French policemen stand beside a dinghy lying on the beach after migrants tried to reach Britain French policemen stand beside a dinghy lying on the beach after migrants tried to reach Britain 

Bishops call for safe access of migrants to UK

In a new publication titled ‘Love the Stranger’, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) offers a list of 24 principles for immigration policies based on “the innate worth of each human person.”

By Lisa Zengarini

As debate continues in Britain over proposed legislation to prevent migrants from crossing the English Channel, and banning them from entering the UK in the future, the Bishops of England and Wales have called on policy makers to uphold the human dignity of migrants and refugees.

24 principles for immigration policies

Any immigration policy should be based on “the innate worth of each human person”, the bishops write in a new publication.

The document, prepared by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference’s (CBCEW) Department for International Affairs, articulates the Christian duty to see the person who has left their homeland in search of a better life, offering a list of 24 principles based on the Catholic Social Teachings and Popes’ Magisterium that should guide any immigration policy.

Entitled “Love the Stranger”, the document was issued on Tuesday, 14 March, a few days after British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak introduced the Illegal Migration Bill which, according to the proponents, aims to discourage migrants from crossing the Channel on small unsafe boats to reach the UK, and in doing so break up the human traffickers’ business model.

The measure, however, has raised ethical and legal questions regarding its compliance with international law, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, the Refugee Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Global Compact on Refugees, and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

According to the bishops of England and Wales, “Nationalist or individualistic tendencies should not be allowed to prevent us seeing humanity as a single family.”

Migrants and refugees are people, not statistics

“Our starting point as a society must be to recognize migrants and refugees as people. We need to understand their stories, their reasons for leaving their homelands and hopes for building a future here,” said Bishop Paul McAleenan, CBCEW Lead Bishop for Migrants and Refugees. 

“People are driven to leave their countries, sometimes making dangerous journeys or risking exploitation, because of conflict, poverty, oppression, or lack of opportunities,” he said. “Looking beyond our own borders, we have a duty to help people flourish in their homelands, as well as welcoming those who leave in search of a better life,” the bishop added.

Right to migrate and right to control national borders

‘Love the Stranger’ emphasizes people’s right to migrate, though acknowledging a state’s right to control its own borders. However, the document points out that these measures should be limited “to circumstances in which they are clearly required to protect the receiving community” and that “controls on migration should be exercised with compassion, giving special attention to people who need to leave their country in order to flourish and live in dignity.”

“We recognise that states have a right to control their borders; however, such measures cannot be based on economic factors alone; states have a responsibility to promote the common good of the people within their boundaries, but they also have obligations to the wider world”

Catholic Social Teaching on migration

In welcoming the publication, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, the President of the Bishops’ Conference, explained that ‘Love the Stranger’ draws together more than one hundred years of Catholic Social Teaching to guide the response to migration in the country. “While it does not propose detailed solutions to complex problems, it clearly calls for procedures which permit safe and controlled access and a fair hearing to those seeking asylum. Present arrangements in this country are dramatically lacking in both of these requirements,” the English Cardinal said.

The UK has seen a dramatic increase of people arriving in small unsafe boats, having paid criminal gangs of human traffickers to get them into Britain. Many come from war-torn and authoritarian countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan or Syria. In 2022 alone nearly 46,000 migrants reached the British shores irregularly and several died.

Need to extend safe routes for asylum seekers

To prevent these tragedies, ‘Love the Stranger’, calls for “the extension of safe routes such as resettlement programmes, visa schemes and humanitarian corridors, so that people can exercise their right to migrate in a dignified and humane manner”.

The bishops argue that not only would such routes mean migrants would not have to risk their lives at sea, but safe routes would lessen the amount of human trafficking and modern slavery, which “are exacerbated by a lack of accessible alternatives for migration or seeking sanctuary.”

The sanctity of life to be prioritized in migration policies

Morever, ‘Love the Stranger’ calls for the sanctity of life to be prioritized in all border immigration arrangements and reject measures that unnecessarily place people in danger or deny reasonable assistance to those in need; for the government to avoid the use of immigration detention, arbitrary expulsion and other practices which violate human dignity; and for the fulfilment of international obligations protecting migrants and refugees.

“Catholic social teaching recognizes the dilemmas that governments face but emphasizes that the dignity of each and every human person must come first,” the document says.

Welcome vs xenophobia

The bishops also warn against exploiting local communities’  concerns over immigration for political gain.  

“We must not allow the concerns that some communities might have about migration to be exploited for political purposes or allow such concerns to develop into a xenophobic attitude; Christian communities must play their part in providing a genuine welcome to migrants and refugees”

‘Love the Stranger’ has been welcomed, amongst others, by the Vatican and the European Bishops' Conference  as an important step forward towards the promotion and protection of migrants.

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Vatican and COMECE endorsement to the document

According to Father Fabio Baggio, the Undersecretary of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, “The text promotes an authentic culture of encounter at all levels and among all the actors involved”.

“As we live in times in which the defence of the dignity of each human person may seem under threat, ‘Love the Stranger’ invites us to not give up on the opportunity to live our catholicity ever more fully, to build more just and equal societies for the benefit of each and every person, and to be open to the contribution that strangers can offer as we care for their integral human development and ours,” he said.

For his part, Father Manuel Barrios Prieto, the Secretary General of the Commission of Catholic Episcopal Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), said the publication “is a timely reference and guidance in our polarised European societies. It offers sound orientations on migration and asylum not only for Catholics, but for any person of good who considers human dignity as the basis for a harmonious social coexistence."

“‘Love the Stranger’ is not a mere compilation of principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church on the matter, but a reflection on how these principles should be applied to the current challenges faced by our states and societies.”

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15 March 2023, 14:38