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UK’s treatment of asylum-seekers is wasteful and cruel, says Welby

09 December 2022

Parliament TV

The Archbishop of Canterbury speaks in the House of Lords on Friday morning

The Archbishop of Canterbury speaks in the House of Lords on Friday morning

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has laid into the UK’s system for dealing with immigration, calling it “grossly wasteful”, “staggeringly inefficient”, and “cruel”.

The Government’s proposed solution, outsourcing the problem to Rwanda, was not a solution, he said. “It’s a mistake, and it will be a failure.”

And he criticised the language of “invasion”, most recently used by the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman. Such terms denied “the essential value and dignity of fellow human beings”, he said.

Archbishop Welby was speaking in the House of Lords on Friday morning, introducing a debate on the “principles behind contemporary UK asylum and refugee policy and responding to the challenges of forced migration”.

He argued that the Government should restore safe and legal ways for asylum-seekers to enter the UK — and do more to combat people-smugglers transporting people across the Channel.

“A compassionate system does not mean open borders, but a disposition of generosity and a readiness to welcome those whose need is genuine,” he told peers. “It also means compassion and generosity to those communities that will receive refugees, which are often neglected and forgotten.”

He continued: “A compassionate policy is one that has confidence to reject the shrill narratives that all who come to us for help should be treated as liars, scroungers, or less than fully human.

“Compassion is not weakness or naïvety. It recognises the impact on receiving communities, which includes the need to limit numbers and maintain security and order. Compassion means ending the criminal activity of people-smugglers, perhaps one of the biggest industries in the world after drug smuggling. But it must distinguish between victims seeking help and criminals who exploit them.”

People-smuggling should, like piracy, be made an international crime — and the UK should seek to form an international body “to track it down and attack it everywhere”, he said.

Archbishop Welby acknowledged that there was “real pressure on housing, schools, and GP surgeries”, but said: “Refugees have not caused our housing crisis. We are around 40 years behind in our investment in our housing stock: there would be a crisis anyway.”

He also said that the number of asylum-seekers in the UK had dropped during the past two decades: “In 2021, there were 48,540 asylum applications made in the UK; in 2002, that was 84,132, almost twice as much.”

Furthermore, other countries had taken in “significantly more refugees”: in the year ending September 2021, Germany received more than 127,000 asylum applications, and France more than 96,000.

“It is not a competition, my Lords. But we do need to face the fact that the UK ranked only 18th in Europe for our intake of asylum applications per head of the population in that period. And it cannot be repeated enough: four out of five refugees stay in their region of displacement, hosted by nations far poorer than themselves.”

The Archbishop continued: “When we fail to challenge the harmful rhetoric that refugees are the cause of this country’s ills, that they should be treated as problems not people, invaders to be tackled and deterred, we deny the essential value and dignity of fellow human beings. The right to seek asylum, and the duty of the global community together to protect refugees, has been politically degraded in this country when it shouldn’t be a positive source of pride.

“I’m not only addressing the Government front bench: this has been a decades-long downward slide over successive Labour, Conservative, and coalition governments.”

The Government had claimed, Archbishop Welby said, that its policy of deporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda — which he and other bishops have criticised strongly (News, 22 April) — “aims to deter people arriving in the UK through illegal, dangerous, or necessary methods.

“There is little or no evidence that this deterrent, or the ‘hostile environment’, works. The Government’s own impact assessment confirms that.”

A compassionate asylum policy, he said, would recognise that “we have a share of global responsibility. Outsourcing our share creates more opportunities for people- smugglers to operate in and around Rwanda. It’s not a solution: it’s a mistake, and it will be a failure.”

He went on to describe as “absurd” the “desire for orderly migration to discourage people from skipping the queue if there is no legal queue”: a point that the Home Secretary had conceded recently when she appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee.

“There is no safe or regular route for an Iranian Christian, or a gay man or woman from Eritrea, to come to the UK to claim asylum. Yet both would be highly likely to have a valid claim if they got here,” Archbishop Welby said.

“When migrants arrive here, our system is grossly wasteful, in both human and financial terms. Control has become cruelty. Staggering inefficiencies by successive governments trapped people in limbo, at incredible expense to the taxpayer; in the system for years, unable to build a life or to contribute to our society.”

The Archbishop drew attention to evidence produced by the Home Affairs Select Committee, which showed that, of all those who arrived seeking asylum in the UK in 2021, only four per cent of claims had been processed by the Home Office by October 2022. “This does not treat people with dignity or compassion, and nor is it control.”

He called for the introduction of a triaging system that would speed up decision-making about who would be likely to be granted asylum. This would allow those who have a low chance of being granted asylum to be removed “almost immediately”.

Furthermore, removing those whose applications are rejected could happen “in a dignified way”, he said. But, he continued: “Removals will only be swift, just, and fair if the system is clear, accurate, and not overwhelmed.”

In the mean time, he said, a “major change” should be introduced: “Asylum-seekers should not just be allowed to work, but expected to work, except in limited circumstances where it would clearly be inappropriate. This combines the right to fair and dignified protection matched with a responsibility to contribute to their new society and the common good.”

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, was among the bishops who contributed to the debate.

“I arrived in this country with my parents at the age of 13. While the Iranian Revolution gripped my homeland, I arrived as a refugee,” she said. “We were able to build our lives here, in large part thanks to the housing provided to us when we arrived: first, in a theological college, and later in a vacant vicarage. We had a home again: stability, and safety from which to build our lives again; and it’s out of that that my own life has grown. Creating this rootedness remains a key factor for successful refugee integration today.”

But the housing provided to many refugees was not stable or safe, she said. “Countless remain in overcrowded temporary accommodation for long periods.”

Of the more than 20,000 Afghans evacuated by the British military in August last year, more than 12,000 were still housed in hotels, costing £1.5 million a day. “This is both dehumanising and expensive.”

Part of the solution, Dr Francis-Dehqani suggested, was “Meanwhile Housing . . . the installation of demountable, sustainable high-quality homes on ‘meanwhile use’ land. This provides better outcomes for refugees and improves use of public funds.”

Also speaking in the debate, the Archbishop of York said: “We know the hard truth is our asylum system simply doesn’t treat everyone the same. It doesn’t give people the dignity, safety, and agency that their humanity deserves. . .

“Of course, we can’t take everybody. But we must, therefore, even more so, have a fair system for everyone. But dehumanising language just promotes fear. A threat of destitution is being used as a deterrent. Children — children — are being treated as if they are adults.”

The Homes for Ukraine scheme had been a great success, he said. “But why has our response to people fleeing other conflicts been different?”

Archbishop Cottrell continued: “Currently, the ‘family’ definition in our asylum system would not allow someone to join their sibling, even if they were the last remaining relative. And being able to work and contribute is a long, long way off.

“The tragedy of our system lies in its exceptionalism that means people get differential treatment, usually because of their country of origin.”

He concluded: “Accusing those who are hospitable of being naïve, passing the buck, that’s the easy thing to do. But saying ‘yes’, with a fair and equal system for everyone — now this also opens up blessings for everyone.”

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, giving his maiden speech, said that, while asylum-seekers in hotels might have a roof over their heads, “they are not given even the most basic of means of living as human beings: the freedom to make even small decisions, like what to eat, the independence that comes from having enough money to buy essentials for oneself, the stable connections to a community which offers a sense of belonging and support.

“At the drop of a hat, they can find themselves relocated to another part of the UK, or deported forcibly, returning to a place they were so desperate to leave.”

Churches were working in his diocese to support asylum-seekers living in hotels, Bishop Snow said — for example, by providing clothing and food.

“I believe that Christ showed us the true humanity is showing love over fear,” he continued. “So, when we are possessed by fear of the other, fear of losing control over our borders, fear of what refugees show us of the fragility of human structures and ways of life, we are lesser versions of ourselves.”

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said: “It’s no secret that we are not doing the mechanics of welcome through asylum-processing well. The applications backlog means we are both unable to prioritise those in need, or humanely return those not recognised as refugees.

“There are close to 140,000 unanswered applications in the system by the end of September — so men, women, and children in limbo, unable to rebuild their lives. This is not treating people with dignity.”

Bishop Butler blamed the dysfunction on “chronic underinvestment in both people and systems at the Home Office”.

But there were workable solutions, he said: “Recruit more caseworkers, set up a dedicated case-clearance unit that effectively triages [cases].”

He continued: “Currently, 35 per cent of the backlog is applications from five countries with grant rates of over 85 per cent, including countries with an acceptance level of 98 per cent. Asylum law identifies safe countries; so there should be no barrier in prioritising those we know have credible asylum claims and urgently need our support.

“This would involve a cost. But, if we were to allow asylum-seekers to work after six months of waiting for a decision, enabling them to support themselves, then money would be recouped by the Exchequer. And what is the real cost, especially on children dealing with past trauma while not knowing their future is safe?”

Lord Murray of Blidworth, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Home Office, responded to the debate for the Government. “While we are clearly grappling with significant challenges, the UK has maintained our long and proud record of welcoming refugees and people in need of protection through various resettlement schemes,” he said.

“Whilst we know there are many people in difficult situations around the world, the UK cannot possibly accommodate everyone who might wish to come here.”

The Government’s refugee resettlement schemes were “focused on those with the greatest need”, he said.

Regarding the high number of unprocessed asylum claims, Lord Murray agreed that they were “unacceptable”.

“The asylum system has been under mounting pressure, for several years, of increased and sustained intake, and the growing number of people awaiting a decision has led to significant delays in concluding asylum claims.

“Current efforts are focused on deciding old claims, high-harm cases, and cases with extreme vulnerability, such as mental health, child cases, new claims, and those in receipt of support, since the Nationality and Borders Act came into force on 28 June of this year.”

Lord Murray thanked Archbishop Welby for his suggestion that claims should be triaged, and those who are unlikely to be granted asylum be removed as quickly as possible. “In practice, however, while we endeavour to remove individuals as quickly as possible, delays to removal occur due to legal barriers, such as fresh claims, further representations, modern slavery claims, and judicial reviews, all of which must be considered before removal.”

Read an edited extract of Archbishop Welby’s speech here

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