Archbishop leads debate on principles of asylum and refugee policy

On 9th December 2022 the Archbishop of Canterbury led a debate in the House of Lords on the motion:

That this House takes note of the principles behind contemporary United Kingdom asylum and refugee policy, and of the response to the challenges of forced migration.

The Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, I am very grateful to the usual channels for facilitating this debate, to those among the staff of the House who have had to work extra hard to come in today, and to so many noble Lords for being present. I look forward to hearing the maiden speeches of the right reverent Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, the noble Lord, Lord Sahota, and the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, on this subject.

This will not be a sermon. As my last well-attended sermon was four and a half minutes long, that may be a disappointment to noble Lords. It is, nevertheless, underpinned by deeply held spiritual principles deriving from the words of Christ, beginning over 1,000 years ago, in terms of our policy and the application of them. The last time I delivered a sermon on this subject, it gained more than the usual attention; so much so that I see some of our newspapers this week have rebutted the arguments I am about to make before I have had a chance to deliver them—or even, for that matter, to prepare them. I am glad they have such gifts of mind-reading. “Get your rebuttal in first,” Willie John McBride, captain of the 1974 Invincibles, almost told his teammates; I think he said “retaliation”.

For the avoidance of doubt, my intention today is to examine some of the moral considerations that should drive our policies in this area and then to propose some practical ways forward for the short, medium and long term.

The Church is often, and quite often rightly, criticised for talking about morality in isolation from the complexity of the real world, but when it comes to the treatment of refugees and those seeking asylum, it is the Church, here and abroad, which is doing so much of the heavy lifting of meeting and supporting, of healing and advocacy, right around the world. We look into the faces, we listen to the voices and we speak from that experience.

Two weeks ago, I visited Mozambique to inaugurate a new province in the Anglican Communion. While there, we went north to the area where ISIS is very active indeed. It is a beautiful country, with generous people recovering from civil war and now facing an atrocious extremist insurgency. I met a young woman who had fled Daesh. She had seen beheadings in her village, she herself had been raped and then she had watched them smash her three month-old baby’s head against a tree. That is one reality.

Last week in Ukraine, standing by a mass grave, I met people who, with astonishing resolve, face a winter under Russian bombardment explicitly to destroy civilian infrastructure; a winter where, next month, it will fall probably to minus 20 degrees centigrade, and they will have neither electricity nor, because of that, water or the ability to heat.

These are two images of suffering which could be replicated in more than 50 other countries around the world. We know—and I make this absolutely clear and underline it—that Britain can neither resolve these problems by ourselves; nor can or should we take everyone who flees such devastation. It is beyond our capacity. But we do need to take a lead: how we shape our policies must look into the faces and listen to the voices.

Recognition of human dignity is the first principle that must underpin our asylum policy. A hostile environment is an immoral environment. Each human being has an inherent and immeasurable worth, regardless of their status, wealth, heritage or background. The Book of Genesis tells us:

“God created mankind in his own image.”

In chapter 25 of the Gospel of St Matthew, in the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus tells his followers, about those who are strangers:

“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Care for the stranger has long been embedded in societies of Christian and Jewish roots and of other faiths right around the world. The welcome arrival in the UK of other religious faiths deepens these traditions of compassion. A compassionate asylum system is one that sees the faces of those in need and listens to their voices. A compassionate system does not mean open borders, but a disposition of generosity and a readiness to welcome those whose need is genuine and where we are able to meet that need.

It also means compassion and generosity to those communities that will receive refugees, which are often neglected and forgotten. I have seen this with my own eyes around the diocese of Canterbury in east Kent, which I serve and which perhaps bears the heaviest weight of this great crisis.

A compassionate policy is one that has confidence to reject the shrill narratives that all who come to us for help should be treated as liars, scroungers or less than fully human. Compassion is not weakness or naivety. It recognises the impact on receiving communities, which includes the need to limit numbers and maintain security and order. Compassion means ending the criminal activity of people smugglers—perhaps one of the biggest industries in the world, after drug smuggling. It must distinguish between victims seeking help and criminals who exploit them.

So much of the public and political debate on migration is driven by fear linked to change and a fear of loss of control. Some of these fears are understandable. Many people are concerned that their communities and local services risk being overwhelmed. In east Kent, local schools, businesses and hospitals have risen amazingly and magnificently to the challenge. The RNLI and Border Force have carried out their mandate of saving life at sea, despite the disgraceful politicisation of their work by some. There is real pressure on housing, schools and GP surgeries, to which they respond superbly. By the way, refugees have not caused our housing crisis; we are around 40 years behind in our investment in housing stock. There would be a crisis anyway.

The number of asylum seekers has dropped in the past two decades. In 2021, 48,540 asylum applications were made in the UK; in 2002, there were 84,132—almost twice as many. Other countries have taken significantly more refugees. In the year ending September 2021, Germany received over 127,000 applications and France over 96,000. It is not a competition, but we need to face the fact that the UK ranked only 18th in Europe for our intake of asylum applications per head of population in that period. It cannot be repeated enough that four out of five refugees stay in their region of displacement, hosted by even poorer nations. If you spoke to Uganda and other countries in that area, they would call 45,000 a rounding error.

When we fail to challenge the harmful rhetoric that refugees are the cause of this country’s ills—that they should be treated as problems and not people, invaders to be tackled and deterred—we deny the essential value and dignity of fellow human beings. The right to seek asylum and the duty of the global community together to protect refugees has been politically degraded in this country, when it should be a positive source of pride. I am not addressing only the Government Front Bench; this has been a decades-long downward slide over successive Labour, Conservative and coalition Governments.

Noble Lords would expect me to say something about the Rwanda policy. We cannot separate the policy from the moral arguments. The Government did not do this when they announced the policy in Holy Week this year—the most sacred week of the Christian calendar—on Maundy Thursday, when in Christian belief Jesus was washing the feet of his disciples, including Judas Iscariot. The Prime Minister of the time gave a speech in which he used the word “compassion” six times and described the policy as

“the morally right thing to do”.

In my sermon on Easter Sunday, I gave a brief view on this—five lines in a three-page sermon—and shortly afterwards, every one of my colleagues on these Benches issued a statement concluding that this was an “immoral policy” that “shames Britain”. It is very rare on these Benches that we are united on almost anything. I congratulate the Prime Minister on managing to unite the Bishops’ Benches. What a miracle. It is a good reason for the other 53% of the population to click the census to say that they are Christian.

The Government have said that the Rwanda policy aims to deter people from arriving in the UK through

“illegal, dangerous and unnecessary methods”.

There is little or no evidence that this deterrence or the hostile environment works; the Government’s own impact assessment confirms that. The complaint I make is not about Rwanda, a country that I know well and in which there is much that I admire. A compassionate policy is one that recognises that we have a share of global responsibility; outsourcing our share creates more opportunities for people smugglers to operate in and around Rwanda. It is not a solution; it is a mistake, and it will be a failure.

Furthermore, the desire for orderly migration to discourage people from “skipping the queue” is absurd if there is no legal queue. This is a point that the Home Secretary and her officials recently conceded at the Home Affairs Select Committee in the Commons. There is no “safe” or “regular” route for an Iranian Christian or a gay man or woman from Eritrea to come to the UK to claim asylum, yet both would be highly likely to have a valid claim if they got here. Unless you are coming from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria or Hong Kong—and that, by the way, is not asylum but financial visas—or are eligible for the restrictive family reunion criteria, there is no regular route that you can use. It was reported this month that not one person has been accepted and evacuated from Afghanistan under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. The Minister has very kindly written to me to correct that report, which was in the newspapers last Sunday; I hope in his response that he will clarify that correction for the whole House.

When migrants arrive here, our system is grossly wasteful—in both human and financial terms. Control has become cruelty. Staggering inefficiencies by successive Governments trap people in limbo—at incredible expense to the taxpayer—in the system for years, unable to build a life or to contribute to our society. I recently came across someone who had been in the asylum system for 14 years—14 years, my Lords. Evidence from the Home Affairs Select Committee shows that, of all the people who arrived in the UK by boat and claimed asylum in 2021, only 4% of claims had been processed by the Home Office by October 2022. This does not treat people with dignity or compassion, nor is it control. As well as the overcrowded and disease-ridden conditions exposed recently—which the Government are now addressing—camps and hotel accommodation keep migrants separate from the rest of the community. That segregation feeds concerns about lack of control. It fails to treat asylum seekers and refugees as neighbours who are to be loved, or citizens in waiting. We miss out on the gifts they bring and want to contribute. I met someone yesterday who is now a citizen. He is incredibly proud of his citizenship and is contributing enormously to our society by working with people in prison to help them go straight when they come out.

Solidarity with others is built by contact and building relationships. Instead, we feed the politics of suspicion and division. There are real alternatives to this. We have seen in the Ukraine scheme that asylum seekers and refugees can live within existing communities. Such communities should receive prompt and adequate government support. It does cost money, but it is cheaper than exporting our responsibilities and much cheaper if the system is compassionate, clear, efficient, accurate and effective. We are clear that the UK cannot take everyone, but it can make its decisions through a system which balances effective, accurate and clear control with compassion and dignity—a system based in our history and proper moral responsibilities. We used to talk of no recourse to public funds. A system of segregation risks creating a policy of no recourse to public compassion. We should take heart from the magnificent public response to refugees of recent years. In this country, there are still profound reserves of kindness and good will to draw on.

What can we do in the short, medium and long term which is underpinned by these principles? In the short term, we can combat smugglers and prevent small boats from crossing the channel. To minimise irregular arrivals, we need to provide safe and legal ways for people to get here and receive assessment and, where appropriate, protection. Approaches for this can include expanding the family reunification models, community sponsorship, and humanitarian visas and corridors from a far greater number of countries. We cannot continue with the tenfold increase, between 2010 and 2020, in the number of people waiting more than a year for an initial decision. The average processing time for an asylum case is currently around 15 months—it should be a maximum of six. In Germany in 2021, the average asylum procedure took 6.6 months despite a far higher refugee and asylum-seeker population. Nearly one-third of those who have been waiting more than six months are made up of nationals from 10 countries that have a successful application rate of between 75% and 99%. It is ridiculous and disgraceful that people fleeing Afghanistan and Syria have to wait so long when their applications will almost certainly be granted.

It is right that safe countries are currently determined by statutory instrument; Parliament is then able to democratically scrutinise those decisions, altering them, where needed, on the views and needs of the population. We need a triaging system to cut back which distinguishes quickly between people, based on the likelihood that they will be granted asylum; it would speed up decision-making, and allow those who almost certainly would not be granted asylum to be removed almost immediately. That is not so far from our current policy but, in practice, it is not happening. The Home Office could do that. Removing people whose claims are unsuccessful can happen in a dignified way. There has been real success with voluntary removals in the past when the Government collaborated with civil society. Returns have been on a downward trajectory, however, for a number of years. Removals will be swift, just and fair only if the system is clear, accurate and not overwhelmed. In the meantime, I propose we should also make one major change: asylum seekers should not be just allowed to work but expected to work, except in limited circumstances where it would clearly be inappropriate. This combines and matches the right to fair and dignified protection with a responsibility to their new society and the common good.

I have four seconds left. In the medium term, we suggest that people smuggling, like piracy, should become an international crime and that the UK should take the lead in the struggle against people smuggling by forming an international body to track it down and attack it everywhere. It is what we did in the 17th century against piracy and in the 19th century against slave trading. Surely this is as serious.

Finally, in the longer term, we need to update the 1951 refugee convention, which is hugely valuable in maintaining the importance of protection for all refugees but must be made fit for the new challenges that we face. A recent report by the Legatum Institute lays out some areas of ambiguity, including the role of the safe third-country principle, the responsibility to report other countries that are hosting many refugees, guidance on return and readmission and the eligibility of people fleeing new drivers of displacement, such as climate migrants. This problem is going to get worse. Britain showed global leadership in 1951, and we can do so again. We need more ambition in our policies. Time is not a luxury. Climate change and conflict risk driving migration for future generations at a rate we cannot imagine today—perhaps tenfold more.

Of course, we do not have the answer on these Benches, but the Church of England, together with many others, plays a leading role in dealing with the consequences of our present policy and its chronic disfunction. We have done so for quite a while. In a chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, there is an inscription several centuries old that bears witness to the protection given to French Huguenots who fled persecution in the 17th and 18th centuries. The community needed a place to worship, and a chapel in the cathedral was offered to them by a simple exchange of one-page letters. They are still there. The French Protestant Church of Canterbury is there today, next to the plaque which heralds

“the glorious asylum which England has in all times given to foreigners flying for refuge against oppression and tyranny.”

This is our tradition, our history and our pride. Let us make it our future. I beg to move.


The Archbishop’s closing remarks, summing up the debate and responding to points raised by others, were as follows:

The Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, keeping to my sense of compassion, I shall have compassion on the train of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and do my very best to be as brief as possible. I will write where I do not answer questions——but probably not until after Christmas. I have higher claims.

Lord Robathan (Con) Why, what is going on?

The Archbishop of Canterbury: Not a lot!

First, I thank noble Lords for their extraordinary contributions. I cannot refer to all of them because so many of them were so excellent. This has been a remarkable debate; I am very grateful. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sahota, the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester. They all contributed remarkably from their experience and have demonstrated the reasons why they are in this House. I thank them.

Secondly, I am not going to mention 90th birthdays—oh, I just have. I was not going to mention birthdays, which come round increasingly frequently, but I must say that I sat in awe listening to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I am sure that that is true for the entire House. His moral authority vastly exceeds that of anyone else here, going right back to the Kindertransport. It has been a privilege for me—and, I am sure, for everyone else here—to engage with him on this subject.

As the Minister rightly said, this is a very emotive and difficult subject. I am just going to throw out a few headlines. I had this issue in an earlier draft but I, or one of my advisers, took it out; I am now going to annoy them by putting it back in. I just wonder, in view of the level of difficulty of this subject and its immense importance—numerous noble Lords have emphasised this very strongly—whether it would not make more sense to have a separate department for immigration. It could focus on this issue rather than having it fall within the complexities of the Home Office, which, as we know, is one of the most difficult offices to lead.

That leads me to say that, in listening to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Murray, I felt a great deal of sympathy. It is a new and complex system that is being looked at. It is under serious strain, as he said. However, I say to him that affirmation is not evidence. He made a number of affirmations about what would be done, what has been done and what is being done but, certainly, other noble Lords tried hard to go for evidence. In letters that are written, it is important that we look at that.

I sympathise with his legal difficulties. Anyone in the Church of England would sympathise with people’s legal difficulties. I have just had a clergy discipline measure against me dismissed, thankfully. It was for not recognising a particular claimant who said that he was the living incarnation of the Lord God—I had ignored him more than 1,000 times and therefore should be dismissed from my post. In a totally strait-laced judgment after some months, the relevant judge dismissed the claim. Regarding his comment about the most reverend Primates the Archbishop of York and the Archbishop of Canterbury disagreeing with each other, there is nothing new about that. It is different from the iron discipline of the Conservative Cabinet, but we suffer what we must—the poor most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, in particular.

I am very nervous about venturing into economics but, with the noble Lords, Lord Horam and Lord Desai, I will dance into the minefield. My days in the oil industry were a long time ago. Maybe economics have changed since then, but it was said that the lowest-cost producer would always survive—there is such a thing as a law of supply and demand. If we have safe and legal routes, we automatically become the lowest-cost producer. That by itself will completely undermine the business model of the people smugglers. I throw that out as probably a wrong answer, but I do my best.

The Minister did not answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, about the assessment by the Foreign Office and others of what is going on in Rwanda. He said other things about Rwanda, but did not answer that question. It would be useful if he could write with an answer to the very clear question on why the Government’s assessment is so different from that of their professional Foreign Office advisers. We need some answers on that.

I agree with noble Lords who made a very strong and clear argument that we need to talk about asylum as distinct from migration. They are very different things. Asylum happens because of what happens elsewhere; migration happens because of what we choose to happen—around students, for instance, since most places do not confuse the two in quite the same way. Whether we allow or even encourage—even possibly compel—people in appropriate positions to take employment while they are waiting for claims is a question that, again, I do not think was answered. It was put forward by a large number of noble Lords and is extremely important.

I agree very much with the noble Baronesses, Lady Berridge and Lady Ludford, that I was wrong to suggest that we need to replace the 1951 refugee convention. We need a new convention and to keep the 1951 refugee convention. The point on that is very powerful. It was an error on my part.

I return, if I may, to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lilley. I sort of use my hotline to God, as he referred to it, but I regret to say that I appear to have been disconnected for not having paid the bill. All that I got when I pressed button 3 was a long recorded message, so I went back to the Bible. It may seem unusual but in fact, during my first speech and that of the other Members of this Bench, we all quoted only the Bible and no other form of hotline. So, who is my neighbour? We can answer the question by saying “Everyone is my neighbour, but it is not a logical consequence that everyone must come here”. The logical consequence is that we need to do all that we can to ensure that those who are suffering find their suffering reduced. That may well not include bringing them to a different country from the one in which they grew up.

My long experience of over 20 years in conflict zones, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, is that almost no one wants to be a refugee. They want to stay at home and build their country, as we do. They love the United Kingdom but not all of them want to stay here. We can see that when, thanks to the good work of the Home Office last summer, we had almost 700 Anglican Communion bishops from 162 countries coming here, with much help, and not one of them overstayed. Many of them live in war zones; most of them are never paid but live off the money they get from tilling some ground, while working under enormous personal risk, in intense poverty and much danger.

“Who is my neighbour?” is dealt with not only by asylum but by stabilisation—it is a great pity that the Government have almost abolished the stabilisation unit in the FCDO—by development, and by creating hope locally by addressing the kind of awful and heart-breaking situation spoken of by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson. That is what stops people coming.

The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, mentioned the upcoming Nigerian election. I am not going to develop that theme but I entirely agree with her and have spoken recently to the Foreign Office about it.

I will answer the particular questions of the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, by letter if I may, because they are not all directly connected with this service—sorry, this place; I do have a lot of carol services. To pick up the question asked by him and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Lilley—it may not have been him—about what we are doing to increase attendance at churches, we are working extremely hard. Yesterday evening, we had more than 100 people in my chapel to hear the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am very glad that there are atheists here in such profusion because it gives them a chance to hear that, and they might just be converted. You never know, but I do not think so—I am looking at the noble Lord, Lord Cashman. We will see in our post-retirement existence whether we exist or not.

Finally, in my last minute I will talk about the Policy Exchange. The Policy Exchange document is interesting and is certainly worth reading; I commend it to the House. I do not agree with it any more than I agreed with an earlier Policy Exchange document which suggested that the best way to deal with levelling up in the north—particularly the city of Liverpool, where I was living at the time—was to move the entire population of Liverpool to Cambridge. That was in 2008. That was not very popular in Liverpool; I did not consult those in Cambridge. Policy Exchange has a valuable function in provoking ideas, but not always quite as a valuable a function in solving problems.

Once again, I thank noble Lords across the whole House for a remarkable debate and a huge number of wise ideas, which I will be going through; we will no doubt consider them at great length within the Church. With that, I wish noble Lords a good weekend and thank them very much.

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