Church takes strong stand on migration

Migrants in an nflatable dinghy off the Libyan coast Image copyright AP
Image caption Hundreds of lives have been lost as people seek a new life in Europe

One consequence of this month's refugee tragedy in the Mediterranean has been to give the views of church leaders an unexpected prominence in the middle of an election campaign.

Bishops know they must hold their tongues during elections.

The mainstream churches produced manifestos in the form of advice to the faithful on the big issues of the campaign, but both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic hierarchy published their commentaries well in advance of electoral battle being joined.

The challenge they face with these pre-election documents is saying something worth hearing without laying themselves open to the charge of meddling in politics in a partisan way.

This time the Church of England in particular took heavy flak for the mildly left-wing flavour of its pronouncements on food banks and the like.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, may have a proven track record in business and finance, but when it comes to economics, religious leaders are always vulnerable to the charge that they are sounding off on a subject they do not understand.

Immigration and asylum, on the other hand, fall much more easily within the clerical comfort zone; they raises issues - about our common humanity and the extent of our generosity of spirit - which are more obviously "moral" in character.

Forthright criticism

When the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, launched his bishops' election letter to Catholics last month he spoke about migration in forthright terms.

On the Sunday programme he condemned the tone of our political debate about immigration, and in another interview that same morning he talked about the recent tragedy at sea.

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Image caption The Right Reverend Vincent Nichols has spoken out on migration

He told the Andrew Marr Show: "These are people we're talking about, the people who drown in the Mediterranean trying to get into Europe, the people caged in Calais because they're desperate. We have to somehow keep the human person at the front of all these issues."

This weekend the Anglican bishop of Manchester, the Right Reverend David Walker, told the Observer that Britain has a particular responsibility to refugees who flee Africa and the Middle East because this country's foreign policy has contributed to the instability which drove some of them from their homes.

"The moral cost of our overseas interventions", he wrote in the paper's online edition, "has to include accepting a fair share of the victims of the wars to which we have contributed".

England and Wales bishops' general election advice on migration:

"Violence and conflict have led to the massive displacement of people, many of whom seek asylum or refuge. There are also workers and students from overseas who contribute much to the common good of our country.

"Indeed, most people who settle in this country find work in order to bring up their families and contribute to society's well-being.

"Immigration is a highly emotive issue and every country needs a policy to control immigration, as well as a positive commitment to policies that facilitate the integration of migrants into the mainstream of society.

"There is a great danger of blaming immigrants for the ills of society. We support policies which fairly regulate immigration and uphold the human rights of all, recognising the rights, dignity and protection of refugees and migrants."

It was an unusually political comment from a bishop at this stage of an election campaign, and it reflects the way the deaths of nearly 1,000 people trying to reach Europe earlier this month have shaken up the kaleidoscope of public perceptions.

What happened was so ghastly that it has turned migration - for a while at least - into an issue that looks more moral than political.

That was also reflected in the way European Union leaders reversed their decision on funding for rescue operations at their emergency summit last week.

When they decided not to support the Italian Mare Nostrum programme last autumn it was presented - and interpreted in the press - as a political decision, a pragmatic step to discourage refugees and calm domestic anxiety about uncontrolled immigration.

In the light of what has now happened it has instead been widely represented as a terrible moral choice with tragic consequences. So Europe's governments - our own included - changed their minds.


This is not to say that the moral arguments all run one way.

On this weekend's Sunday programme Major General Jim Molan, who helped design Australia's famously tough border control policy, argued that the really moral course is deterrence.

Australia turns boats back and detains refugees in camps beyond its own borders. Anyone who attempts to reach the country by sea is disqualified from settling there.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Thousands of asylum seekers have risked the perilous sea journey to Australia

As a result the flow of boat people has dried up, so refugees are not dying in the waters between Indonesia and Australia in the way they are dying between Africa and Europe.

"The question I put to Europe," the general said, "Is what moral responsibility does Europe have if inadequate policy causes loss of life at sea?"

He was debating with Michel Roy, the head of the Catholic network Caritas Internationalis; Mr Roy endorsed General Molan's judgement that the moral priority is to save lives, even though he regards some aspects of the Australian policy as "obnoxious". Moral debates can be as cloudy and complicated as political ones.

The impact of this month's terrible tragedy may not last for long, but for the moment an ambition which all church leaders put near the top of their election wish-lists has been achieved; the tone of the debate about migration and asylum has changed.

The press tends to ignore the election manifestos which the bishops publish because they are framed in moral terms, and do not deal in practical politics.

Perhaps we should all go back and read them again.

Listen to the latest edition of Radio 4's Sunday programme.

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