Archbishop of York – asylum system does not give people dignity, safety and agency their humanity deserves

On 9th December 2022 the Archbishop of York spoke in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s debate on the principles behind UK asylum and immigration policy.

The Archbishop of York: My Lords, despite my probably sensible and timely demotion on the speakers’ list*, I am nevertheless delighted to speak in this very moving debate and to thank my brother, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, for bringing it to us.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, for his kind words about our preaching earlier this year. I can assure him that on almost every other occasion when I rise to speak, although not on this occasion, it is to speak about the Christian gospel, whose values underpin everything I am about to say. I was also very moved by the noble Lord, Lord Singh, who quoted the Jewish and Christian scriptures to us. That is such a powerful sign of the generous spirit of the Sikh faith, which we can all learn so much from. I am also grateful for the three powerful maiden speeches that we have heard today

I want to emphasise a small but significant point. Getting this right, and doing the right thing, is a blessing for everyone in our society and the best way of shifting the opinion of the public, whose anxiety about this issue is fuelled by the dysfunction of our current system. The hard truth is that our asylum system simply does not treat everyone the same. It does not give people the dignity, safety and agency that their humanity deserves. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, that everyone is our neighbour. Of course, we cannot take everybody, but that makes it even more important that we have a fair system for everyone.

Dehumanising language promotes fear. Threat of destitution is used as a deterrent. Children are treated as if they are adults. Yet in our own country, among our own people, in our churches, other faith groups and communities, some things have gone well, such as the Homes for Ukraine scheme, where many people have found a home, other family members have joined them, and people have been able to get work. This is really good.

But why has our response to people fleeing other conflicts been different? Currently, the definition of family in our asylum system would not allow someone to join their sibling even if they were the last remaining relative, and being able to work and contribute is a long way off. The tragedy of our system lies in its exceptionalism, meaning that people receive differential treatment usually because of their country of origin. That underpins the Nationality and Borders Act, and I fear that further legislative action will be the same.

But we could learn from what is happening in our communities. The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, asked us directly about integration. I do not know where to begin. In hundreds of parishes and schools, and in other faith communities up and down our country, that is what we are doing—in English language classes, in befriending and in teaching people. I would be the first to admit that there are lots of things about the Church of England that could be better, but that is something that we are doing, alongside others, and it shows the best of British.

We need a system that will simply provide safe and legal routes for everyone to have equal opportunities to apply for asylum. All I am saying is that I think that would be good for us, as well as for the people who are fleeing unimaginable conflict and evil.

Finally, when it comes to being able to work, the Church of England, alongside the Refugee Council and the Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee, is a long-standing supporter of the Lift the Ban campaign.

I say all this—like many of us, I would wish to say more, but the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said most of it—as winter arrives, and it is cold, and a cost of living crisis will inevitably affect the British people’s capacity to be hospitable. I say simply that a functioning asylum system is not a threat to our social cohesion as some fear or predict, but a dysfunctional, unfair one is.

As every small child knows at this time of the year, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, mentioned, Mary and Joseph came looking for somewhere to stay, but there was no room at the inn. Saying no, accusing those who are being hospitable of being naive, or passing the buck are easy, but saying yes, with a fair and equal system for everyone, opens up blessings for everyone.


*(The Archbishop’s name had appeared on the published speaker list as ‘The Bishop of York’)

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