Tim Farron MP says the government’s proposed legislation is disproportionate and simply won’t work. We need a system that honours human rights - and Christians should be fighting for that harder than anyone, he says


Source: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

If you had not heard about the new Illegal Migration Bill before, you will surely have noticed that it sparked a complete meltdown of the BBC’s sports coverage over the weekend.

This followed the BBC’s attempt to discipline Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker for a tweet voicing his opposition to the Bill. It raised a raft of issues around freedom of expression, government pressure and the role of the BBC as a publicly funded broadcaster, which could easily form the basis of a whole other piece.

However, I would like to address the Bill itself. And I had better warn you: I feel just as strongly about this as Lineker.

Stemming the tide

Home Secretary Suella Braverman says that her new Bill is all about trying to stop the small boat crossings from France to the UK. I absolutely agree that these should be stopped; we have already seen too many lives lost in the channel. But this Bill is a shameful piece of legislation, and it won’t work.

The government intends to detain and deport anyone who arrives here by small boat, and make it illegal for them ever to re-enter the country. That includes women or children who are escaping sexual slavery for example. The government has already admitted that this is likely to break international human rights laws.

We are not being swamped or invaded; we take fewer refugees today than we did 20 years ago

If Hungary, Bulgaria or Turkey decided to do something that disregarded the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), what would we say? We’d probably accuse their leaders of being autocratic, law-breaking despots. (By the way, the ECHR has nothing to do with the EU; every country in Europe signs up to it – except for Russia and Belarus, and I’m not sure we’d want to follow their lead).

In context

Disregarding or contradicting a decades-old international treaty is a sure-fire way to lose friends, respect and influence in the world, but it is also a disproportionate response.

In 2022, Spain received 79,000 asylum applications; France received nearly 113,000 and Germany almost 165,000. The UK received just under 67,000. Per capita, there are 18 other European countries who take more refugees that we do. We also take fewer refugees today than we did 20 years ago.

We are not being swamped, or invaded, or any of the other incendiary claims being bandied about. It is true, however, that we are terrible at processing the people who do come here, which has resulted in a dreadful backlog. That is the real reason so many asylum seekers are currently stuck in hotels.

Most of these applicants are fleeing desperate situations in their own countries. The government’s own figures demonstrated that the bulk of those arriving from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea, and Sudan are genuine refugees. Those who aren’t should be processed quickly and humanely returned to a safe country. But that’s not happening either.

Fighting hard

How should we approach this as Christians? I have brothers and sisters in Christ who hold a sincere view on this Bill that is different to mine but, surely, we must start by treating others as we would wish to be treated in their situation. We should recall the many instructions in the Bible to help the stranger, or the foreigner, in our midst (Leviticus 19:33-34) and the command to love our neighbour (Mark 12:30-31).

Christians should be the people most committed to human rights. After all, if there is no God, all human rights are a temporary fashion or fiction; they have no standing. Yet if there is a God, humans are made in his image and hold ultimate, awesome dignity. If our government removes the legal, human right for those who present as refugees to have their cases heard, we should be the most appalled.

I am not arguing for open borders, or for never returning someone who applies for asylum, but I do expect our government to act justly and love mercy, even if it does not always walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

The real reason so many asylum seekers are stuck in hotels is that we are terrible at processing people

In the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus makes this chilling remark: “Depart from me, you who are cursed… For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger, and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me.” (Matthew 25:41-42).

Like all of us, I’ve failed to live up to this daily. Personally, I have no virtue to signal, and I need constant grace and forgiveness. But while the Bible doesn’t tell us precisely what our asylum policy should be, or how many people we should take in, I do believe it gives us some clear clues.

Suella Braverman is a lawyer. Luke 10:29 gives the account of another expert in the law who was seeking to justify himself and asked Jesus “Who is my neighbour?” We all know what the Lord’s answer was to that one…