The Catholic bishops of England and Wales have urged the Government to acknowledge that providing migrants with safe and legal routes to the UK is the ‘only way of preventing dangerous crossings or exploitation by traffickers’.
The bishops also urge authorities to recognise refugees as human beings and ensure that policies uphold their intrinsic dignity.
The call comes as part of written evidence submitted by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) to a parliamentary inquiry into channel crossings, migration and asylum-seeking routes through the EU.
The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has published the 32 written submissions that have been received for this investigation, including the bishops’, in which they state: ‘Tragic deaths, such as that of Abdulfatah Hamdallah who drowned in August, are a direct result of the UK and other European governments not working together to establish policies that prioritise the protection of human life.’
They say that the EU’s shift in focus from search and rescue to deterring crossings in 2014 caused a significant loss of life in the Mediterranean, which was exacerbated by the vote against a resolution to step up rescue missions in 2019. ‘These mistakes must not be repeated in the English Channel,’ they stress.
They also insist that it is ‘essential’ to recognise the ‘worsening humanitarian situation facing refugees and migrants in mainland Europe’, as well as the many different reasons people have for trying to reach the UK.
‘The current tendency to suggest that people should remain in France, Greece or other supposedly ‘safe countries’ is oversimplistic and ignores the lived realities of those risking their lives to reach our shores,’ they say. ‘Furthermore, it fails to recognise the UK’s moral responsibility for accommodating its fair share of the unprecedented population currently displaced from their homes across the world.’
The bishops insist that ‘the government needs to acknowledge that providing safe and legal routes for people to seek sanctuary here is the only way of preventing dangerous crossings or exploitation by traffickers’.
They note that the call for safe and legal routes was highlighted by the former Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Highland in a letter to the Home Secretary in September 2016.
‘Extending resettlement schemes and opening new programmes for groups such as unaccompanied children should therefore be the focus of any long-term policy response,’ the bishops said. ‘While the UK has previously taken some positive steps in this area, its current commitments fall short of the contribution that we can and should be making as a country.’
The bishops also warn that it is wrong to falsely accuse refugees of posing a threat to the UK and stress that it is important to end such political rhetoric that consistently overstates the scale of Channel crossings creates a false impression that refugees are threat to the UK’s economy, public safety or national security.
The CBCEW’s lead bishop for migrants and refugees, Bishop Paul McAleenan is also quoted in the evidence, saying: “Rhetoric and policies that dehumanise or stigmatise people only serve to fuel hostility and harm our society.”
The bishops also point out that the Catholic Church strongly opposes any use of naval vessels to intercept people trying to cross the Channel and is in firm agreement with the UNCHR and IOM that such a deterrence ‘may result in harmful and fatal incidents’. They bishops instead support calls to ‘increase search and rescue efforts and combat human smuggling and trafficking rings’.
The bishops warn that the Covid-19 pandemic has permanently changed everyday life on a global scale. ‘In this new reality, vulnerable groups such as refugees, migrants and unaccompanied minors are particularly at risk. A potential outbreak of the virus within the extremely overcrowded refugee camps could lead to a disaster,’ they say.
On the humanitarian situation in France and Greece, the bishops also raise concerns on the issue of hygiene and sanitation during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Citing a report from Secours Catholique, the official charitable agency of the Catholic Church in France, they note that ‘there’s only one running water point located in the Dune Zone [the largest camp], while in some camps, they are several kilometres away’. They also point out that rubbish is accumulating and is not collected often enough, which has started to attract rats.
‘The state finances a maximum of 250 showers a day, which is far from enough for 1,200 people in need,’ according to Secours Catholique.
The bishops also raise concerns on the issue of the treatment of migrants and refugees in France and Greece. Citing a report from Calais aid charity Seeking Sanctuary, they reveal that ‘relentless evictions and intimidation tactics in Northern France deter people from wanting to stay and create the conditions that convince them to try and get to the UK at any cost’.
Seeking Sanctuary also point out that ‘apart from resettlement schemes for people of certain nationalities, the only route to making a claim for asylum is to get into the country, even taking increasingly dangerous risks to do this’.
The bishops also express their strong support for the establishment of an ongoing safe route for unaccompanied child refugees without family in the UK, as well as steps to ensure that those with family members in the UK can continue to reunite with them after the end of the Brexit transition agreement.
The bishops state that in order to reduce unsafe Channel crossings or exploitation by traffickers, the new resettlement programme’s scope must include adult and child refugees in European camps, as well as those currently accommodated in developing countries.
Picture: Bishop Paul McAleenan meets charity workers and volunteers helping refugees in Dover. (Mazur/cbcew.org.uk).