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16 June, 2022

A Biblical Framework for Treating Refugees

A Biblical Framework for Treating Refugees

In advance of Refugee Week (20-26th June), Jubilee+ director Andy McWilliams recalls the week that the offshoring policy was announced, and reactions from - among others - the Archbishop of Canterbury. Since this article was written the policy has evoked similar responses, most recently from Bishops in the Church of England (see article in the Times here).


As the events of late April unfolded, I was reminded of wise advice from the writer of Ecclesiastes. Indeed sound leadership could be defined as the difference between knowing when to speak, and when to stay silent (Ecc. 3:7).

It was at this time that a Christian leader declared a government policy to be ‘against the judgement of God’ and the ‘opposite of the nature of God’. The leader in question was the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the proposed policy: the offshore processing of UK asylum seekers in Rwanda.

The time to speak is now.

To quote Nelson Mandela, ‘A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones’. That statement captures the essence of large swathes of the Bible. Mandela speaks of ‘citizens’, and of course that is precisely a status that asylum seekers aspire to, but do not have. However, the Bible is clear:

‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not ill-treat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were once foreigners in Egypt.’ (Leviticus 19:33-34)

At the very least this verse requires that we are called to treat asylum seekers with dignity and compassion. People do not take lightly the decision to travel long distances, at high risk to their safety, indeed their lives. Their reasons for doing so need to be heard and considered on our doorstep, and this act of humanity cannot be outsourced. In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus teaches us to love our neighbour, even when our neighbour is from an alien, and possibly antagonistic, culture. We love them by showing compassion, treating them with dignity, and addressing their immediate needs.

To seek asylum is an internationally accepted human right (UDHR Article 14). The 1951 Refugee Convention places a legal responsibility on signatory nations to give consideration on a person-by-person basis to the claims of an asylum seeker, according to the parameters embedded in that Convention. In practice, a nation has to put a limit on the number of claims it can consider, (largely so that applicants are not kept in a state of flux for an extended period). But rich, developed, democracies must surely accept their fair share of the overall responsibility.

Moreover the attitude towards asylum seekers must be one of welcome and support: we must not treat these people as criminals by default. Our legal system is rightly founded on the principle that a person is innocent until found guilty. We must treat asylum seekers with a presumption of innocence (which is not to deny the need for some checks sensibly applied). Again, the Refugee Convention states that it is a human right to seek asylum. Therefore it cannot be considered illegal. It is unfortunate, though probably unavoidable, that an asylum seeker must present themselves at the border as an ‘illegal’ - i.e. someone lacking appropriate entry papers - but we cannot equate this with ‘crime’. Surely it should be possible, and virtually instant, to grant someone legal entry to the country as a registered asylum seeker. Any ‘illegal’ status should be so transitory as to be irrelevant. They must not routinely be described as ‘illegal’ (see Lord Kerr’s speech on the criminalisation of those making dangerous channel crossings).

Article 14 of the Refugee Convention prevents nations from returning or deporting refugees to nations which (for various specified reasons) are judged to be unsafe for them. Whilst this is not completely equivalent to the UK Government’s proposal to ‘offshore’ asylum seekers, there is strong similarity of principle (understandably, the Refugee Convention did not anticipate such a scheme). It appears that the UK Government’s proposal is that not only are asylum seekers given a one-way ticket to Rwanda, but thereafter the responsibility for their treatment is transferred to Rwanda. UK tax payers will be funding a system which we have abandoned moral responsibility for, and denying people the benefit of living in the UK (which is their desire), without consideration.

There is of course another big question to be asked: why Rwanda? It has a reasonably recent history of genocide, and a patchy record on human rights. It has twice the population density of the UK, but its GDP per capita is just $850 – a little over $2 a day. The equivalent UK figure is $46,200. That’s a factor of 50 greater.

Much of UK culture is rightly aimed at protecting the rights and the well-being of minorities who are oppressed or disadvantaged for some reason. Our culture is supposed to be one of inclusion – a principle that finds its origin in our Christian heritage as a nation. Now is a time to speak, and we at Jubilee+ want to add our voice in opposition to a government policy that fails to recognise, respect and support the most vulnerable.

Written by Andy McWilliam, Jubilee+

16 June, 2022

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