‘I joined 25 Bishops in condemning plans to send refugees to Rwanda – here’s why’ – Bishop of Durham

The following article by the Bishop of Durham appeared in the Independent on 15th June 2022

The Bishop of Durham,
Rt Revd Paul Butler

It is a deeply regrettable moment for us as a nation that the government is pursuing a policy that intends to transport asylum seekers to another country thousands of miles away, before and without considering their claim to asylum in the UK.

We have a rich history of providing sanctuary to those around the world fleeing war and persecution, and it is intolerable to see us abdicate both our moral responsibility and commitment to international law. This week, all of the 26 bishops of the Church of England who serve in the House of Lords signed a letter voicing our alarm over the government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Refugees do not undertake dangerous journeys lightly, and it is sickening that smugglers take criminal advantage of their suffering. It is of course therefore right that the public are concerned about this, but the way to reduce the number of people travelling dangerously to the UK is to create more safe ways for people to do this. For the vast majority, outside of a small number of countries, it is becoming more and more difficult to access a safe route, and families are left with an impossible choice to travel informally.

In order to claim asylum in the UK, a person has to be physically present here, but for those most likely to be in need of protection, there is no visa available for this and there are no UK consulates on European soil to claim asylum before crossing the Channel.

The UK’s Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement scheme, seen as a gold standard around the world, saw the government meet their target to resettle over 20,000 in the UK by 2020. But in the year to March 2022, only 1,651 refugees were resettled in the UK. Iranians, Eritreans, Iraqis and Sudanese nationals are amongst those crossing the Channel in higher numbers. Apart from Iraq, these countries have an asylum grant rate at initial decision of over 88 per cent, but only 304 refugees from those countries were resettled over the last year.

The recent Borders and Nationality Act further reduced the ability of refugees to reunite with family in the UK to a very small group. This policy disproportionately affects women and children. This small group includes only those who have settled via a safe route, but resettlement routes are simply reducing not expanding. And the UK still hasn’t replaced elements of the Dublin system, in place when we were a member of the EU, that allowed people to reunite with family members here.

As the UK’s response to Ukraine shows, many thousands of British citizens are open and ready to welcome those in need of sanctuary. I believe they will be mystified as to why there are so few ways for families in desperate need to do this, therefore avoiding the need to make a dangerous journey or worse, turn to criminal gangs.

I joined with my colleagues today, to express our growing concern that without further safe routes, criminals will continue to capitalise on human misery. The Archbishop speaks for us all in saying that our Christian heritage should inspire us to treat vulnerable people with compassion, fairness and justice. This duty requires us to consider a person’s claim to asylum, not simply turn a blind eye to their plight and send them elsewhere.

The prime minister has referred to criticism from unexpected quarters, so I therefore implore him to explore why so many different figures across society are needing to take a stand on this issue. One cannot remain silent when it is not only our global reputation at stake but our moral standing as a nation.

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