Bishop of Durham -need for ‘courageous, compassionate leadership, not hostility and defensiveness’ in asylum policies

The Bishop of Durham spoke in a debate on 9th December 2022 led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the principles behind asylum and refugee policy.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. We are not often afforded the opportunity to look at asylum policy forensically and dispassionately, so I thank the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for choosing this debate. I also congratulate those who have given their maiden speeches today, and note my registered interests as a trustee of Reset and a principal of RAMP.

I begin by laying out clear principles that come from how ancient Israel was called to treat refugees: to welcome people, to treat them with dignity as fellow humans, to provide support, and to enable self-support and integration. It is no secret that we are not doing the mechanics of “welcome” through asylum processing well. The applications backlog means we are unable to prioritise those in need or humanely return those not recognised as refugees. There were close to 140,000 unanswered applications in the system by the end of September, so men, women and children were left in limbo and unable to rebuild their lives. This is not treating people with dignity. Chronic underinvestment in both people and systems at the Home Office has caused this, but there are workable solutions, such as to recruit more caseworkers and set up a dedicated case clearance unit that effectively triages.

Currently, 35% of the backlog is applications from five countries with grant rates of over 85%, including countries with an acceptance level of 98%. Asylum law identifies safe countries, so there should be no barrier to prioritising those we know have credible asylum claims and urgently need our support. This would involve a cost, but if we were to allow asylum seekers to work after six months of waiting for a decision, enabling them to support themselves, money would be recouped by the Exchequer. And what is the real cost, especially on children, of dealing with past trauma while not knowing that their future is safe?

Current policy does not allow asylum claims outside the UK, except for Ukrainians, Afghans and people from Hong Kong. Last week, the Minister confirmed that, outside the limited schemes available, the Government do not propose to offer any more. Therefore, are we not pushing vulnerable people into perilous journeys if there is no safe way to travel? Under existing safe route schemes, there have been examples of success. The Ukraine scheme has seen us welcome very many. Will the Minister comment on suggestions that this safe route will be closed to new applicants in the near future? Equally, both ARAP and ACRS have seen significant numbers of Afghan arrivals. Will he comment on the difficulties that remain for some hiding for their safety inside Afghanistan or apparently blocked in neighbouring countries?

The Government need to commit to expanding resettlement routes, working with UNHCR and instigating humanitarian visas that people can apply for at embassies. Further, family reunion cannot continue to be neglected. Family reunion numbers have dropped by 36% from pre-pandemic levels, and 90% of those who use this route are women and children. We must seek to maintain and restore family unity wherever possible. Will the Minister affirm the Government’s commitment to family reunion as a safe route and drop the argument that this acts as a pull factor when the evidence is clear that it does not?

Some have called this week for a complete reversal in immigration policy, but I urge the Government to realign the system with the outward-facing values we hold as a nation and our rich history of giving sanctuary to those in need. Of course, we should ascertain whether individuals are in fact true refugees, but this needs to be done in accordance with international agreements and the upholding of human rights. It is simply wrong to abdicate our moral and legal responsibility to consider a person’s claim to asylum on their arrival in this country: here is where they must be dealt with.

I noted earlier that there is much to be proud of in the routes for Afghans, Ukrainians and people from Hong Kong. Through these schemes, we have established good practice. There is therefore now an opportunity to expand community sponsorship and develop a single refugee sponsorship scheme, one that is scalable, flexible and accessible to all refugees, so we do not need to reinvent it every time a new crisis arises. I encourage the Government to see this as an important element of their commitment to safe and legal routes, one which may move us towards an environment of hospitality rather than hostility. Will the Minister agree to meet me and those working to design a proposed single refugee sponsorship scheme, to explore this together?

I have two quick comments before I close. As the lead Bishop for education, I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, about worship in schools. I invite the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, to ask one of us, or others on these Benches, to show him examples of what is happening locally. We can all give him plenty of examples.

When one looks into the faces of those in need and listens to their voices, as the most reverend Primate called on us to do, we learn that what ultimately pushes someone to escape tyranny, while carrying immense grief, is hope. We need an asylum system that provides sanctuary and gives the opportunity for people to rebuild hope. Jeremiah wrote:

“I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

It is political maturity and courageous, compassionate leadership, not hostility and defensiveness in policy, that can bring people hope.


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