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Bishops say government's refugee policy criminalises the Good Samaritan

by Donna Birrell

Twelve Church of England Bishops have written a letter describing the government's approach to refugees crossing the English Channel as a "failure".

The Bishops say they are "deeply concerned" by the Nationality and Borders Bill which is currently before Parliament and they accuse the government of criminalising the "Good Samaritan" by penalising those who take part in the rescue of boats carrying refugees across the Channel.

The Bill would punish attempts to cross the Channel irregularly, with up to four years in prison. It would also require Border Force officials to push back refugee boats rather than rescuing them. 

The Bishop of Manchester, the Right Reverend David Walker told Premier why he chose to put his name to the letter:

"I was really alarmed at the suggestion that if somebody is adrift in the sea, that their life is at risk, that it will become a criminal offence to give them assistance so it flies right in the face of that maritime law of Christian moral principles.

"If you see somebody who's in danger, who's at risk, then you will lend a helping hand. If we go to the Bible story, the Good Samaritan - it's exactly the same situation we've got here - potentially a law being put into place that would criminalise good behaviour, criminalise assisting another human being and Jesus doesn't seem to be equivocal at all about that. He's pretty definite about what the duty is, and when he says the greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbours, ourselves and the neighbour's the person who is in need, the Samaritan helps out and how can it possibly become criminal to help somebody who's potentially going to drown?

"Even in the theatre of war, doctors and nurses have a duty to assist captured enemy prisoners, if they're injured. You help out other human beings in the heart of the gospel."

Record numbers of refugees have crossed the Channel in small boats since the beginning of the year - 800 arrived on just one day in August. Bishop David says that the government needs to re-think its whole response as he says it is "not fit for purpose." 

"There should be ways to process people on the other side of the channel or even earlier, before they get into the hands of the criminal gangs. I mean, what laws attempting to criminalise have done, they simply incentivise the criminal gangs who traffic people. If this is a policy that's meant to deter those who don't have a legitimate case for seeking asylum in this country, then it really isn't working with a system that's fit for the 21st century."

Bishop David says Christians can make a difference by praying for all who are displaced:

"We already see the way in which churches around the country have supported refugees and asylum seekers over the years, we've seen it most recently, of course, with the people who have been arriving from Afghanistan.

"It's a case of keeping up those efforts, which are often done inter-denominationally. And we pray for all who are in danger, pray that people will be safe in their own countries. But then for those who are not safe in their own countries, that they will find a safe haven where they can live with the dignity that every human being made in God's image should have. And that's what I will be praying for and encourage others to pray for too."

The Bishops' letter in full :

"As bishops within the Church of England with a particular oversight of asylum and refugee issues, we are deeply concerned about the government's approach to migrant crossings of the Channel.

The nationality and borders bill currently before parliament would criminalise not only attempts to cross the border irregularly, nor even simply people smuggling, but even those who take part in the rescue of boats in distress at sea.

This would require those who see asylum seekers at risk to choose between ignoring a moral imperative (also established in maritime law) to assist them, or to risk prosecution and imprisonment. This amounts to a criminalisation of the Good Samaritan who did not pass by on the other side, and an affront to justice to put the saving of lives under any sort of legal penalty. The new "turn back" policy, which will see boats forcibly returned to France, also raises significant moral concerns. It starkly increases the risks at sea and endangers the lives of those attempting the crossing.

The trend of increasing militarisation and securitisation of the border is demonstrably failing to deter attempted channel crossings (as the stark increases in such numbers over the past 24 months aptly shows). What these measures have succeeded in doing instead is forcing those seeking to make the crossing to employ ever riskier and more dangerous tactics or to rely more heavily on criminal gangs and smugglers. The proposals are not so much undermining criminal activity as reinforcing it as the only available option for those seeking asylum in the UK.

If the government's goal is to deter migrants, then the policies to date have been a failure, and there is little reason to believe the new proposals will have more effect. If the goal is to prevent people using criminal gangs, then the problem has only been exacerbated. All the while the crossings are still happening and are actively being made more dangerous, at greater cost in human life, by the government's own policies. It is time for a reappraisal which looks again at serious multilateral approaches to refugees, which promotes safe routes for those in need, and which above all values human life and the dignity of vulnerable people.
Rt Revd Paul Butler Bishop of Durham
Rt Revd David Walker Bishop of Manchester
Rt Revd Jonathan Clark Bishop of Croydon
Rt Revd John Perumbalath Bishop of Bradwell
Rt Revd Sarah Mullally Bishop of London
Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin Bishop of Dover
Rt Revd Rachel Treweek Bishop of Gloucester
Rt Revd Christopher Chessun Bishop of Southwark
Rt Revd Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani Bishop of Chelmsford
Rt Revd Tony Robinson Bishop of Wakefield
Rt Revd Vivienne Faull Bishop of Bristol
Rt Revd David Hamid Suffragan Bishop in Europe "


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