Quakers say: Starmer must keep promise to block ‘cruel’ Rwanda plan

Quakers in Colchester. Image credit: John Hall CCLicense2.0

By Lianne Kolirin

Immigration has long been a hot political issue and now, with only weeks to go until the general election, it remains at the top of the agenda.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to plough on with his Rwanda deportation plan, though he has been forced to admit that no planes will take off for the east African country before the nation decides on his political future on 4 July.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has promised to scrap the deal if he comes to power.

Should he emerge victorious — which the polls widely predict — there’s one group who will be particularly driven to hold him to his word: Britain’s Quakers.

In late April the Quaker movement joined 250 others in writing to Sunak to express their outrage at the passage of the Safety of Rwanda Act. Signatories of the open letter wrote: “This is a shameful and performatively cruel law that will risk people’s lives and betray who we are as a society.”

The Quakers, who number about 20,000 in the UK today and 400,000 globally across 87 countries, are known for campaigning and social activism, with issues like climate change and pacifism being of particular importance.

Of particular significance is the issue of migrants and refugees, which is why the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network (QARN) exists. It was set up in 2006 with the aim of working to change “the way that refugees and asylum seekers (whether recognised under UN Convention on the status of refugees or not) are treated, to ensure that justice and compassion are the guiding principles”.

The issue is a global one, of course, and as such is key to the friends — as Quakers are referred to — around the globe.

In Brussels, the Quaker Council for European Affairs seeks to “build support for humane, non-military policies at the EU level, both inside and outside its borders”. In the coming weeks it will be running an online course, together with Woodbrooke, an international Quaker learning and research organisation based in Britain, on migration and peace in Europe.

Dedication to the cause stems from the Quakers’ conviction that God resides in everyone, so people seeking sanctuary should be welcomed.

In December 2020, the global movement issued A Quaker Statement on Migration, which declared: “Rooted in our belief that there is that of the sacred in everyone, our spiritual leading to uphold the inherent value and agency of every human being, and our commitment to building a world without violence, we are heartbroken by migration policy that dehumanises some members of our human family on the basis of where they come from.”

Among other things, the statement adds: “We are committed to working for a world where dignity and rights are upheld regardless of migration status and not on the basis of citizenship or perceived deservedness. Our faith calls us to work alone and with others for migration justice.”

Friends put their belief into practice in a variety of different ways, such as: hosting people in their homes, providing legal support, teaching English, visiting detention centres and campaigning for safer migration routes into Europe.

Marian McNichol, a member of QARN’s steering group, explained to the Religion Media Centre her personal connection to the cause. “My mother is Irish and came to England as a young woman,” she said. “So, in a sense, she was a stranger in a strange land.

“I saw that play out all during her life — how she would relax as soon as she heard an Irish voice in positions of authority … And my parents were both always very sympathetic [to other migrants].

“We had Ugandan Asians living next door to us when they came over in 1972 and my parents were incredibly supportive of the family and angry at the way they’d been treated, angry at the way services were offered to them. I was brought up with all of that.”

There are many other personal motivating stories but there is an overarching link that hails back to the 1930s. The Quakers were instrumental in rescuing hundreds of Jewish children from the threat posed by the Nazis before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Quakers, Ms McNichol said, were involved in the Kindertransport of the 1930s and helped many children come out from Germany. Some of those children were rehomed by Quaker families; others went on to join the movement themselves.

“Because we don’t ever ask for a creedal statement from people — you never have to say what you believe — we have people who come from other traditions. They’ll maintain their Anglican tradition, their Jewish tradition, but they’ll also see themselves as part of Quakers.

“So, we have Jewish people who are part of Quakers as well, and I think that’s helped as far as responses to refugee issues as well.”

Quakers would never get involved in political grandstanding, preferring instead to stick to “quiet diplomacy”, Ms McNichol said. Like any other faith group, members come from across the political spectrum and the movement is not party political. However, it has a public engagement officer who has been meeting with party representatives to raise and reiterate some of the faith’s concerns — including migration.

The practical work that QARN does is wide-ranging and involves co-operating with many other groups already working in the field. “One of the ways that we try to work is by building alliances, so we’re not reinventing the wheel,” Ms McNichol said. “We offer a Quaker perspective on existing structures and help them rather than doing everything ourselves.”

Examples of this include individuals volunteering as trustees on refugee charities, hosting a venue for refugee support or cooking meals for families in need. Action takes many different forms, with friendships often emerging from these initiatives that see adherents stepping outside of their daily lives to do their bit and really make a difference.

“Because we’re a pacifist church and faith group, we’re used to being outsiders of the mainstream,” Ms McNichol added. “I think that makes it easier for us to do things, to think of a stance that fits with our values and not be as anxious as other people might be about stepping away from the mainstream.”


Join our Newsletter