The Holy See
back up

 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 97, April 2005 




Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue

Chairman, Committee for Migrants and Refugees

Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales


It is alarming that Britain's history of accepting immigrants, migrants and asylum seekers is being tarnished by the incessant attacks on them by the two main political parties, influenced perhaps by focus groups and polls. How can one disagree with Sir Bill Morris, the former T&G General Secretary's observation that: "What we are facing is a kind of bidding war between the two main political parties about who can be the nastiest to asylum seekers?"

No one is suggesting that we should avoid debating this important public policy issue. The right to free speech and debate is fundamental to any liberal democratic society, but the right to free speech cannot be abused to as to cause prejudice and hostility towards asylum seekers and migrants.

Politicians and the media need to be aware that xenophobic speeches and reports about immigration and asylum can pander to the racist views of a small section of the electorate, with dire consequences for community relations. It is crucial therefore to maintain a calm political atmosphere especially in the run-up to the general election (and beyond) when there will be intense competition for the popular vote.

There is a more healthy current of opinion that needs to needs to be publicised and fought for. We urge the government to take the lead in promoting a rational debate based on reality, not myths and misinformation.

For a start, it is necessary to restate what should be obvious but which seems less and less clear in the current debate that asylum and immigration are two separate issues. It is not helpful to conflate them. Asylum seekers are victims of unjust social, economic and political structures – fleeing torture, persecution and abuses of human rights. At its root, it's a human rights issue. The 1951 UN Convention of Refugees is there to protect them and the UK as a signatory must uphold this Convention.

How such people are received and treated in exile or returned involves human rights considerations. It is impossible to separate the asylum issue from a general human rights context on the one hand and sustainable development on the other. Refugees cannot simply be treated as an 'immigration problem', nor should refugees be associate in our minds with such social and political evils as terrorism and criminality.Worse still is the crude dismissal of asylum seekers as ‘illegal immigrants.’ One appreciates the evident tension between the right of people to seek asylum and the right of the government to assess and regulate the admission of ‘foreign nationals.’ While these tensions are not easily resolved, they could at least be mitigated by a fair, efficient and humane asylumsystem predicated on good quality decisions, adequate reception conditions an integration programme for those given refugee status or humane removal for those who don't qualify.We should take responsibility for such a system.

Migrants, on the other hand come here to work. This is not a new phenomenon. From post WWII, up until now, because of labour or skills shortages we have always relied on migrants to build and develop our country. We need migrant workers and we will continue to do so as globalisation accelerates. Migrants are also as a consequences of the EU freedom of movement regulations. A recent Home Office study revealed that far from being a burden, migrants contribute a net tax contribution of £2.5 billion a year. The government is right to manage migration as it set out to do in the 5 year plan but there was no need for anti immigran trhetoric to accompany it.

As Christians, we are in solidarity with all who are compelled by severe political, economic and social conditions to leave their land and culture for protection and sustenance–regardless of the labels they are given.