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Suffolk's Bishop Martin Seeley explains why he joined 24 other bishops in writing an open letter opposing the Government's scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda

The plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda has brought vital moral issues into focus.

While there needs to be a limit on the number of people we can accept into the UK, I was one of the 25 bishops who signed the open letter, published in the Times newspaper on June 14th, opposing the plan.

The letter declared that it “should shame us as a nation…because our Christian heritage should inspire us to treat asylum seekers with compassion, fairness and justice.”

The objections to the scheme are several, but key for me are that it punishes those who are already victims – those risking their lives in small boats to come to these shores.

The Right Rev Martin Seeley
The Right Rev Martin Seeley

It exports what is this country’s responsibility, by paying another country to do what we should be doing; and, pragmatically, there is little evidence it would achieve what is was designed for, to deter.

And of course people object to bishops, or clergy, or any representative of the churches, expressing their views on issues that are seen as “political.”

This is a modern objection, I think, an expression of our highly individualistic society where religion is considered a private affair with no public, political dimension.

The Church has always been involved in promoting social change for the good of others.

The provision of free education, the abolition of the slave trade, the introduction of free health care, the development of the welfare state, all had strong Church protagonists, initiating or significantly supporting these developments, including in parliament.

Politics is about how we organise our lives together in the national and local communities of which we are a part.

And Christianity has two basic principles, expounded by Jesus, for how we should do that: love God, and love our neighbours as ourselves.

Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan makes clear that our neighbour is everyone in need, whoever they are, and our response is to be merciful.

We have seen that response over and over again through the pandemic, and now in the extraordinarily generous and compassionate response to those fleeing the war in Ukraine.

And churches have been at the forefront of those compassionate and merciful actions – in the provision of food banks, of support and care schemes, and of homes for Ukraine's refugees.

The bishops’ letter has been criticised for not providing alternatives, though they have in fact made proposals on various occasions. Let me have a try here.

The number seeking asylum has been climbing since 2010, and has risen significantly since 2020, with the upsurge in people crossing the Channel in small boats.

In the first three months of this year more than 4,500 tried the crossing, more than three times the number during the same period in 2021.

The reasons for the recent increase seems unclear, but have something to do with the closure of legal routes to seek asylum; the aggressive expansion of people-smuggling rings in northern France, across other parts of Europe, and in north Africa; and the very difficult situations existing in parts of the middle East and northern Africa – we have only to think of Afghanistan and Somalia to recognise that.

The UK is attractive because it is perceived as a safe, tolerant nation, and because family or friends may already be here. And the people-smugglers may actually be the ones in many cases that determine that a refugee comes to the UK.

The great majority are genuine asylum seekers, fleeing danger and persecution. Some three-quarters of those arriving by boat in 2021 were granted leave to stay in this country on their initial application, and more following appeal.

So providing safe and legal routes to pursue asylum would be one significant and compassionate step to support those with legitimate claims and reduce the number that risk the dangerous boat crossing.

Introducing a humanitarian visa for those fleeing places of danger and persecution, for which they might apply, for example, at the British Embassy of their home country, would grant the asylum seeker a permit to travel and the right to make an asylum claim in the UK, with a reasonable chance of that being granted since the first screening would have happened in their home country.

Then there will need to be international agreements to return unsuccessful applicants to another country, as there used to be with the EU before Brexit.

And there will need to be much closer and more determined international team work combating people smugglers.

One of the attractions for those who do not have a valid claim to enter as refugees is the chance to slip into the black economy of our country, and making that less possible could be another element in reducing illegal crossings. Identity cards have been suggested as one way to do that.

Yes, we do need to ensure that people to do not take incredibly dangerous journeys to seek asylum. And for that we need an approach that has both compassion for those with genuine cause, and approaches – including caps on numbers – that can make the influx manageable.

That would be a start for an approach that takes the Christian value of respecting the dignity of every person seriously, and not punishing those who are desperately seeking safety in our country.

-- The Right Rev Martin Seeley is Bishop of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich