It was a privilege to be there on Saturday – to be with several hundred others who were, or had been, or simply cared about the situation of asylum seekers in this country. Since I became involved with supporting and speaking for asylum seekers and refugees – and especially since taking on the chair of the Churches’ Refugee Network – I’ve got used to being made angry and depressed by the political struggle in this country by all the main parties to outflank each other in the hostility they show to those coming to the UK for help. Yes, there was still quite a bit of that. But there was also the inspiration of being together with many others who equally share a better vision of what the UK can be and can do – and a few who had come all the way from the Republic of Ireland as well. And maybe even more, there was the inspiration of those who had survived the system and come out the other side as resolute campaigners for the justice they did not experience.
I’m very glad to be a signatory to the declaration that came out of the day – you can see it here. Do go and see – and think about whether any of the group’s you are part of might sign it too. Not just campaign groups: I hope all sorts of organisations and groups could sign this. The five principles are these:
1. All asylum seekers, refugees and migrants should be treated with dignity and respect.
2. A fair and effective process to decide whether people need protection should be in place.
3. No one should be locked up indefinitely.
4. No one should be left sick or destitute in our society.
5. We should welcome the stranger and help them to integrate.
And in case you’re wondering, no – none of these are presently or fully in place for asylum seekers and refugees in this country. I think we can do better than this, because I believe as a country we are better than this. We need to let our politicians know that that’s what we want.
How much do people have to suffer before we will show mercy on them? Asylum is one of the most precious gifts that we have to offer – a place of safety for those who have nowhere else to go. We live in a country which is safe and wealthy; the vast majority of us believe that we do have an obligation to help those less fortunate than ourselves. But we seem to be drawing ever tighter lines in defining who might deserve our help. Anyone from outside the United Kingdom is no longer our concern.
The government resolutely refuses to answer questions about whether we might offer asylum to Iraqi minority communities who have been driven from their homes to avoid being murdered. Have we now come to the point where political parties cannot dare to offer a safe haven even to people so obviously in need? That would be yet another indictment of the race that Labour and the Conservatives have been conducting for decades, as to who can be the more hostile and intolerant to those who need (not want) to come to this country. Rather say nothing than say anything that might expose yourself to the accusation of ‘being soft’. Even if it means leaving people to die.
I am ashamed to be represented by a government which has so little moral conviction (and the opposition hasn’t demonstrated any more). But what can you expect from a government proclaiming its desire to support families, while refusing visas for elderly parents whose children are prepared to met all the costs of supporting them? Or demanding that people demonstrate a purely arbitrary level of income (it applies regardless of how much their spouse might earn, for instance) before their husband or wife can live with them in the UK?
This is all part of a huge moral cowardice, an inability to stand up for principles of basic human solidarity when they are unpopular. It is all part of the greatest ethical threat facing the United Kingdom, that we become a closed-minded, hard-hearted nation of misers, sitting on our precious freedoms and protecting them from all comers. On the end, it is a way of life which will backfire, because those freedoms will themselves become eroded. It is only when we stand up for those who are different from ourselves that we have any sense of what human dignity means. Without that, we lose our own sense of our own dignity and worth.
Once when I was doing a door-to-door collection for Christian Aid, someone refused to give on the grounds that ‘charity begins at home’. That is not just someone else’s opinion – it is a lie. True charity is love that is poured out to those far from us, those who are different from us. It is love that responds to the need of another human being, not our calculation of our own advantage. Charity comes home when it has drawn us out of ourselves. When will we rediscover that sort of charity as a nation?