, and effective asylum system that works for the taxpayer, communities, and those seeking asylum. Sadly, on many counts, I fear that it does not work. I fear that the Bill fails the Home Office’s own values; it certainly fails to uphold the UN Convention on Refugees and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
Bishop Mullally said that while several aspects of the Bill were welcome additions in the fight against modern-day slavery, others “seem troubling. . . The more there is a lack of safe and legal routes, the more criminal gangs fill the vacuum to bring the desperate people here. Indeed, the harder we make it to arrive with ever more militarised and securitised approaches, the more the only available options are via sophisticated criminal gangs and support from alternative, illegal sources.”
The Government, she said, believes that existing modern slavery provisions are open to abuse, and are being used to prevent people being removed from the country. “We must be cautious that, in seeking to counter abuse, we do not sacrifice the real victims,” she said. “Modern slavers thrive on exploiting destitution and fear among asylum-seekers and migrants. They capitalise on gaps in government provision, and enmesh the vulnerable in their enterprises. Contrary to the intention of the Bill, there is much that might exacerbate modern slavery, not reduce it.”
Dr Francis-Dehqani told the House: “Often, I see asylum-seekers presented either as victims who require help but have no agency, or as chancers seeking to abuse generosity — criminals, even. Neither approach is helpful. How different discussions might be if we reframed the debate in terms of the best way to work with potential future citizens, neighbours, and friends.”
She continued: “We need a policy framework that gives future citizens the chance to contribute in meaningful ways. The opportunity to work, particularly for those facing long delays in the asylum process, would be one such chance, but it is absent, sadly, from the Bill. Indeed, there is much in the Bill that does not meet the tests of providing for agency, dignity, and a chance to be heard.
“I am concerned that the provision to remove citizenship without notice is a denial of the right to be heard, and one that has wider implications that seem to be unacknowledged. I am concerned, too, that the proposed differential treatment of refugees, depending on how they have arrived, is an example of learning the wrong lessons from the hostile environment.
“I have spoken to a great many people over the years, and am yet to find the asylum-seeker who was deterred from coming to the UK because they would be barred from working or housed in substandard accommodation.”
She quoted St Paul: “‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.’ It is better for the soul of this nation, and for creating good future citizens, to treat people with the greatest possible respect and dignity, rather than with hostility and doubt.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Nationality and Borders Bill will deliver the Government’s New Plan for Immigration — the most comprehensive reform in decades, to fix the broken asylum system.
“The New Plan for Immigration means a system that attracts talent to our country; improved support for those in the greatest need while taking a firm stance on those that abuse the system and have no right to be in the UK.
“The sooner the Bill becomes law, the sooner we can deliver change this country has voted for and needs.”