BISHOPS and other faith leaders and charities have echoed the concerns expressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury over the Government’s proposal to deport some asylum-seekers to Rwanda for processing and resettlement.
The Archbishop’s Easter Day sermon, in which he branded the plan “opposite of the nature of God”, was attacked by ministers, who accused the Church of meddling in politics (News, 18 April). The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who unveiled the deal with Rwanda last week, accused critics of not offering any alternatives that would thwart the people-traffickers who send migrants across the English Channel in flimsy boats, risking their lives.
The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said that, on the contrary, peers, including bishops, had been proposing alternatives during debates on the Nationality and Borders Bill as it went through the House of Lords (News, 25 March, 8 April), and that all of these had been dismissed by the Government.
The Bill is back in the Commons this week, complete with an amendment from the Lords asking for all details of the scheme, including full financial details, to be laid before the Houses of Parliament.
Full costings for the scheme have not been released. Home Office officials are understood to have warned the Home Secretary that it was uncertain that the scheme would deliver value for money.
Bishop Butler said that the Government was “deadly serious” about the plan, and that it was wrong to dismiss it as a distraction from woes over police fines issued for parties held in Downing Street during the lockdown.
The Government’s proposal, he said, was more extensive than “offshoring” — a system used by Australia, in which asylum-seekers are taken to another country to be processed — as those who are successful in claiming asylum will not be allowed to come back to the UK under the Government’s scheme, but will be resettled in Rwanda.
The concern about stopping people-traffickers was real, he said, as were the concerns of those living in Kent, where the boats wash up.
“The concern about how we deal and respond to this is real. We really do have to keep talking to the French and come up with the best agreement with France,” Bishop Butler said.
“Between two-thirds and three-quarters of people are found to be genuine refugees, and that needs to be taken on board; but we do have to find a way to tackle the traffickers.”
The welcome from the British public for those seeking asylum was generous and should not be underestimated, he said. “There has been an amazing response from people in the UK to Ukraine, but also to Syrian and Afghan refugees. There needs to be a safe legal route for those from Iran, Iraq, and Eritrea, who are all coming here due to persecution, which can be due to the fact they are Christian, or LGBT.
“In the Lords, we have made suggestions about alternatives, but these have not been accepted by the Government, including creating a humanitarian visa or improving the family reunion route.
“I am not surprised at the backdraft to the Archbishop, but the good news of Jesus Christ involves us in speaking up for the poor and marginalised, and that means getting involved in politics,” he said.
The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, wrote to the Home Secretary on Monday, saying that her own experience as an asylum-seeker made her “extremely anxious about this scheme and its implications”.
Her letter says: “This policy treats the most vulnerable in our midst in a cruel and inhumane way and it is for this reason that I am compelled to appeal to you, even at this late stage, to listen to the voices that are being raised from a cross section of public opinion.”
Members of Britain’s Jewish community said that they were “utterly appalled by the government’s inhumane plans”. A letter signed by the executive director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, Dr Edie Friedman, and senior rabbis said that the policy “brings to mind unpleasant memories of the overseas internment of Jewish refuges in the second world war”.
A statement from the President of the Methodist Conference, the Revd Sonia Hicks, and the Vice-President, Barbara Easton, said: “The Government’s plans to offshore asylum-seekers in Rwanda gives yet another insight into its hostile, uncompassionate and ineffective response to asylum-seekers and refugees.
“People are not a problem to be dealt with, but are individuals with inherent value and dignity made in the image of God. Sending some of the most vulnerable people in the world thousands of miles away to be imprisoned does not respect this dignity.
“The factors which push people out of their homes and into displacement will always be much stronger than those which motivate them to claim asylum in a certain place. As we have seen in Ukraine, conflict and persecution can become a daily reality at a distressingly rapid pace.
“Whilst it is important to address the dangerous trade of people smuggling across the Channel, the lack of safe and accessible routes by which people can claim asylum in the UK will ultimately contribute significantly to increased small boat crossings.
“The Government have shied away from committing to a resettlement target, and the Nationality and Borders Bill lacks detail of new or expanded resettlement routes. Now, the Government is passing the issue onto another country, which the UK has previously criticised for holding a poor record on human rights.
“Offshore processing is a distraction from the real work which needs to be done to establish workable, safe and welcoming routes through which the UK can play its part in responding to need.”
The Children’s Society described the plan as “shameful”. It said: “We are particularly worried about children who could be mistakenly assessed as adults and sent to Rwanda. We know from the young people we support, that refugees have often fled war and persecution and already endured perilous journeys and experienced untold trauma to get here. To then be sent another 4000 miles across the world is unthinkable.”