A guest post from Rev’d Martin Kettle. Martin is a policy advisor to the Church of England. He writes in a personal capacity.
Christians do not want a hostile environment. We want to love everyone. That means we want to love illegal immigrants. We DO love illegal immigrants.
Because we love them, we don’t call them immigrants, because we don’t like using nouns as labels to stick on people’s foreheads. This person came into the UK at the age of 4 with their family, is now 21 and is now in a detention centre pending removal. Is this prison an immigrant? Someone else has been here since the 1960s, having come from Jamaica: for sure they migrated, but that doesn’t make them less British than anyone else. And of course, ‘immigrant’ is very often racist code for someone who seems to belong to a visually identifiable category of people many of whom have come to the UK in the last 50 years.
Because we love this person, we don’t call her ‘illegal’. No one is illegal – that is, no one exists illegally. In some places it has been illegal for black and white people to make love. So dual-heritage people were in that context illegal, in exactly the same sense that ‘immigrants’ may be ‘illegal’ today. No one exists illegally, anywhere, ever. God’s favour rests on each single one. Worse still, of course, is turning the adjective into a noun, ‘illegals’.
A hostile environment begins with what is politely known as ‘othering’. The oldest profession, in politics, is the uniting of the people against a common foe. If a real foe does not exist, it becomes necessary for one to be invented. Internal enemies, as in the human body, are the most potent. How we, with absolute rightness, boil and rage against anti-Semitism and all racisms, which slam the label of enemy on a group of fellow-citizens.
A government minister last week said ‘there should be a hostile environment for people who have no lawful right to be here’. The vision seems to be that those unlawful people experience a hostile environment, while everyone around them does not. This is the stuff of sci-fi. An environment is an environment. If, say, it is overcast, that is an environmental phenomenon. There are never small clouds localised over the heads of specific individuals who are marked out as potential targets of imminent precipitation.
There is enough evidence, already, that the measures which Parliament has incrementally approved in pursuit of this hostile environment are constructing an environment for everyone which is markedly nastier. As with all incremental growth of state-sponsored intolerance, the process proceeds step by step and with the drawing in of groups of people to take on, like it or not, something of the demeanour of an enforcer. People working in banks, the DVLA, doctor’s surgeries and hospitals, in NHS IT, in education. Nearly 2 million private landlords, and employers. At the same time, access to justice for the individual has been progressively curtailed by severe restrictions on legal aid and the reduction of appeal rights.
It would not be difficult to set up proper research projects to test the impacts of all this. That really is not happening.
As a nation, we are concerned about integration, about social cohesion. Dame Louise Casey’s report two years ago pointed out the risks to national well-being of having divided communities. There are consultations going on now about the issues. This is a fabulous opportunity for Christians to speak of the common good, to reach for those organic metaphors about community unity with which the New Testament is liberally stuffed. It simply is not possible, either in logic or in the real world, to talk about Britain both in this way and in terms of a hostile environment.
The latest move is to speak not of a hostile environment but of a ‘compliance environment’. To be sure, a clipboard is a less alarming thing than a lynch-mob. Nevertheless, the world of Kafka is as dystopian as any vision of violent enforcement. Compliance or hostility, it still comes down to the fear of a knock on the door. ‘Your papers do not appear to be in order’ is one of the more chilling stock phrases of social drama.
Where do Christians go with this? As ever, to the divine dignity of the human person, and the divine callings of human society. Everyone is fearfully and wonderfully made, whatever label is branded on their brow. Communities have a vocation to hear, welcome and celebrate each and all.
The big point is: none of this is incompatible with people being responsible for their actions, and being held responsible. For all but an out-and-out no-borders internationalist, of whom there are rather few, it may be right that a particular person who has entered the UK illegally should be removed from the UK. It is not necessary to pillory and execrate that person in the process.
If we only realised this we could save the country a lot of money and close most of the immigration detention centres, without going soft in any way on illegal behaviour. Local communities can, with the right information and resourcing, support and hold people, treating them on equal terms as mature and accountable adults.
Our representatives in Parliament are very keen, to their credit, on the resettlement of vulnerable and traumatised refugees in local communities. Various schemes are growing, and the more local civil society is vitally engaged in the resettlement process, the better the outcomes and the value for money. Faith groups are prominent in nearly all of this.
Exactly the same community dynamics can enrich the way in which as a nation we respond to people whose right to be in the UK is in doubt. There are examples in a number of countries around the world, which have been rigorously researched by the International Detention Coalition. Places where people’s lives, including family life, are not just put into a damaging state of stasis while the process grinds on, but where they can work and volunteer and study and contribute and pay taxes and generally be human while their cases move towards a determination.
This has been about immigration. Not primarily about those who seek asylum, ask for protection as refugees for whom return would be impossible or dangerous. But wherever you try to draw distinctions between good and bad migrants, true and false asylum seekers, economic migrants and refugees, you will find uncomfortably broad overlaps and borderlands, grey areas which, for the people who live in them, can be very grey indeed.
Our government, our Parliament, our people, are not ogres. There are so many in the Home Office, in every place, trying to do the best job in a humane manner. Often there are open doors to engagement: for example in the weighing of asylum claims resting on the profession of Christian faith, where church representatives have long striven to contribute to informed and rational casework processes, with some success especially at the present time. But the thread of Christian values running through our country’s self-identity has a real and practical role in national discourse about immigration, one that is readily shared among those of other faiths and none. It is not about hostility and its close relation, hate. It is about community and its personal correlate, love.