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Opinion: ‘Stopping the boats’ impoverishes the UK

28 July 2023

What does the passing of the Illegal Migration Bill indicate about the state of the nation, asks Christopher Chessun

SOUTHWARK CATHEDRAL was honoured last month to host a national service of thanksgiving marking the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush into Tilbury Docks. This first ship brought more than 500 men and women from the Caribbean, responding to an invitation to come and help rebuild our nation after the ravages of the Second World War.

Less than a month after this joyful celebration, I and other bishops in the House of Lords spoke and voted in opposition to the Government’s ill-conceived legislation to “stop the boats” bringing asylum-seekers to our shores. I say “ill-conceived”, because the Bill targets vulnerable people who are desperate to flee to safer nations rather than the people-smugglers who profit from their vulnerability. Nevertheless, on 18 July, the Illegal Migration Bill passed its parliamentary stages, and has since received Royal Assent (News and Leader comment, 21 July).

To understand the inadequacies of the legislation, readers need only to turn to the Hansard reports of the debates, which include contributions from a wide range of parliamentarians; these include Theresa May, Baroness Butler-Sloss, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. But let us look at the consequences of the Bill.

THE Act fundamentally changes the status of asylum-seekers, making it illegal to enter the UK and claim asylum except via one of a small handful of government-approved programmes. Unaccompanied children will be placed in a potentially perilous position. Anyone attempting to enter the country without permission will be detained, removed to another country, and banned from seeking asylum here ever again, regardless of their needs or circumstances.

In passing this legislation, the Government has sanctioned an intolerable level of distress for the children who will be held in detention centres for up to eight days before they can be “bailed” — as if they were criminals.

Of course, detaining and traumatising children is not the Government’s goal: rather, its stated aim is deterrence, making Britain such a hostile environment for uninvited migrants that no one ever bothers to attempt the journey. Yet it is children who will pay the price. Could we ourselves bear the thought of our own children or grandchildren receiving such treatment if they, too, sought safety in another country?

Moreover, there are gaping holes in the Government’s plans, and any discernible results will probably amount to a very small proportion of total immigration figures: a drop in the ocean.

Neither the House of Lords nor the Commons has seen any evidence that the legislation will have the desired effect, nor that it will stop people-traffickers in their vicious and abusive trade. Modern slavery and human trafficking commodify and abuse human beings in industries and markets that continue to thrive in our own communities. It is, therefore, utterly unacceptable for us as a nation to decline to take responsibility for the care and support of victims who suffer as a consequence of our failings.

As I reflect on that day at Southwark Cathedral — an amazing celebration of dance and song, of diversity and colour — I am struck by how impoverished Britain would have been had the Windrush generation declined the call of our political leaders. Seventy-five years on, we recognise that the reception that that generation was offered did not match this invitation, nor the great wealth of gifts that they brought with them in our time of need. We failed in our duties of care and gratitude. Many suffered endemic racism.

There is a strange incongruence about living in Britain today, as we now give thanks for the blessing that Windrush continues to be, while anxiety about “others” seeking to come to the UK in small boats is a prevailing — and unworthy — political narrative. One group is now recognised — albeit too late — as a blessing; the other is feared as a threat.

THERE is a much more positive and generous story to be told. This country is rightly proud of its record in responding to humanitarian plight. Additionally, we are facing grim economic realities. Owing to the financial and social challenges of our age, our local services continue to be stretched. The nation’s shortage of skilled workers continues to grow — with huge gaps in the NHS and care sector, as well as in the fields of science, engineering, and IT. As we seek to “stop the boats”, I wonder what riches we may be missing out on.

What story does the Illegal Migration Act tell about us as a nation? Perhaps that we are failing in our twin duties of care and compassion.

But I maintain hope that our church communities will continue to do whatever they can to welcome and support strangers and travellers — wherever they hail from: hope that those of all faiths and none will continue to advocate for the dignity of those seeking to come to the UK; hope that God will open our eyes, our arms, and our hearts to the gifts of our brothers and sisters who have come to these shores as a result of economic and political imperatives, and have contributed so richly to the life of our gloriously diverse nation.

The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun is the Bishop of Southwark.

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