people-traffickers welby asylum rwanda
Immigration

How does facilitating people-traffickers reflect the nature of God?

The Home Secretary’s announcement that the thousands of asylum seekers (or economic migrants) crossing the Channel in an endless stream of dinghies (246,190 last year) are to be sent to Rwanda for processing has been a cause of consternation. The policy raises all manner of ethical questions, not least being the morality of flying hundreds of vulnerable people to a strange and far off land in Africa so soon after making the perilous and life-threatening journey from France to England; or of potentially splitting up families, or of subjecting them to an alien justice system whose notions of fairness may not deal with them equitably. It’s hardly welcoming the stranger with Christian hospitality, is it?

The Archbishop of Canterbury condemned the policy unequivocally, not to say intemperately, in his Easter sermon:

And this season is also why there are such serious ethical questions about sending asylum seekers overseas. The details are for politics and politicians. The principle must stand the judgement of God and it cannot. It cannot carry the weight of resurrection justice, of life conquering death. It cannot carry the weight of the resurrection that was first to the least valued, for it privileges the rich and strong. And it cannot carry the weight of our national responsibility as a country formed by Christian values, because sub-contracting out our responsibilities, even to a country that seeks to do well like Rwanda, is the opposite of the nature of God who himself took responsibility for our failures.

If a political policy is the opposite of the nature of God, it is evil. If it cannot stand the judgement of God, it is sin. The Archbishop has effectively accused Priti Patel of being anti-Christian in her policy-making, a statement which might itself be considered crudely partisan, if not the opposite of the nature of God, given his failure to recognise that her concern with the public good is every bit as genuine as his, and that she desires to seek and effect policy which is compassionate and conservative, if not Christian and moral.

To date, 52 people have died trying to cross the Channel from France to make a new life in the land that flows with milk and honey (hotel accommodation and a cash allowance). The people traffickers don’t care much about the odd fatality: their business model is sound, netting them between £3,000-£6,000 for each crossing. Multiply that by a quarter of a million a year, and you arrive the real root of the evil.

But the Archbishop of Canterbury doesn’t address this. “The details are for politics and politicians,” he says, washing his hands of any further responsibility. Nor does he address the awkward reality that these young men (as 90% are) aren’t fleeing war zones or poverty or persecution, but they are choosing the UK over France, which may flow more with Champagne and garlic than with milk and honey, but it is hardly a place of terror and desperation. What is the moral obligation on UK taxpayers to take in hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from France?

Nor does he address (and no bishop ever does) the awkward logic of the demand for more ‘safe routes’ (out of France) amounts to an open-door policy on immigration (from seemingly anywhere in the world). There are some 500 million people living in extreme poverty in the world. More than 80 million have been displaced by wars and conflict. 426 million children are living in the shadow of terror. Millions more are persecuted for the faith, belief or sexuality. How many of these should the UK welcome? If the answer is all who make it to these shores, how do we pay for them when the country is some £2 trillion in debt, and running an annual deficit of £128 billion? If the number is to be capped, how do you then stem the flow? Should illegal immigrants be removed? Should foreign criminals be deported?

If you ask Justin Welby (or any bishop) what the limit on immigration should be, the response is never as forthright and clear as the view expressed in the Archbishop’s Easter sermon. If you ask him if immigration should be reduced, he will not say: ‘Yes, because the concentration of immigrants in some areas is creating social problems and racial tensions, arising from a clash of sharply differing cultures.’ To say this would be deemed racist, and so it would not stand the judgement of God. It would not carry the weight of resurrection justice. It would be the opposite of the nature of God.

And that is the problem when ‘the Church’ condemns the Government in such terms, without giving due weight to the considerations on the other side. Being able to speak truth to power is a privilege which should not be abused, because when trust and respect are lost, ‘the Church’ loses its greatest value in secular public affairs. If a minister wants a wise, disinterested, sensible view on a matter of public policy, don’t expect measured words from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The current cost of housing Channel migrants in hotel accommodation is almost £2 billion a year. This is set to increase as the people-traffickers are enjoying something of a boom: all the dinghies have to do is make it half way across the Channel, and the Coast Guard will facilitate their safe passage to the shores of Kent. That’s an attractive marketing tool and a unique selling point.

What is less attractive for the clients of people-traffickers is the prospect of immediate relocation to Rwanda. Given the choice between Calais or Kigali, a migrant from Iran might just choose to remain where he is, and so the people-traffickers’ business model is destroyed by an effective deterrent. Certainly, it isn’t theologically pure or perfectly righteous, but theology ceases to be theology when it meets the worldly business of politics. And if a policy is saving lives, doesn’t that reflect something of the nature of God, however imperfectly and darkly?

Ah, you may say (or the Archbishop may judge), the motive is not to save lives, but to ‘other’ the destitute and vulnerable; to palm off (or ‘sub-contract’, as the Archbishop may say), our national responsibility. And this is when the Church of England (‘the Church’) is seen to judge in a crude, partisan way, and perpetuate its essential antithetical disposition toward Conservatism. Because Tony Blair proposed (and was actively negotiating) a similar policy for a migrants camp in Tanzania back in 2004. There are key variables, of course, but the Archbishop’s central allegation against the Conservatives is that of “sub-contracting out our responsibilities”. If it is evil to deal with migrants in Rwanda, why did ‘the Church’ not object to processing them in Tanzania?

And the Archbishop’s beloved European Union funded the UN to send migrants to Rwanda in 2019. We read: “This is not new to the EU, which is now used to trading away political capital and moral high ground for deals that keep migrants away from its shores.”

There is no record of Justin Welby (or ‘the Church’) condemning the European Union for “sub-contracting out its responsibilities”, or of acting opposite to the nature of God.

Ah, you may say (or the Archbishop may respond), this is just lazy whataboutery: we are dealing here with this specific policy forged by this Home Secretary in this Government under this Prime Minister; not with historic Labour or Blair or the European Union.

And this policy is evil.

Like zero-hours contracts, Brexit, and voting for Donald Trump.

And, historically, like closing coal mines, installing Cruise and Pershing missiles on Greenham Common, and introducing the ‘Poll Tax’. The Church has something of a history of damning Tory reforms, but no Archbishop has clashed so directly with the government since Dr Runcie denounced Mrs Thatcher. Yet even as he railed against the selfishness, irresponsibility, materialism and individualism of her era, he never went so far as to accuse her of doing evil in God’s sight, principally because he understood that industrial policy, peace-making and fiscal minutiae may be apprehended with variable morality. Being concerned with the moral and spiritual health of the nation, he never failed to tell her candidly what he thought, but he recognised absolutely that public theology is no substitute for democratic policy; and that a voice rooted in religious life and values has a contribution to make to the political realm, but in an age of increasing secularity, pluralism and Church decline, that role is limited.

Archbishop Runcie also understood that the crude positioning of the Church of England with either left-wing policy or right-wing policy was antithetical, if not destructive to its essential national mission and pastoral vocation. Many Anglican expressions of politics may be sanctified socialism, but greater spiritual truth is only attained when that worldview clashes with sanctified conservatism and sanctified liberalism. To denounce any of the social policies emanating from these philosophies as being “opposite to the nature of God” is to invite those whose sense of Christian morality accommodates such policies to hold a mirror up to the Archbishop’s face and say, “Show me in Scripture where your Church policies are consistent with the nature of God.”

And we end up with a dialogue of the deaf: a perpetual manichæan stalemate perched between good and evil, between light and darkness, totally incapable of compromise, devoid of nuance, and intolerant of ambiguity; and where the good side forever accuses the other of evil, while blinded to its own private dance with the devil.

“A hint of a viable policy to help solve the evil of the rich and powerful people-traffickers abusing vulnerable migrants would help,” the Home Secretary says to the Archbishop.

“The details are for politics and politicians,” he responds.