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Bishops joins widespread criticism of Government’s small-boats Bill

08 March 2023


A group of people, thought to be migrants, are brought into Dover, Kent, on Monday, after they were intercepted by a Border Force vessel in the Channel

A group of people, thought to be migrants, are brought into Dover, Kent, on Monday, after they were intercepted by a Border Force vessel in the Channe...

THE UK must not abdicate its “legal and moral responsibility” by treating vulnerable asylum-seekers as illegal, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, has warned the Government.

He was joining widespread condemnation of the Illegal Migration Bill announced by the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

Ms Braverman told MPs that the new law would “stop the boats bringing tens of thousands to our shores”. The announcement was met with dismay from refugee groups, church leaders, and charities, who said that this broke the country’s duty to care for refugees, and could breach international law.

The Bill proposes that people entering the UK via illegal routes would either be returned to their homeland, sent to Rwanda, or sent to a “safe” third country. Anyone deported would be blocked from returning to the UK or from seeking British citizenship in future.

Those detained under the Bill would not be granted bail or be able to seek judicial review for the first 28 days of detention in the UK, and would be unable to use modern slavery laws to prevent their removal. The law would also apply retrospectively, with anyone arriving illegally from Tuesday now at risk of deportation. In addition, Parliament would cap the number of refugees allowed to settle here.

More than 45,000 people entered the UK via Channel crossings last year, up from about 300 in 2018. The Home Secretary said that the UK’s approach was “robust and novel”. She added: “I am confident that this Bill is compatible with international law.”

But the United Nations refugee agency said that the Bill would “deny protection to many asylum-seekers in need of safety and protection, and even deny them the opportunity to put forward their case. This would be a clear breach of the Refugee Convention and would undermine a longstanding humanitarian tradition of which the British people are rightly proud.

“Most people fleeing war and persecution are simply unable to access the required passports and visas. There are no safe and ‘legal’ routes available to them. Denying them access to asylum on this basis undermines the very purpose for which the Refugee Convention was established.”

Bishop Butler said on Tuesday: “We must not abdicate our legal and moral responsibility to some of the world’s most vulnerable by simply treating asylum-seekers as a group not to be welcomed or integrated but detained and returned. We must do and be better.”

The Bill was “likely to push thousands of people, including children, into a prolonged legal limbo and imprisonment, and does nothing to support timely and effective consideration of asylum requests.

“It would label all those crossing the Channel ‘illegal entrants’ and therefore people to whom we do not owe a responsibility and would criminalise the act of claiming asylum — without acknowledging that many are highly vulnerable people escaping persecution and war, who have been left with no safe routes.

“It is disappointing that the Government has decided to not take on a greater role in leading the world to equitably support those forced to flee their home.”

The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, described the Bill as “unworkable”, lacking “in basic human compassion”, and “dehumanising”.

“Migration here is not a lifestyle choice,” she said on Wednesday. “It is often the only option between life and death. Asylum-seekers and refugees . . . cannot go back to their country of origin. Most family members and friends are scattered around the world as they sought refuge from war, famine, and persecution. Issues around migration should never be treated as a political football headline-grabbing policies may win votes but unless the Government is willing to do the hard work of addressing the broader issues the problems will still remain.”

Seeking asylum was a human right, enshrined in law, she said. “We know that most people arriving on small boats and seeking asylum have their applications granted because there is sufficient evidence of their claim to stay. Deporting asylum-seekers without a hearing is a brutal response given that there is currently no fit asylum application process in place here. There has to be a better way. I ask of our Government that we do not ‘other’ those who are most vulnerable in our world.”

The convener of the Church of Scotland’s Faith Impact Forum, the Revd Karen Hendry, concurred that the Bill “goes against everything that we uphold and value in our faith and communities — the dignity and value of all humans and their right to seek safety when their lives and threatened and torn apart.

“This Bill will not just strip people fleeing war and persecution of their right to seek safety in the UK but punish them, based simply on how they came here, not whether they need protection from war and persecution.”

She urged the Government to rethink the proposal. “If every country adopted a policy of closed borders to refugees, then ordinary people would be left at the mercy of warlords, terrorists, and dictators. We strongly oppose this Bill.”

On Wednesday, leaders from the Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed Church (URC) released a joint statement condemning the Government’s plans as “completely incompatible with our Christian conviction that all human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore inherently worthy of treatment which honours their dignity.”

The statement, which was signed by the Moderator of the URC’s General Assembly, the Revd Fiona Bennett, the general secretary of the Baptist Union, the Revd Lynn Green, and the president and vice-preisde of the Methodist Conference, the Revd Graham Thompson and Anthony Boateng, continued: “Instead of dignity, these plans will foster discrimination and distrust, and cause immeasurable harm to people already made vulnerable by conflict and persecution. If ever there was a contemporary example of ignoring our neighbour and walking by on the other side, this is it.”

The chief executive of the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, said that the plans “shatter the UK’s long-standing commitment under the UN Convention to give people a fair hearing regardless of the path they have taken to reach our shores. They will simply add more cost and chaos to the system. “

The “flawed” Bill would “result in tens of thousands locked up in detention at huge cost, permanently in limbo and being treated as criminals simply for seeking refuge. It’s unworkable, costly, and won’t stop the boats.”

He called for humane, safe, and orderly routes.

The Children’s Society said in a statement that the “incredibly alarming” Bill could undermine The Children’s Act by discriminating against children because of their status, at the risk of inflicting further trauma to already vulnerable children.

“With the Home Office’s current practice of incorrectly deeming scores of children — running into the hundreds — to be adults and treating them as such, this Bill could also see numerous children who are fleeing conflict, persecution and danger wrongly removed from the UK with no means of redress. The Government’s approach unveiled today is draconian, wrong-footed, and does nothing to keep these children safe or protected in the way they should be treated.”

The founder of the refugee support group Care4Calais, Clare Moseley, said that most people would be “shocked by this cruel and pointless policy”.

“This cannot be the right answer for the nation that opened it arms to Ukrainians fleeing war. If the Government truly wanted to stop small boats they would offer safe passage to refugees in Calais who have viable asylum claims. This would put people smugglers out of business and save lives. When there is an effective and humane alternative, why would we adopt this brutal Bill?”

Oxfam’s head of policy and advocacy, Katy Chakrabortty, said that the Bill would breach refugee, humanitarian, and human-rights law. The UK cannot “hope to legislate away” the reasons why so many migrants attempt the dangerous Channel.crossing, she said.

Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International’s refugee and migrant rights’ director, said that the Bill was a “shocking new low” for the Government. “It’s frankly chilling to see ministers trying to remove human rights protections for groups of people whom they’ve chosen to scapegoat for their own failures.”

The Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, described the Bill as “a con” not a solution. It let people-smugglers “off the hook” and risked “making the chaos worse”.

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