On 9th December 2022 the Bishop of Chelmsford spoke in a debate led by the Archbishop of Canterbury on the principles behind UK asylum and refugee policy.
The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, for her gracious maiden speech and for mentioning the role of churches in local resilience forums. I look forward to hearing the two maiden speeches to come. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester and I were formerly colleagues when I was Bishop of Loughborough, and I look forward to working with him in this House.
I thank my right reverend friend the Archbishop of Canterbury for securing this timely and important debate. This past year alone, we have seen multiple developments of concern, with an increase in forced migration due to conflict around the globe and over a third of Ukraine’s population displaced by war, with millions seeking refuge beyond their borders. A record 40,000-plus people have made the precarious English Channel crossing. We have also seen deeply troubling conditions faced by people once they are in the UK: overcrowded processing centres, threats of deportation to Rwanda, and a lack of resettlement through the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.
In the swirl of revelations and challenges, it is easy to be swept along by the immediate, looking for a quick fix before the next issue comes along. There is of course real value in reacting effectively in the moment, particularly from those meeting humanitarian need, as seen in the extraordinary response of the British public to the Homes for Ukraine scheme. But there is also value in reflection on the principles that guide such actions and the system that they exist within.
What is the purpose of our migration system and who is it for? To echo the words of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, at the heart of the matter is the recognition that every one of us is created in the image of God, with intrinsic worth and dignity. Scripture calls on us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger. In our contemporary context, what does welcome look like for those seeking refuge today?
This is the very question that the Woolf Institute’s newly formed and independent Commission on the Integration of Refugees is exploring. I declare my interest as vice-chair of the commission. It is an honour to be involved under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. As I am sure he will shortly outline in greater detail, we are seeking to bring together a range of views and experiences from our commissioners and from others across the country. Those with very different opinions and approaches are agreed that the system is broken. We have come together to move towards a vision for the better integration of refugees. As the Good Faith Partnership wrote in its report for the commission, published just last month,
“the stage is … set for those with practical ideas to tap into this widely held desire from the British public to integrate newcomers into their homes and communities.”
I and many others believe that one of those key practical ideas is the provision of housing. Good refugee integration requires good housing solutions. I declare my interest as lead bishop for housing.
I arrived in this country with my parents at the age of 13, while the Iranian revolution gripped my homeland. I arrived as a refugee. We were able to build our lives here, in large part thanks to the housing provided to us when we arrived, first in a theological college and later in a vacant vicarage. We had a home again; we had stability and safety from which to build our lives again. It is out of that that my own life has grown. Creating this rootedness remains a key factor for successful refugee integration today.
The report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community, Coming Home, concluded that
“good housing should be sustainable, safe, stable, sociable and satisfying.”
However, for many refugees, this is not their experience. Countless refugees remain in overcrowded temporary accommodation for long periods. In August 2021, over 20,000 Afghan citizens were evacuated by the British military. More than a year later, 12,000-plus are still housed in hotels, costing £1.5 million per day. This is both dehumanising and expensive.
So how do we respond? Part of the solution is “meanwhile housing”, the installation of demountable, sustainable, high-quality homes on meanwhile-use land. This provides better outcomes for refugees and improved use of public funds. Bristol City Council’s project, Enabling Housing Innovation for Inclusive Growth, has been pioneering in taking the solution forward. We at the newly launched Church Housing Foundation are actively working with government and others to find ways to assist the provision of meanwhile housing.
Additionally, lifting the ban on the right to work, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, would have a transformative impact, enabling individuals to create more security for themselves by putting to use the skills that they have. Indeed, a YouGov poll earlier this year found that 81% of the public agree.
A high percentage of those who apply for asylum are granted permission to stay. If these individuals are to have a chance of settling well, they must discover a new sense of belonging. Belonging grows from a combination of receiving good and dignified welcome—for example, in how they are housed—and the opportunity to contribute from the earliest moment, chiefly through the right to work.
Finally, on a positive note, I recognise and praise the incredible work going on in local churches and communities across the country to welcome the stranger, including in the diocese in which I serve, Chelmsford. As we strive towards better refugee integration, in principle and in practice, we can also be encouraged by the many good examples already around us.