Debating the morality of asylum: some critical reflections

December 22, 2022

Remember the Huguenots?  The Archbishop of Canterbury says we should.  In the 9 December debate about the principles behind asylum and refugee policy and the challenges of forced migration, an Advent debate called by the Archbishop himself, he reminded the House of Lords of the welcome they received in England, and from the Church of England in particular.  The plight of the Huguenots – French Protestants persecuted by Catholic France – is well worth recalling, as is the policy of the English Crown to support them, at times with military force, but also by encouraging (and paying for) tens of thousands of them to settle in England and in the colonies abroad.

Offering asylum to foreigners fleeing oppression and tyranny is, the Archbishop says, “our, tradition, our history and our pride”.  We should, he concludes “make it our future” too.  There is much truth here, but the Archbishop’s wider reflections on the morality of asylum are, alas, misconceived.  He misunderstands the responsibilities of government and the ways in which our country has in the past, and should in future, help oppressed and desperate foreigners.  In particular, he is wrong about how to deal with the small boats.

The sanctuary offered to the Huguenots should be a cause for national pride.  In encouraging settlement in England, the Crown, with the support of Parliament, helped protect tens of thousands in a neighbouring state from persecution.  It also denounced the injustice of France, England’s main rival, and weakened it by draining it of some of its ablest citizens. The prosperous Huguenots integrated relatively easily with their culturally similar co-religionists, with “the increase of people a means of advancing the wealth and strength of [the] nation”, as Parliament declared in 1708.

Several centuries later, many continue to leave France seeking asylum on our shores, but not because they face persecution in France.  They are safe in France but choose to cross the Channel in a small boat, paying considerable sums to people smugglers to arrange entry into the UK, in breach of our immigration law.  The worsening crisis of the Channel crossings is the context in which the moral foundations of asylum now fall to be considered, with the government routinely accused of shameful, immoral action, and with ministers often responding in kind.  In the recent debate, the Archbishop redoubled his own criticism, arguing that something has gone badly wrong in British public life, and especially in government policy, where asylum is concerned.

Every human being is made in the image of God and Christ called His followers to care for the least amongst us.  It follows, the Archbishop reasoned, that recognition of human dignity must be the foundation of asylum and immigration policy, which requires us to “look in the faces” and “listen to the voices” of those seeking sanctuary.  A compassionate asylum system would “not mean open borders, but a disposition of generosity and a readiness to welcome those whose need is genuine and where we are able to meet that need.” It would reject “the shrill narratives that all who come to us for help should be treated as liars, scroungers or less than fully human.”

These propositions are true and important, if also rather general.  The Archbishop had already set them out, in the context of the government’s Rwanda plan in particular, in his Easter sermon, in a subsequent Telegraph article, and in a letter to The Times with the other Lords Spiritual.  Why then did he call this debate?  The simple answer may be that he sought another high-profile opportunity to denounce government policy and call for reform.  A more complete answer may be that he hoped to elaborate and nuance his earlier claims, addressing some of the concerns that many people have about apparently uncontrolled migration, including across the Channel.

In a Policy Exchange paper published a few days before the debate, Nigel Biggar, John Finnis and I took issue with some of the Archbishop’s claims, as well as those of other church leaders.  We argued, with support from Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester and now a Catholic prelate, that the moral imperative of caring for the stranger, which the Gospels mandate, does not mean that the Channel has to be an open route into Britain.  The right thing to do may instead be to help refugees settle in other countries.

Our paper was conceived and written well before the Archbishop’s debate was announced.  We published it several days before the debate in order to contribute to public deliberation about the morality of asylum.  The paper was covered in the media and I published a related article in the Telegraph.  The Archbishop had an advance copy of the paper – we sent it to him as a courtesy – and in the debate he mentions it obliquely, in his opening remarks, and directly in closing the debate five hours later.  Recalling his Easter sermon, he begins the debate in this way:

“I see some of our newspapers this week have rebutted the arguments I am about to make before I have had a chance to make them – or even, for that matter, to prepare them.  I am glad they have such gifts of mind-reading.  ‘Get your rebuttal in first,’ Willie John McBride, captain of the 1974 Invincibles, almost told his teammates.  I think he said ‘retaliation’. For the avoidance of doubt, my intention today is to examine some of the moral considerations that should drive our policies in this area and then to propose some practical ways forward for the short, medium and long term.”

This can only be a reference to coverage of Policy Exchange’s paper, which squarely addressed arguments already publicly made by the Archbishop and other church leaders, from the pulpit and in the press, arguments which warranted scrutiny.  No mind-reading required.

The point of the recent debate would seem in part have been for the Archbishop to make clear that he does not support open borders and to set out some alternatives to the Rwanda plan.  He says that some fears about (irregular) migration are understandable.  He says more than once, and quite forcefully, that the UK cannot take everyone, cannot help all those in need of help, and should have “a system which balances effective, accurate and clear control with compassion and dignity.”  And he says he aims to support action that would “prevent small boats from crossing the channel.”

But he also makes clear that he thinks the UK is not taking many refugees, in comparison to other European states and certainly not compared to poor countries adjacent to troubled states.  The clear implication is that the UK is not very generous and should accept many more refugees.  There are several problems with this analysis.  The Archbishop focuses on the number of applications for asylum, rather than the grant of asylum, which the UK awards relatively more generously than other European states.  (Whether this is to our credit or our shame is unclear.)  In any case, these figures do not account for sanctuary for those from Ukraine or Hong Kong, which are major government commitments.  Astonishingly, in relation to the provision our country has made to welcome Hong Kong residents – well over 100,000 to date and many more likely to come in future – the Archbishop says “and that, by the way, is not asylum but financial visas”.  It may not involve an application for asylum as such, but it clearly involves flight from oppression.  The scale and significance – moral and strategic – of the Hong Kong UK Welcome Programme should not be dismissed or downplayed in this way.  Finally, he draws the wrong conclusion from the fact that developing countries host many more refugees than developed countries.  The generosity of developing countries is to their credit and is often good policy, because it is much cheaper than settlement in the West and makes return more likely.  Developed countries should help pay the costs and the UK leads the way in this regard.

My point is not that the UK has taken its share and should refuse further applications for asylum.  Of course not.  It is perfectly arguable that the UK should be more generous, should accept many more refugees.  But the Archbishop wrongly understates what the UK has been and is doing. And he fails to consider one of our paper’s fundamental points, that ad hoc consideration of claims to refugee status by people entering the UK (often dangerously) in small boats may not be the best policy.  It is not simply that these people may be better supported in the safe states adjacent to us.  More fundamentally, “resettlement” of refugees – that is, accepting UNHCR-certified refugees directly from UNHCR camps – is certainly a policy better for the UK and better overall for refugees than trying to sift genuine from bogus refugees among who have chosen to enter the UK unlawfully from a state in which they were otherwise safe, such as France.

As matters stand, the gross uncertainties about who will show up on our shores, from a safe country, and needing expensive housing, sustenance and processing, means that the UK cannot prioritise resettlement from UNCHR camps, or provide as much support as it otherwise could to refugee settlement (or resettlement) in developing countries. The control the Archbishop says he supports does not presently exist.  The small boats cannot be turned around in the Channel, at least not without unacceptable risk to life, and France will not accept their immediate return.  The Rwanda plan is a rational (if imperfect) attempt to address the problem, removing asylum-seekers to a safe third country, where they will be protected.  It is similar to Policy Exchange’s “Plan B” proposal, published in February this year, before the Rwanda plan, the centrepiece of which was legislation specifying that no one entering the UK unlawfully from a safe state could settle in the UK and requiring their removal to an overseas territory for processing and settlement in a safe third country.  The Archbishop decries the plan on the grounds that it outsources our responsibilities.  This makes no sense, for the UK not only accepts that Rwanda must comply with international standards, but also commits to funding the protection of those who prove to be refugees.  The Archbishop asserts that the plan has failed to deter.  Indeed, because it has not yet been tried at all.

Instead of the Rwanda plan, the Archbishop proposes more efficient triage and processing of asylum claims and, especially, provision of safe and legal routes.  He says that it is absurd to object to the Channel crossings as a kind of queue jumping when there is no legal queue.  I say that no developed country holds itself open to the world for applications for asylum, for the obvious reason that billions of people would have an arguable claim for asylum if they were outside their country of origin, unable to return home due to fear of persecution.  There is no injustice in the UK failing to make provision for, say, Christians in Iran or gay men in Eritrea to apply for asylum from abroad.  The whole structure of the Refugee Convention 1951 is to impose obligations on states in relation to refugees who are present on their territory, while reserving to states the freedom to control who enters and to treat differently those who enter lawfully or unlawfully.

In our Policy Exchange paper, we pointed out that the obvious upshot of the Archbishop’s proposal for safe and legal routes for some – but not all – refugees would be that disappointed persons, whether genuine refugees or not, would head to the Channel.  Without an agreement with France, the Rwanda plan, our Plan B, or some similar alternative, there is nothing to stop the small boats from continuing to come.  In his closing remarks in the recent debate, the Archbishop recalls his days in the oil industry and the economic insight that “the lowest-cost producer would always survive”.  If we offer safe and legal routes, he says, the people smugglers will be put out of business.  The upshot may be rather that the UK would put other countries of refuge out of business.  The Archbishop’s mistake is to assume a fixed, manageable supply of persons seeking to enter the UK.  It is not so.

The Archbishop pairs his denunciation of the government with harsh words about people smuggling, which he argues the UK should take the lead in stamping out, as with piracy and slavery.  But it is hard to see why, on his logic, one should view people smuggling thus.  I say that no one safely in France has any right to enter the UK in breach of our immigration law.  But the Archbishop takes the UK to be acting unjustly in denying entry to refugees, or at least to some undisclosed number of refugees who want to settle here.  If this is true, then people smugglers are providing a service to help evade an unjust law.  They may be exploitative in what they charge and reckless about human life in terms of safety at sea, but the service is not inherently immoral.  If they were helping people flee from an unsafe state (not France), they might even deserve praise.  I think the Archbishop at times runs together people smuggling and people trafficking, a confusion I noted in the joint letter from the Lords Spiritual, who use “people trafficking” to mean “people smuggling”.  The two are not the same and while both should be stopped, the wrong of people trafficking is very much worse, for the trafficked lack agency and are gravely wronged.

Like other states, the UK has responsibilities to refugees and should play its part in helping protect them.  It does not follow that the UK must accept for settlement refugees who enter our country from another safe state in violation of our immigration law.  We do them no injustice if we return them to France or settle them in a safe third country, a policy which if openly and resolutely put into effect – with the backing of a statutory mandate – would destroy the people smugglers’ business model and restore the UK’s freedom, which the 1951 Convention carefully protects, to decide who to permit to enter and remain in our country.

Our recent paper makes these points with care, showing that the truths of the Christian faith do not compel the conclusion that the Rwanda plan is shameful or immoral, whatever other criticisms may be made of it.  Four Lords Temporal raised the paper in the Advent debate, including Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, the former Supreme Court justice, and Lord Murray of Blidworth, the Home Office minister.  In closing the debate, the Archbishop turned directly to it, saying:

“Finally, in my last minute I will talk about the Policy Exchange. The Policy Exchange document is interesting and is certainly worth reading; I commend it to the House. I do not agree with it any more than I agreed with an earlier Policy Exchange document which suggested that the best way to deal with levelling up in the north—particularly the city of Liverpool, where I was living at the time—was to move the entire population of Liverpool to Cambridge. That was in 2008. That was not very popular in Liverpool; I did not consult those in Cambridge. Policy Exchange has a valuable function in provoking ideas, but not always quite as a valuable a function in solving problems.”

Thin – and more like retaliation than rebuttal.

The Archbishop was right to remind peers – and the public – that all persons are made in the image of God and that Christ commands us to care for the stranger.  The UK does not deny these truths in resettling in safe third countries those who enter unlawfully on small boats.  In this way, we may discourage others from unlawful entry and thus restore control of the borders.  And in fact, the historic tradition the Archbishop hopes to maintain is alive and well in the provision our government has made, with wide public support, for temporary protection from Ukrainians escaping Russian aggression and for resettlement of the new Huguenots, the Hong Kong residents seeking to escape the oppressive reach of the Chinese Communist state.

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