Let’s be better at welcoming people in need

As the UK Government's Illegal Migration Bill has cleared its final stages in the House of Commons, Ellen Teague writes about how the Columban missionaries have called on the Government to recognise the innate human dignity of migrants and refugees.

James Trewby and others at a monthly prayer vigil for refugees outside the Home Office in London
James Trewby and others at a monthly prayer vigil for refugees outside the Home Office in London

In March, Columban missionaries were represented at a monthly prayer vigil for refugees outside the Home Office in London. James Trewby, the Columban Education Worker, who led some of the prayers, said, “I pray especially for all the many young people I’ve met in Catholic schools across Britain, that they may not be disappointed in their dreams of seeing Britain be better at welcoming people in need.” The group called on the UK government to create safe passage for refugees.

Well, the dreams have been dashed, at least for now. The Illegal Migration Bill cleared its final stages in the House of Commons on 26 April by 289 votes to 230. It will place a legal duty on the home secretary to detain and remove those arriving in the UK illegally, to Rwanda or another “safe” third country, taking legal precedence over someone’s right to claim asylum.

This has prompted outrage from opposition parties and charities, which argue the Bill is unworkable and could breach international law. To seek asylum is not illegal and desperate people – many with children – only set out on a variety of dangerous routes if there are not safe ones. The Bill is expected to run into opposition at its next stage in the House of Lords, where it could be amended, and campaigning continues.

There has been concern over new powers in the Bill to detain people – including children. The Bill would take away temporary protections against removal from the UK that are currently offered to suspected victims of modern slavery or human trafficking while their case is being considered.

The Bill will see anyone who has braved a dangerous channel crossing in a small boat locked up in a detention centre, possibly shipped off to another undisclosed country and have their asylum claim deemed “inadmissible”. This is instead of allowing a right to safe passage for refugees who have experienced unimaginable hardship. The government laments that last year 45,755 people arrived in the UK by small boat. But it issued 200,000 visas to Ukrainians and over 140,000 to people from Hong Kong. So why is the “scale” of 45,000 a problem?

Columbans have worked alongside refugee groups to criticise the Bill and called on the Government to work with local communities to build a just, compassionate asylum system. The Columbans are among a core of committed people who promote a culture of welcome and tolerance to migrants in a variety of ways.

We protest against new detention plans for refugees. We support the new hard-hitting report by the Jesuit Refugee Service on the Napier Barracks Detention Centre. Carefully researched and based on the experiences of those involved, the report describes the human consequences of 300+ people being placed in dilapidated former barracks. There is little or no room for privacy as residents had to sleep in dormitories with only thin screens to separate them.

Another report came a few days earlier from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, proposing a new starting point for an ethical approach to greeting refugees. It pointed out the need to uphold the innate human dignity of each person. Our starting point as a society must be to recognise migrants and refugees as people. We need to understand their stories, their reasons for leaving their homelands and their hopes for building a future here. We should see those arriving from elsewhere not as a political problem to be solved, but rather as brothers and sisters whom we have a responsibility towards, and who greatly enrich our communities.

As we write this update, the anti-migrant narrative is worsening – becoming almost normalised. ‘Stop the Boats’ has become the dominant political message regarding refugees. How easy it is to stereotype those who are unwanted as unworthy of having their human rights recognised.

More than 190,000 people – most of them refugees fleeing from some of the world’s most dangerous and repressive countries – could be locked up or forced into destitution under the Government’s new crackdown. That is the finding from a detailed impact assessment of the consequences of the first three years of implementation of the Illegal Migration Bill, carried out by policy experts at the Refugee Council. Most of those who will be detained and deported under the new legislation are from Eritrea, Sudan, Syria and Iran, countries where people have increasingly limited safe routes to use to apply to reach the UK.

The Plight of Refugees is a growing issue internationally. The civil war in Sudan since 15 April has caused tens of thousands to flee the country into neighbouring South Sudan and Chad. And there was a recent visit of faith leaders from California to the Mexican Border to highlight the injustices of the US asylum-seeking process and immigrant detention. Columbans are there at the US-Mexican border too, working for justice and peace.

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