I’m proud today to have had a part in the letter from many leaders of many faiths, encouraging the government to adopt a more generous and inclusive policy towards those who seek asylum in this country. You can find the letter here, and coverage of it here and here – and these are my reflections:

Our government is committed to offering asylum to those who come to this country and who have a genuine claim. It is even more committed to preventing them from doing so. Successive governments have made it more and difficult for anyone to get here in order to make a claim: the ‘wall of Calais’ is just the latest attempt. We levy heavy fines on those who transport people to this country without passports and visas – and those genuinely in need of asylum are exactly the ones who can’t get documents to allow them to travel. We take advantage of the fact that few asylum seekers can get here direct, to insist they should have made their claim somewhere else.

The result? We drive asylum seekers into the hands of people traffickers. Those who only have to spend all their resources are the lucky ones – they didn’t die along the way. We increase the profits from organised crime. I hope that very few people, as individuals, would treat another human being that way. And it’s still wrong when it’s done by the government on our behalf.

There are simple things the government could do which would have a huge impact. To issue humanitarian visas so that people could come here to have their claim assessed, so that refugees don’t have to risk their lives to reach their families. To reduce the many restrictive rules that prevent families from being re-united, by preventing lone refugee children from bringing their parents to the UK, and making it extremely difficult even for adult British citizens to do so.

These changes would be neither expensive nor impossibly complex. In Italy, the government is working in alliance with churches and charities to issue visas in the Middle East and North Africa which allow those seeking asylum to avoid the traffickers. On arrival, the sponsoring churches look after the new arrivals, teaching them the language and helping them become integrated into the community. In this country likewise, there are thousands who have family members still in areas of conflict, there are hundreds of churches, mosques and charities who would be glad to offer sponsorship or support. But the UK government isn’t interested.

These moves should not be controversial. The wonder to me is that we have ever put in place measures which divide families in this way. The leaders of many faiths who have written today to the Prime Minister have done so in the conviction that the proposals we make are in the best interests of our country as well as those we should be reaching out to help. All our faiths compel us to affirm the dignity of all human beings, and to offer help to anyone in need. We rejoice in the mosaic of different faiths and British communities that we now represent. Some of us came to this country from other countries of birth; others, like myself, have been British for many generations. But we all recognize that the best of this country is represented by the generosity, kindness, solidarity and decency that Britain has at many times shown those fleeing persecution, even at times of far greater deprivation and difficulty than the present day. The U.K. should be proud to take its fair share of refugees, as we have done in the past, to exhibit to those in most need the very best of Britain.

 

Yesterday, December 8th, was the beginning of the Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis. It was also a day of prayer and vigil for refugees, organised by the Churches’ Refugee Network and generously hosted by St Margaret’s Westminster. The Vigil was entitled 20,000 Welcomes – alluding both to the traditional Irish greeting, and to the 20,000 Syrian refugees that the UK government has decided to allow to resettle here. During the vigil, the following reading was read, and I offered the meditation that follows

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus comes to judge the world, and he doesn’t ask people how religious they were – at least not in the sense of going to church a lot, reading their Bible, even praying. Those whom Jesus praises are those who lived lives given to serving others – particularly those who were despised or ignored by everybody else. They visited prisoners, cared for the sick, looked after the people who were at the bottom of the heap. In fact, they did exactly the sort of things that Jesus did. I can’t imagine that any of them managed to do all that without having lives that were radically dependent on God: but the proof of all that was in lives which were lived in love for the world. They receive their reward through being the sort of people who didn’t look for it. They weren’t aware that they were serving Jesus when they helped people in trouble; they weren’t doing it in order to tot up spiritual points. They just did what needed doing.

These, along with providing burial for the dead, are six of the seven corporal (bodily and physical) acts of mercy, and they all flow from this parable:

To feed the hungry

To give drink to the thirsty

To clothe the naked

To shelter the homeless

To visit the sick

To visit the imprisoned

Today has begun the Roman Catholic Church’s Year of Mercy – a year of receiving, and also giving and living, the boundless mercy of God. As Pope Francis put it in his letter setting out his vision for the year

I have asked the Church in this Jubilee Year to rediscover the richness encompassed by the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The experience of mercy, indeed, becomes visible in the witness of concrete signs as Jesus himself taught us. Each time that one of the faithful personally performs one or more of these actions, he or she shall surely obtain the Jubilee Indulgence

Whether or not we are Roman Catholic, the Pope’s call should have resonance for us. We will connect most readily, many of us, with that encouragement to continue in the practice of mercy, and to encourage others to join with us in offering 20,000 welcomes. But we should also hear that other side of the Pope’s call – that we should be ready to receive the mercy of God in our own lives as well.

That action will take different forms for us according to our own traditions and spiritualities. For some the Pope’s call to renew the sacrament of confession will be a gateway to God’s grace and freedom; for others there will be other ways – the grace of God is confined only by our willingness or not to receive it. But receive it we must, if we are to have grace and mercy to share. The commitment to continue in the acts of mercy is demanding and sometimes draining. We have all met, and probably all sometimes been, those people who are still giving when they have nothing left to give – and we know that that is not sustainable, or healthy, or good.

We need to allow ourselves to receive acts of mercy as well as to give them, if we are to live out the spirit of the gospel reading. It is not for nothing that the corporal acts of mercy are linked with the spiritual acts – traditionally they are

To instruct the ignorant.

To counsel the doubtful.

To admonish sinners.

To bear wrongs patiently.

To forgive offences willingly.

To comfort the afflicted.

To pray for the living and the dead

The spiritual and the bodily do not live in separate compartments – they are dimensions of the whole human beings that we all are. In the giving and receiving which is the breathing in and out of the grace of God, may we be open doors of mercy in ourselves – doors that open in gratitude and thankfulness who come bringing gifts to us, and doors that open in hospitality and generosity to those who need our shelter, so that we are indeed able to offer 20,000, 50,000, any number of welcomes.

I know it’s a bit long for a blog post, but I want to share the ‘Position Statement’ passed unanimously at the Churches’ Refugee Network conference, meeting at Sheffield on 5th April 2014. I’ve recently become Chair of the Network, and I’m privileged to be working alongside people who demonstrate concern for the most marginalised in our society – who do what Jesus will ask of us all, according to Matthew 25:31-46. For me these are not party political arguments. Firstly because none of the main political parties dare to stand against the climate of fear which they discern in this country. Secondly because the statements from the conference, though they relate to the law as it is, flow from Christian values, from a vision of the God-given dignity of all human beings. Enough – I could go on even longer. Please do read it – and share it.

This conference of the Churches’ Refugee Network of Britain and Ireland affirms the dignity and worth of all human beings as a fundamental principle of every civilised society. From this flows the right of every person to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution, not only under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Refugee Convention, to which the UK is a signatory, but as a right recognised in civilisations from ancient times.

We also affirm what immigrants and refugees from many lands and of different faiths have, for centuries, contributed to the culture and achievement of the UK.  Immigration vitally enriches our national life, just as those going out from these islands have often contributed to the well-being of countries where they have worked or settled. Refugees and those who seek asylum are a special category of immigrant, but politicians’ discourse and media-led perceptions often obscure this, doing them further injustice.

We accept the need for reasonable border control and the Government’s responsibility for the well-being of all its citizens. Yet this conference believes that many provisions of the current Immigration Bill will not simply reinforce national borders but create damaging boundaries and divisions within national life, separating those who have civic entitlements from those who have not.  This breeds an unhealthy culture of mistrust and suspicion, undermining social cohesion and inevitably leads to increased social costs.

The conference affirms the biblical Christian and Jewish traditions of the importance of welcoming strangers and of offering special protection and provision towards aliens, even those ‘unlawfully’ present.

In particular, the conference registers its concerns about the following:

Detention

The levels and lengths of detention, both for adults and minors, are already unacceptable (and unnecessarily costly) and the Bill’s proposals threaten to make them more so. Indefinite detention should end. Those who have served their sentence should not continue to be detained.

Destitution and the need to permit paid work

A civilised society should allow no-one to become destitute. The refusal to allow those who have been waiting many months for a decision on their asylum status to obtain work to support themselves or their families is demeaning. It makes eventual integration more difficult, and will lead to health problems and to unnecessary NHS costs, whilst access to benefits is minimal and insufficient.

Restrictions on Legal Aid

Although asylum is expressly exempted from the restrictions now placed on legal aid, there has been a drastic decline in the number of good immigration lawyers, caused directly by Government changes to fees and contracting, with a consequent disincentive for new entrants to the legal profession to specialise in immigration law. This places asylum seekers at a great disadvantage in terms of access to professional legal advice. It also slows down the Courts, where judges increasingly have to exercise representatives’ functions such as cross examination, clarification and summarizing. We are seeing serious delays of hearing schedules extended not by weeks but by months. Slow justice eventually becomes injustice.

Outsourcing to private firms

The involvement of private firms in removals and deportation has led to injuries and occasional death due to improper restraints; the separation between the Home Office and such firms leads to a lack of accountability and an evasion of responsibility. Whilst it may marginally save costs, it is bad governance of a public function. Recent examples do not even justify a reduced cost argument; eg. the tagging scandal.


On the Immigration Bill

The welfare and safety of thousands of children who have been born or grown up here, and have no home elsewhere to which they can be returned, but whose parent(s) have been deported,  will be severely prejudiced, as will their legal claims. Likewise those young people who came as unaccompanied minors but who are now between 19 and 24, and in whose attempted deportation the UK Government often flouts the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Alongside the new restrictions on legal aid and those proposed on judicial reviews, the range of grounds for appeal, and the opportunities for bail and to appeal, are dramatically reduced. Despite numerous attempts to improve administration, the decision-making process within the Home Office still leads to a high rate of successful appeals: Substituting an internal review system for an independent appeal mechanism is unlikely to produce adequate justice. Poor decision-making will be harder to challenge and correct.

Placing onerous obligations on landlords and staff in banks, clinics, surgeries and DVLA to scrutinise and police complex immigration documents will prejudice many people who are lawfully here as well as those ‘unlawfully’ here who have fled persecution or violence but may wait years for decisions on their asylum status and who under Human Rights legislation are entitled to legal protection.

While we would give no support to sham marriages, mistrust about all mixed relationships will be created and many genuinely seeking marriage will be caused stress and pain at a time which should be happy and filled with promise.  The right to a private and family life and relationships is as important to those ‘unlawfully’ here as to those who have full right to residence.

Family Migration

The income level of £18,600 set for bringing foreign-born spouses and/or children of British citizen to the UK is too high for some 48% of British people, including those British citizens who have married while working abroad. It does not reflect lower average incomes in parts of Britain outside London and the South-east, nor does it take into account significant differences in median incomes of British ethnic citizens, especially women. While this does not include families established by asylum seekers before their own arrival in the UK, it does impact on those refused asylum who are granted Indefinite Leave to Remain, and limits the right of those with status subsequently to marry someone from their home country.

The rules relating to Adult Dependent Relatives are harsh to the point of cruelty and should be eased.

Gathered for this conference, we commit ourselves to work for better welcome, care and justice for all who seek to find in the United Kingdom sanctuary from persecution and violence.