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Illegal Migration Bill has fundamental flaws

24 March 2023

Besides speaking out about the Government’s plans, churches can help asylum-seekers practically, says Guli Francis-Dehqani

THANKS to Gary Lineker’s famous tweets, the Government’s Illegal Migration Bill has received greater attention than anyone would have expected (Paul Vallely, 17 March). Of course, the Church and other faith groups have had a long-term interest in this issue, and I am supportive of and grateful for the concerns raised by the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of Durham, and others about the Government’s latest proposals (News, 17 March, 10 March, Leader comment, 10 March).

The fundamental problem with this Bill is that the proposals would close the door on anyone seeking asylum in the UK unless they arrived by a legal route. At the same time, there are currently very few legal routes. This means that, if the Bill is passed, genuine asylum-seekers — who are fleeing unimaginable horrors, who would be eligible for refugee status in the UK, but who have had no choice but to arrive by irregular means — will face 28 days’ detention, without bail, while the Government seeks to remove them without hearing their asylum case.

Deportation to countries such as Iran, Yemen, and Afghanistan is not possible. This would leave people in a state of permanent limbo, in detention or in the local community, with minimal financial support and no right to work, or in a third country such as Rwanda, with which a deportation agreement has been reached. Even if the Rwanda scheme comes into operation, the country would be able to take only relatively few people. Furthermore, those who are victims of modern slavery would not, under this Bill, be able to claim support under the modern-slavery support systems that are currently in place.

Criticism of the Illegal Migration Bill is widespread. Critics have included the former Prime Minister Theresa May, who said in the House of Commons last week: “The UK has always welcomed those who are fleeing persecution, regardless of whether they come through a safe and legal route. By definition, someone fleeing for their life will, more often than not, be unable to access a legal route.”

 

SO, WHAT is to be done? War and conflict, famine, natural disasters, climate change, poverty, and hardship continue to cause such instability and desperation that we should expect more people in the coming years to seek safety and sanctuary in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Simply tightening border controls will not address the problem. The nations of Europe — including the UK — must agree, urgently, each to take a fair proportion of asylum-seekers, and must open up more safe routes.

At the same time, we must dispense with the myth that there is always an inevitable economic cost to offering sanctuary. The UK continues to face significant labour shortages in key areas of its economy. This could be partially addressed by allowing those seeking asylum the same opportunities to work as Ukrainian refugees have been given. Doing so would both fill vital labour gaps and ease pressure on the public purse, which currently supports the families of asylum-seekers who are not allowed to work.

Of course, migration and asylum are complex political issues that divide opinion. These solutions, and those of my colleagues, will not be popular with everyone. But the Church can play an important part in contributing to the debate. We bring considerable experience from working closely with refugees in many parishes, and we are able to bring people together within the communities that we serve, and to enter into partnership with others to identify solutions to challenges. It is an area of work with which I am involved directly as vice-chair of the Commission on the Integration of Refugees.

 

BUT, besides contributing to the debate and supporting refugees in our communities, there are other practical ways in which the Church can make a difference.

For example, the Church Housing Foundation is taking forward the recommendations of the report, Coming Home, of the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community (News, 26 February 2021). We are inviting dioceses and parishes to look at their assets — land, church buildings, halls, vicarages, gardens, car parks — and consider whether there could be scope for building homes for those in greatest need of decent housing, including refugees and asylum-seekers.

We are also setting up a national Church Housing Association, and there are a growing number of examples of good practice and resources to help and support churches on our website (churchhousingfoundation.org). We invite people to get involved, and to bring their enthusiasm and skills to create real and lasting change.

At the heart of the gospel is a plea — we pray it every day in the Lord’s Prayer — to build God’s Kingdom here on earth. The Church has an important part to play through its land and buildings, significant financial assets, and, most of all, the people dedicated to the service of Christ through love of neighbour — something that we all see in the incredible work of parish churches across the country.


Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, the Bishop of Chelmsford, is the Lead Bishop for Housing and sits in the House of Lords.

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