The government’s new asylum and migration law “amounts to cruelty without purpose” and is “immoral and inept”, the Archbishop of York has said in a powerful intervention over plans unveiled last week.
Stephen Cottrell’s condemnation came as a coalition of more than 350 charities, businesses, unions and legal groups condemned Rishi Sunak’s “cruel and unworkable” plans to detain and immediately deport those coming to the UK in small boats.
Cottrell, England’s second most senior cleric, told the Observer: “The proposals of the Illegal Migration Bill … are clearly unworkable, but will restrict access to support for many legitimate refugees and victims of modern slavery, without even the dignity of having their case heard.”
The government has promised to end the passage of small boats carrying refugees across the Channel, saying all adults will be detained for 28 days and asylum claims will be deemed “inadmissible” whatever the individual’s circumstances. They will be removed either to their own country or a “safe third country”, such as Rwanda, if that is not possible.
Cottrell said: “Nobody wants to see people risking their lives in the dangerous channel crossings but I urge the government to consider alternatives that do not unfairly penalise some of the world’s most vulnerable and which better reflect the UK’s history of compassion and moral leadership.”
The right approach to the challenge of people fleeing war and persecution was to provide safe routes, he said.
Christians were “morally bound to find ways of welcoming the stranger and feeding the hungry. This does not mean anything goes, but it does mean everyone counts. Of course, there have to be limits on the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers any one country can take. But this needs to be managed in a just, transparent and humane way. Criminalising the world’s most vulnerable people is an immoral and inept way of responding.”
Cottrell’s comments were echoed in the letter to Sunak from charities, businesses, unions and legal groups. They wrote that they were “horrified by the proposed legislation that shames this government and marks the UK as running roughshod over human rights”. Appearing to echo Gary Lineker’s criticism of home secretary Suella Braverman’s rhetoric as “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”, the group also write that some of the language used by ministers could only “draw frightening parallels from history”.
The letter was signed by groups including Doctors of the World, Ben and Jerry’s, Unison, Friends of the Earth, Save the Children and Refugee Action. It is the clearest sign yet of widespread civil society mobilisation against the proposals.
The signatories write that the illegal immigration bill “proposes we lock up families, children and other refugees simply for asking for protection [and] fundamentally undermines this principle and makes a mockery of our international commitments”.
“It will cause misery, cost millions to the taxpayer and drive desperate people to take ever more dangerous journeys as they are left with no other route to safety,” they write. “The government boasts of our proud history of welcoming refugees, but this asylum ban does the exact opposite – it shuts the door on desperate people in need of protection. The glaring racism at the heart of the Government’s hostile refugee policy – which pulls up the ladder on refugees from Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and most of Asia – must be called out. The government must scrap this bill and uphold its commitment to the Refugee Convention.”
They make a stark warning about the political rhetoric being deployed about migrants. “We urge ministers to rein in their inflammatory words that all too often echo the language used by racist groups,” they write. “Dehumanising people in order to target minority and protected groups of people can only draw frightening parallels from history.”
The letter was prompted by Braverman’s description of the Channel crossings as an “invasion” the day after the firebombing of an immigration processing centre in Dover.
Cottrell was not the only religious leader to speak out. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, the senior rabbi of Masorti (traditional) Judaism UK, whose parents fled Nazi Germany as teenagers, said the government was “right to want to stop desperate channel crossings in unsafe boats run by extortionate smugglers with no compunction. But the way to do so is not by punishing the victims. It is by establishing safe routes for persecuted people, clearly described; by ending the hostile environment; and by establishing a just, transparent and timely way of processing asylum applications”.
Amid warnings that the proposed legislation would break the UN Charter and the European convention on human rights – both established in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust – Wittenberg said: “Jews have every reason to oppose the breach of these essential protections for the world’s weakest and most vulnerable people.”
Rabbi Charley Baginsky, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, said: “As Jews, many of us are here today because a generation before us was so desperate for safety that they put themselves and their families – or sometimes just their children – through often tortuous and dangerous journeys.
“How can we now turn around and send this generation of refugees back to face persecution, war or famine? The very nature of the UK and its immigration history will be ruptured for ever. It’s important that we see the humanity on these boats and the lives that can be saved, rather than try to deal with a problem by punishing the victims.”
Paul Butler, the Bishop of Durham, who speaks for the Church of England on refugees, said the government must not abdicate its “legal and moral responsibilities to some of the world’s most vulnerable”. The proposed legislation was “likely to push thousands of people, including children, into a prolonged legal limbo and imprisonment, and does nothing to support timely and effective consideration of asylum requests.
“It would label all those crossing the Channel as ‘illegal entrants’ and therefore people to whom we do not owe a responsibility, and would criminalise the act of claiming asylum – without acknowledging that many are highly vulnerable people escaping persecution and war, who have been left with no safe routes.”
Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the Bishop of Dover, said the bill lacked “in basic human compassion”, and was “dehumanising”.
Migration was often “the only option between life and death”. Deporting asylum-seekers without a hearing was “a brutal response given that there is currently no fit asylum application process in place here. There has to be a better way.”
Leaders from the Baptist, Methodist and United Reform churches issued a joint statement last week condemning the plans as “completely incompatible with our Christian conviction that all human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore inherently worthy of treatment which honours their dignity.”
They said: “Instead of dignity, these plans will foster discrimination and distrust, and cause immeasurable harm to people already made vulnerable by conflict and persecution. If ever there was a contemporary example of ignoring our neighbour and walking by on the other side, this is it.”