The problem with the bishops in the upper chamber is not that they speak too much, but too little. The attack on the government for sending migrants to Rwanda was a rare example of clerical intervention, but where were the bishops during the discussions about the evils of people-smuggling and the problem of migrants risking their lives in shoddy boats?
The reason we have religious leaders in the House of Lords is so that they can add thoughtful insights into important political issues of the day. Illegal immigration and the great dangers faced by migrants in their struggle to come here are just the sort of moral dilemmas that needs their attention, but they have for the most part been silent.
It is clear that our politicians are in urgent need of good advice. It is, in part, because the government failed to make the legal and moral case for their Rwanda immigration policy that it has now been so humiliated. The intervention by the European Court of Human Rights raises questions about its own remit but it also highlights the fact that the government has utterly failed to explain the dilemma it faces.
Like any rich and safe country, Britain has an obligation to help those facing genuine persecution abroad but it must discharge this obligation in a practical and sustainable way. At a rough estimate, 4.4 million people are currently on the move from their home countries and seeking asylum elsewhere. We have a duty to provide help but we also have a duty to do so in a way that doesn’t leave us open to exploitation.
The people-smuggling industry is perhaps the dominant evil of our day. Smugglers exploit the desperation of people in troubled countries and charge them thousands just for a chance of a better life. Ironically, this new lucrative form of exploitation has become prevalent not because the third world is so destitute, but because it is getting wealthier. People worldwide can access the internet and look at the sort of lives lived in richer countries, especially the ones that offer free education and healthcare. And more and more of them can now afford the fee for the journey. Smugglers assure migrants that once they land ashore in Britain, there is little realistic risk of deportation, whatever the legality of their case. The result of this trend is tragedy. We all know that, even the bishops. Since 2014, some 24,000 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean.
No wonder migration is once again being used as a political weapon: leaders in Libya, Turkey and Russia have now started using migrants as blackmail, threatening to open their borders unless we agree to their demands.
The moral debate is not straightforward. It’s unclear which is the greater evil: to continue to turn a blind eye and encourage smugglers, with the result that thousands drown, or to devise a policy, like the Rwanda one, that might put smugglers out of business.
It’s also vitally important that the public thinks the system is fair. When our own citizens feel they’ve been consulted and that the process is well run, it allows for more generosity. It allows Britain to take in – for example – 100,000 Hong Kong Chinese fleeing persecution from Beijing. This was a bold gesture from a Conservative government and it served both a moral end and a useful one for the party’s image. It gave credence to the ‘global Britain’ pledge.
If the government fails to make the case for its asylum policy it’s limited in what it can feasibly do. It’s forced into U-turns which further undermine its credibility. Several years ago, Norway put in place a policy of flying asylum-seekers back to their home countries. Its government was able to do so because it explained the moral case to Norwegians first. For the same price as settling a single asylum-seeker in Norway, six or seven refugees could be saved from persecution in countries nearer to their home, said the government. The policy then became a moral calculation: how to help the most people and how to save the most lives. Britain could make the same argument, if it had a government with the wit to do so.
We are living in a world of ever more global movement. Terrible dilemmas like this will be with us for years to come. The problem isn’t so much that the UK’s policy is immoral as that it’s badly implemented and visibly failing. Our government does not process asylum appeals in time and its current plan is to house hundreds of young migrant men in hostels in rural villages while banning them from taking on any work. This is a recipe for outrage and needless hostility.
The asylum system is a mess, legally and politically, and needs to be properly thought through. There is a case for sending asylum-seekers to other countries, but it needs to be clearly made. Chartering a Boeing is pointless if you lack the ability to find passengers and the message it sends out becomes one of impotence, not deterrence. The way we handle 21st-century migration needs to be different to the way we did so in the last century, so there is a discussion to be had. But the debacle of the Rwandan deportations shows just how unprepared the government still is.
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