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Bishop of Chelmsford: ‘It felt like an imbalanced panel; they had come with their minds made up’

by
13 March 2024

After the Home Affairs Select Committee hearing on asylum-seeker conversions, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani spoke to Francis Martin

ParliamentTV

The Home Affairs Select Committee meets in Parliament on Tuesday morning

The Home Affairs Select Committee meets in Parliament on Tuesday morning

I HAVE a concern that all this negative rhetoric — which is not based, much of it, on a great deal of credible evidence — is going to be damaging to the life of some of our faithful church communities, who are trying to offer support and pastoral care to really vulnerable people. And I also think that there are wider questions for what kind of a society we want to be.

In recent years, about three-quarters of the people who have sought asylum in this country have been granted refugee status, and how we treat those people from the day they arrive makes a difference to how well they will integrate and find a new sense of belonging, and be able to contribute well to society.

The process begins from day one. Now, if they don’t get the leave to remain, that’s fine: let’s manage those processes efficiently and quickly, and arrange for them to be removed. The problem is that, at the minute, people aren’t being processed, they’re hanging in limbo in a hostile environment, without any thought to good and positive integration. And churches are one of the groups that are offering an environment in which people can integrate.

They’re not the only group — there are other faiths’ groups, there are charities, there are civil groups, and so on and so forth — but I am worried that all of that will get eroded, because people will become very fearful and anxious about doing the wrong thing if they befriend somebody.

 

WITH regard to the process [of the Select Committee hearing], I suppose I was disappointed. I went genuinely wanting to have an open, honest, transparent conversation, to try and get beneath the skin of the headlines, and the kind of polarised binary opposites. But I found it very difficult to do that.

It felt like an imbalanced panel: and it felt like they had come with their minds made up, wanting to attack and trip up the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury. And it felt very confrontational, instead of being able to have an open, honest conversation.

There was just a sense that they wanted to prove something: they kept asking about the Archbishop as if he runs the Church of England like a CEO. It felt like there was an agenda. And, you know, I was surprised that a select committee can meet when it’s so apparently lopsided. It seemed to me that in a parliamentary system there would be a little bit more even-handedness.

I offered on several occasions — and I genuinely meant it, and still mean it — to work with the Home Office, with the Government. We also have our own role to play, but we want to do that in a supportive way. We’re not wanting to position ourselves as anti-government, but it feels like sometimes we’re getting pushed into that corner.

I sense that there is a huge frustration with the fact that that the Bishops are not going away and being silenced [on the Rwanda plan]; that we’re just reiterating the same things over and over again. And I think that frustration is spilling over into attacks on the Church of England, and accusations that don’t have the evidence to support them.

The Home Office minister who came in after me also said that the evidence isn’t there to support the former Home Secretary’s accusation that we are, on an industrial scale, scamming the system. It’s really serious if the Government, and politicians, just say things that they don’t have the evidence to support, because those things get captured in headlines, and they impact what public opinion is. I think that’s potentially really troublesome.

 

I WOULD encourage our churches to continue offering support and welcome, as we always have done, and as is our role in society, but also to be mindful of always being honest and truthful, and within the bounds of what is legal. We are not there to make assessments about asylum cases: I think we need to be clear about that. We’re not there to do that. But neither should we shy away from doing what we’ve always been called to do for centuries, and will continue to do so.

I hope that in time — because a lot of this is about relationships developing — if we can build on some positive relationships that we already have, with ministers and so on, and come to a place of greater trust, and if they want to take us up again. . . I was absolutely genuine in my offer: if you want to see some of the work that’s going on in our churches, we can arrange visits for you. Come and see, and then make your assessment. If you’re really interested, then take up my suggestion of looking at this issue in a longer-term, more rounded way, and come and visit.

 

I THINK there is a certain amount of dehumanising [going on in the debate], and I see this happening all the time, when we just talk about “them”, as if they’re this kind of disembodied category of people who are criminals and are trying to scam us, and they’re just after all this country’s got to offer. It lacks the understanding that, behind every figure, behind behind every statistic, is a human being with a story, and a very complex, often traumatic, story.

It’s really difficult to make value judgements about people and circumstances that we can’t really even begin to understand. And yet the difference between so called “us” and so called “them” is paper-thin: if our circumstances were different, that could be our experience.

I was in the report stage of the Safety of Rwanda Bill last week [News, 8 March], and I made a reference to age assessments, and asked, “Would any of us want this for our children or grandchildren, for someone to take a guess whether they’re a child or an adult, and then send them to Rwanda?” And it really evoked quite strong responses from some people, because I think you’re then confronting people with the reality, and the response was, “No, I wouldn’t do that, and I wouldn’t put them on a boat.”

My response was that I can’t make that judgment, because I can’t begin to imagine how desperate somebody must be in order to do that. And it’s part of our Christian story and heritage: it’s the story of Moses, his mother, who was so desperate that she put her baby in a basket on the water.

I’m not saying this means that everybody has a right to have their asylum claim accepted, which is what we constantly get accused of. If we had more safe and regular routes, where we could assess people quickly, and have integrity and justice and fairness, nobody’s going to criticise the fact that some people won’t meet the criteria, and they won’t get permission to stay.

I don’t want to claim any any kind of special pleading when I talk about these issues compared with anybody else [owing to her experience of fleeing Iran when she was a child]. My situation was very different: my landing was soft compared with what people face now, for all kinds of reasons. But I do have a sense of that desire to make a fresh start, the desire to belong, the desire to contribute, the desire to be seen as a fellow human being — all of those things which are just common human experiences and emotions.

We are making it so difficult in this country, and we’re undermining the enormous benefits that we’ve had from so many immigrants and asylum-seekers over the years. Now, again, I’m not wanting to say it’s simple, that it’s black and white, and to go back to the binary and the polarised. These are complex things, and there are difficult decisions to be made, but they can’t be made in the heat of the rhetoric.

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