Showing Hospitality to Angels

Refugee Camp Calais

Rt Revd Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani is the Bishop of Chelmsford who recently took her seat in the House of Lords. Last week she spoke to the second reading of the Nationality and Borders  Bill. It was just over 1 year since the body of eighteen month Artin washed up on the shores of Norway. He and his family drowned in the English Channel on the previous 27th October as they tried to make their 3rd attempt of crossing from Calais to Dover. Over one year later, as Bishop Guli spoke from the heart, people like Artin are still dying and are neglected. Bishop Guli’s words need heeding.

Bishop of Chelmsford’s Speech to the House of Lords during the second reading of the Nationality and Borders Bill

 It’s a privilege to have been part of the debate and I look forward to following this Bill through and benefiting from the collective wisdom here.

I believe I’m one of relatively few in this House who have experience of both sides of the asylum and refugee system, having first come to this country as a refugee from Iran in 1980. The plight of those fleeing violence and persecution and the difficulties in navigating identity and finding a new home are not abstract or intellectual propositions for me, but part of who I am. And it’s with that perspective that I offer some thoughts now.

Often, I see asylum seekers presented either as victims, who require help but have no agency, or as chancers, seeking to abuse generosity – criminals, even. Neither approach is helpful. How different discussions might be if we reframed the debate in terms of the best way to work with potential future citizens, neighbours and friends. Not every asylum seeker will meet the criteria for being a refugee. But many will, and they’ll become part of our nation and community. How we treat them in the process has consequences for the sort of society we’re creating – the kind of nation we want to be.

We’ve heard it said repeatedly that citizenship is a privilege not a right. I dispute the binary nature of the claim, but I agree that citizenship, and other statuses, require a need for people to belong and contribute. Belonging can be fostered by welcome and how asylum seekers are received, but it also relies on there being real opportunities to contribute.

A system that respects human dignity, encourages agency rather than victimhood, gives people a chance to be heard and contribute is a system that’ll foster healthy communities and build up future citizens.

In Chelmsford Diocese we’re proud of our work with refugees and we’ve played a leading role in community sponsorship. We believe civil society needs to play its part in the welcome and building up of our neighbours. I hope to hear more from the Minister on community sponsorship schemes, but I also want to make the case that that is never enough.

We need a policy framework that gives future citizens the chance to contribute in meaningful ways. The opportunity to work, particularly for those facing long delays in the asylum process, would be one such chance but is sadly absent from the Bill

Indeed there is much in the Bill that doesn’t meet the tests of providing for agency, dignity and a chance to be heard. I’m concerned that the provision to remove citizenship without notice is a denial of the right to be heard, and one that has wider implications that seem to be unacknowledged.

I am concerned too that the proposed differential treatment of refugees [depending on how they arrived] is an example of learning the wrong lessons from the hostile environment and I’ll be listening carefully to proposed amendments in that space.

I’ve spoken to a great many people over the years, and am yet to find the asylum seeker who was deterred from coming to the UK because they’re barred from working, or housed in substandard accommodation. The situations from which people flee, and the promise of hope and a new life, greatly outweigh any deterrent. And yet these hardships are real and serve as barriers to contribution and to fostering a sense of belonging.

No one disputes the challenges facing the asylum system. But I’m troubled by some of the implications of this Bill. I’m not clear what problems differentiated treatment, or deterrence policies will solve, and fear that aspects put in jeopardy the agency and dignity of many vulnerable people.

[In conclusion], If you will indulge a bishop a Biblical reference, St Paul writes in his letter to the Hebrews “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have shown hospitality to angels”.  My Lords, it is better for the soul of this nation, and for creating good future citizens, to treat people with the greatest possible respect and dignity, rather than with hostility and doubt.

+Guli Chelmsford

House of Lords

5th January 2022

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