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Asylum-seekers’ rights do not stop at the border

09 June 2023

People seeking sanctuary need protection, not banishment, argues Paul McAleenan


EVERYONE has the right to migrate to seek fulfilment and security — economic and physical — for themselves and their families. Included in the inviolable dignity of every person, which is often overlooked, is the right not to migrate.

I stayed one night in a Syriac Orthodox monastery about 20km from Mosul, Iraq, which overlooked the majesty of the Nineveh plains. I believe that, if one’s basic needs were supplied, no one would ever want to leave, such a magnificent sight it is. Ukrainians who have fled the war in their homeland tell me that it is their intention to go home when hostilities cease. Outreach and concern for all in need, no matter where they are, is our mandate.

Borders, we have to remember, are not for the exclusion of people: they are for the protection of people. A community must be protected; their welfare must be safeguarded; but borders are not for the exclusion of people who are seeking the protection that we all want.

Nowadays, it seems that we begin with sealed borders, and facilitate immigration when we require doctors, nurses, engineers, and seasonal workers, and reject those who are forcibly displaced and do not migrate through accepted channels. Yet it could be argued that their need is greater. A government can regulate and initiate policy, but it must include a concern for the humanity of each person. Solidarity with those countries witnessing the departure of their compatriots is an essential component of the equation when speaking of migrants and refugees.

TO UNDERSTAND fully why people come to ask for asylum in this country, we need to be aware of the factors which initiated their movement. As long ago as 1891, it was written that “no one would exchange their own country for a foreign land if their own afforded them the means of a decent and happy life.” Migration is not a new phenomenon.

Besides understanding the reasons, there is a need to assist countries which migrants and refugees leave. Pope Francis speaks of “globalised indifference”; we advance solidarity as a necessary alternative. Nations need to support each other through solidarity and co-operation in order to avert, if possible at an early stage, the flight of refugees as a result of poverty and persecution.

There is a principle known as “the universal destination of goods”. The application of this principle demands that the goods of the earth are to be shared for everyone’s benefit. And, to be clear, this does not interfere with the right to private ownership and private property: simply, the earth, its resources, and the fruit of human labour are for the common good as well as individual needs and rights.

Sovereign nations have a right to control their borders, but it is not an absolute right. They also have an obligation to bring about the universal common good; an element of that is seeking to accommodate migration to the greatest extent possible.

I find it remarkable and humbling how, in the midst of suffering, the faith of refugees in God and his goodness remains strong. I remember meeting a refugee from Mali who began or ended all he said with the word “Inshallah”, which, as you probably know, means “If God wishes.” God has made a wish that we assist our brothers and sisters in need, and oppose all that would deny them that assistance.

HOW do we do that as a nation? How do we today observe the principle of everyone’s equal dignity?

I suggest that those seeking refuge in the UK should be provided with three things: safe routes for travelling; the opportunity to tell their story and be listened to; and the implementation of just and rapid procedures to determine each person’s claim for protection. Cases must be assessed.

When an asylum-seeker’s case is presented, it is important that their claim is treated justly and as quickly as possible. What is needed is an asylum determination system that hears their story and strives to offer them protection — an asylum system that allows them to flourish and rebuild their lives.

Even when a person enters a country without permission, they should be treated with respect and dignity, not detained in unsuitable conditions or abused in any manner. It is necessary that they be afforded due process of law, and allowed to articulate a fear of return to their homeland before someone who is qualified to judge. Asylum-seekers should not be blamed for any social ills that the country that they enter is experiencing.

Everyone agrees that asylum-seekers are not commodities for traffickers to profit from. Neither are they to be seen as a problem to be rejected or deported. To banish them for seeking protection is wrong; it seems that the system is more concerned with refusing asylum claims than ensuring that people in need of sanctuary are offered protection and given a chance of a new start.

Guided by our belief in the dignity of each person, we should ask overarching questions such as: is the right to migrate being upheld? and is the common good being properly considered? And specific questions, such as: is family reunification being facilitated? are our obligations under the Refugee Convention being honoured? and are unacceptable practices, such as detention and arbitrary removal, being avoided?

Taking this approach, we can identify policies that are broadly deserving of support: for example, the Hong Kong Visa Scheme, and those which are incompatible with what we believe, such as the Rwanda Plan.

The Rt Revd Paul McAleenan is Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, and the Lead Bishop for Migrants and Refugees in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

This is an edited extract from a speech given at the London Churches Refugee Fund (LCRF) Annual Speaker Meeting, on 24 May, at the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, in London. LCRF supports destitute refugees in London.

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