Election briefing: Change the language on immigration to one of dignity and respect

Migrants crossing English channel
Image credit: Sandor Csudai CCLicense4.0

By Lianne Kolirin

Voters’ religious identity has an impact on how they regard immigration, a discussion about party political policies has found.

The debate, hosted by the Religion Media Centre, was the second in a series of briefings focusing on how religion was part of the overall general election story. Representatives of faith groups and community bodies participated in the online discussion about migration —legal and illegal — the attitudes of various political parties towards it, and how faith groups were affected and responding to the situation.

The electorate regards immigration as a “priority issue”, according to Paul Bickley, head of political engagement at the Theos think tank.

He said data from Theos showed that the British public were “not overly positive about asylum seekers” and on the whole were “looking for a reduction in numbers”.

Faith definitely appeared to influence people’s positions, he said. “When we look at that [the public’s attitude to asylum seekers] by religious groups, we find that even though the British public is cold overall, that some religious groups are even colder than that.”

He described “non-practising Anglicans” as “the coldest religious group” and pointed out the “very strong practice effect”. “So if somebody is regularly practising their faith, they’re more likely to be open to higher levels of asylum seekers,” he said. “But even in the Anglican group there, it’s still below the national average.”

Practising Roman Catholics were more open to asylum seekers, Mr Bickley said. But the most open group overall were Muslims.

Krish Kandiah, founder of the Sanctuary Foundation, which supports refugees in the UK, said he found this tendency among Christians “very depressing”, adding that such hostility was “about as far away from the heart of the Christian faith as you can get”. The two most important commandments were to “love God and love thy neighbour”.

“And who is your neighbour?” he asked. “Anybody that’s in need.”

The discussion proved the debate is highly complex and often divisive. Nevertheless, there was one area upon which several speakers were firmly united: opposition to the government’s Rwanda bill.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to plough on with his deportation plan, though he has been forced to admit that no planes will take off for east Africa before the general election on 4 July. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP have pledged to scrap the Rwanda scheme.

Dr Kandiah said he was “particularly concerned” about the scheme, which he described as “immoral … unlawful, unworkable and uneconomically viable”.

He was “very disappointed” that the Conservatives were pushing ahead with the policy, but pleased Labour had committed to ending it and “really pursuing the bad guys in all of this — the villains in the whole scheme are the people that are smuggling people”.

Zara Mohammed, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, described the Tory policy as “deeply troubling”, and said her organisation had called for it to be scrapped.

“This is an immigration election”, she said, and the language, rhetoric and hostility towards refugee communities were challenging, for Muslim communities in particular.

There was no debate in the election campaign on refugees with skills, who have dignity and respect but are still in hotels. And there were concerns about the way the media addressed the topic, reporting talk of locking borders, or being invaded.

In future, a partnership between civic society and faith communities was criticial to changing the narrative, alongside providing safe and legal routes to this country and allowing people who want to work to contribute.

But she knew that there were many people willing to help: “The UK is a place of sanctuary, and faith communities play a remarkable role in providing that”, she said.

Liam Allmark of the Jesuit Refugee Service quoted the Pope: “Francis has said that refugees aren’t pawns on the chessboard of humanity — they’re men, they’re women, they’re children.” His organisation had “come to know the people we serve as friends” and that the election was an opportunity to convey that to politicians.

“Do we want a country where refugees are treated as pawns, shipped off to Rwanda, locked in detention, denied the chance to contribute to society?” he asked. “Or do we want a country that recognises refugees as people — equal to any other person made in the image of God — and a country that’s proud to welcome people and gives them a chance to participate in our society?”

Asylum seekers, Dr Kandiah said, made up less than 5 per cent of net migration, yet they had all the attention. It was important to differentiate between legal and illegal migration and there was a bigger question as to what levels of migration were appropriate.

“We’re seeing billions of pounds of investment coming into our education system because of international students. I want to challenge the wider anti-migration narrative that’s out there.”

Sebastian Milbank, executive editor of The Critic magazine, said central to the tensions was “a question of winning consent”. The process of welcoming refugees from the war in Ukraine, he said, was “well executed” because “that was well planned for… we knew where people were going. We knew how they would be supported. There was a clear perception that those involved were genuine refugees … people understood clearly what the people involved were facing.”

In contrast, there were the illegal migrants who arrived across the Channel in small boats. “One of the reasons the small boats issue has received such disproportionate attention is because it feels uncontrolled,” he said. “Where it’s uncontrolled, even at a very small level, you can create huge resistance and resentment.”

To avoid that, he said, “you have to create confidence that we can control our borders, confidence that crime will be policed equally and fairly”.

Dr Kandiah said the way to stop the small boats crisis is to “smash the gangs” who brought the migrants. How this could be done was not clear, but investing in countries where migrants were leaving from might be part of the solution.

Earlier, he suggested that both Conservatives and Labour believed immigration was “too high”, adding: “That aligns them with the Reform Party. So there is a kind of mood music that the general public are worried about immigration.”

Ian Paul, associate minister at St Nicholas Church, Nottingham, and member of the Archbishop’s Council, remarked that “there seems to be among certain Christian groups a tendency to say that any concerns about migration are far right”.

“That’s really skewing the whole debate,” Dr Paul said. In Europe, protection of jobs from uncontrolled immigration used to be a left-wing concern, but was now labelled far right.

Questioning coherent policy around this issue, he asked how government could have a policy of allowing high legal immigration, while not providing the infrastructure. “Have we built 20 per cent more houses? No. Have we built 20 per cent more hospitals? No, have we opened 20 per cent more schools? No, we haven’t.”

Mr Allmark said it was vital to look beyond the figures and the headlines. “Look at the human behind this debate,” he said. “I would ask people to put themselves in that position, to think about what our shared values are. We want to provide welcome and safety to people. We want to give people the right to work and to contribute to our society, and we want to treat everyone with dignity.”


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