Nationality and Borders Bill: Bishop of Chelmsford encourages alternative perspective on asylum seekers

On 5th January 2022, during a debate on the newly introduced Nationality and Borders Bill, the Bishop of Chelmsford made a speech advocating for the value of viewing asylum seekers as potential future citizens, and emphasized the importance of treating them with dignity and respect:

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, I must begin with an apology. As I am new to your Lordships’ House, there was an error in processing my request to speak, although I am grateful to the Whips for permission to interject at this point. It is a privilege to have been part of the debate and I look forward to following this Bill through and benefiting from the collective wisdom here.

I believe that I am among relatively few in the House who have experience of both sides of the asylum and refugee system, having first come to this country as a refugee from Iran in 1980. The plight of those fleeing violence and persecution and the difficulties in navigating identity and finding a new home are not abstract or intellectual propositions for me but part of who I am, and it is with that perspective that I offer some thoughts now.

Often, I see asylum seekers presented either as victims who require help but have no agency or as chancers seeking to abuse generosity—criminals even. Neither approach is helpful. How different discussions might be if we reframed the debate in terms of the best way to work with potential future citizens, neighbours and friends. Not every asylum seeker will meet the criteria for being a refugee, but many will and they will become part of our nation and communities. How we treat them in the process has consequences for the sort of society we are creating—the kind of nation we want to be.

We have heard repeatedly that citizenship is a privilege not a right. I dispute the binary nature of the claim but I agree that citizenship and other statuses require a need for people to belong and contribute. Belonging can be fostered by welcome and how asylum seekers are received but it also relies on there being real opportunities to contribute. A system that respects human dignity, encourages agency rather than victimhood and gives people a chance to be heard and contribute is one that will foster healthy communities and build up future citizens.

In Chelmsford diocese we are proud of our work with refugees and have played a leading role in community sponsorship. We believe that civil society needs to play its part in the welcome and building up of neighbours. I hope to hear more from the Minister on community sponsorship schemes but I also want to make the point that that is never enough. We need a policy framework that gives future citizens the chance to contribute in meaningful ways. The opportunity to work, particularly for those facing long delays in the asylum process, would be one such chance but it is absent, sadly, from the Bill.

Indeed, there is much in the Bill that does not meet the tests of providing for agency, dignity and a chance to be heard. I am concerned that the provision to remove citizenship without notice is a denial of the right to be heard and one that has wider implications that seem to be unacknowledged. I am concerned too that the proposed differential treatment of refugees, depending on how they have arrived, is an example of learning the wrong lessons from the hostile environment and I will be listening carefully to proposed amendments in that space.

I have spoken to a great many people over the years and am yet to find the asylum seeker who was deterred from coming to the UK because they would be barred from working or housed in substandard accommodation. The situations from which people flee and the promise of hope and a new life greatly outweigh any deterrents and yet these hardships are real and serve as barriers to contribution and to fostering a sense of belonging. No one disputes the challenges facing the asylum system but I am deeply troubled by some of the implications of this Bill. I am not clear what problems differentiated treatment or deterrence policies will solve, and fear that aspects put in jeopardy the agency and dignity of many vulnerable people.

In conclusion, if you will indulge a bishop a biblical reference, St Paul writes in his letter to the Hebrews:

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

It is better for the soul of this nation, and for creating good future citizens, to treat people with the greatest possible respect and dignity, rather than with hostility and doubt.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Williams of Trafford (Con, Home Office): Individuals granted settlement under the ACRS will not be subject to any differential treatment and will be granted indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom. That sits alongside our other safe and legal routes, including the UK resettlement scheme and community sponsorship, which I am delighted the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford mentioned, because it is a scheme that I am very keen on and I hope to have more discussions with her on it. Other safe and legal routes include the mandate resettlement scheme, the Afghan relocations and assistance policy and the immigration route for BNO status holders from Hong Kong.

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