Social action, Social commentary

Reality bites: migration, kindness & truth – by Jonathan Thomas

The last 5 years I have been on a journey with migration and Christian faith. This has changed how I think about both of these things. And myself.

My initial interest in migration came from a place of international law and metropolitan liberalism, not faith. At 48 I went back to university, to do an International Human Rights Law Masters. This is the last place you will find any reference to faith.

But sometimes in life you find what you are not looking for, where you least expect it, and end up somewhere you were not expecting.

Stage one of the journey: speaking out

In the context of the ‘migrant crisis’ I found it inspiring to hear faith leaders speak out for the dignity of the migrant and for welcoming the stranger.

And that they spoke, based not on the requirements of international law (which actually does not require that), but on compassion and justice rooted in ancient traditions and texts.

Stage two: action not words

I came to realise how much those inspired by faith had, down the years into the present day, not just spoken up, but taken action, providing migrants with sanctuary when all seemed lost.

More than that, in many Global North countries today, as churches and faith-based organisations are uniquely placed to mobilise a community of people with a will and sense of purpose, and with a range of contacts across society, they have become crucial actors within the system, to resource and deliver key elements of humanitarian migration policy, including refugee resettlement and integration.

Stage three: reality bites

All the news about immigration in the UK can seem relentlessly focused on who is let into the country, on what terms.

But, for me, the real news is the estimated one million migrants already in the UK without legal status to remain here. Many are consigned to desperately difficult lives, exposed to exploitation, no access to state support, little prospect of a surer footing or a better future.

Splitting my time between the migrant charity sector, where well-meaning people were making huge sacrifices on behalf of some of the most unfortunate people, and the immigration policy world of Westminster, where the post-Brexit rules of the UK immigration system were being determined, I became increasingly concerned.

‘Unremitting kindness’

Concerned that perhaps not all of those providing unremitting kindness and support to migrants were being true with themselves, or honest with those they were supporting. And that, in railing against any and all immigration rules they may in fact naïvely be providing the very space, and fuel, for the harsh policies they professed to stand against.

The diagram below, originally used in the context of the problem of homelessness, could not be more appropriate to so many aspects of the UK’s immigration tensions:

If you say you accept that the UK should be able to control immigration, but cannot name a single in-country immigration control that you would find acceptable, is it any surprise that you cede the field to harsher points of view?

If you say you want a fair asylum system, but do not acknowledge that any failed asylum claimants should have to leave the country, indeed if you cannot name any category of migrants outside of the rules who should, is it any surprise that support grows for ever harsher and more outlandish schemes to prevent migrants accessing the UK in the first place?

‘Moral exhibitionism’

I began to wonder. And worry. Was I witnessing what Milan Kundera famously framed as ‘moral exhibitionism’, where

‘The effort to publicly demonstrate the beauty of one’s own morality outweighs the effort to change things for the better’?

Most importantly, who was most benefiting from all this? Was it always really the individuals at the heart of it, the mainly passive subjects of all this support?

For those people whose legal avenues to stay in the UK had been exhausted, might it not be more truthful, more honest, better, to help them at least consider whether they might have better life-chances somewhere else? And, if so, how they could best be supported in this?

Stage four: faith returns

Having started writing about this, I came across Julian Prior at the charity Action Foundation, seemingly animated by similar thoughts. And also by faith, combining kindness with truthfulness, providing compassion and support while acknowledging the truth that many people seeking asylum are not able to remain in the UK legally.

Those people needed to understand their position and the decision they faced. Some decided that in order to take control over their own future they wanted support to depart from the UK, with dignity.

Perhaps the greatest source of anguish though, but yet also of hope, is that there is an important ‘actor’ relevant to the UK immigration system which arguably does sit in the ‘transformative’ quadrant. That in the clear majority is neither naïve nor harsh, that believes there should be rules and restrictions on immigration that are reasonably enforced, but not harshly so, and which polling consistently shows is more open to immigration than its peers in most other countries. The British public.

What might the next stage of this journey hold?


Jonathan Thomas is a Senior Fellow and the Migration Researcher at the Social Market Foundation thinktank, and former trustee of the Migrants Resource Centre charity

4 thoughts on “Reality bites: migration, kindness & truth – by Jonathan Thomas”

  1. Interesting and important questions… but it does not address the reality that the Home Office system of case work and enforcement is totally broken (and has been for 30 years at least), and that changes in legislation and regulations are a political football, more interested in gathering xenophobic votes than actually solving problems. The result is that decisions on individual cases, when they are finally reached, tend to be arbitrary, harsh yet mostly unenforceable. Therefore I doubt there is a viable policy solution to these issues. That the system is unfit for purpose is the overwhelming truth and far more significant than whether or how we should be helping individual vulnerable people. Grace does not lead us to ask questions about who is deserving, and Christian hospitality demands we should welcome all. while on the other hand years of encounters with asylum, seekers, refugees and other migrants certainly busts any naivety about them all being innocent victims.

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    1. Greg, You are right it doesn’t address that – that would take many more blogs. I have much sympathy for/ agreement with many of your points. But would also offer some counters to the arbitrary, harsh and broken argument, taking the asylum system as the example. There is much that could be improved in this system, and the HO’s role in it, and it has faced great strains at times over last 30 years. But the UK spends a huge amount of time and money making decisions and hearing appeals about people’s right to stay in the country that are adjudged against reams of international/domestic law. The recognition rate of asylum claims in the UK overall has generally increased over time, and compares favourably with rates elsewhere in the EU, particularly for asylum seekers from certain countries who have been likelier to be granted asylum in the UK than elsewhere. In the last 30 years well in excess of 100K have been granted refugee status in the UK, separate to the more recent formal resettlement schemes, and the UK has provided those refugees with rights in excess of those required by international law. There can be many justified criticisms levelled at the system and at the HO’s handling of individual cases. But the fact that there is currently such a backlog in hearing asylum claims in the UK to me is evidence of the opposite of an arbitrary, harsh system. Those decisions could all be made negatively, on the spot, the backlog would disappear, and the recognition rate of asylum claims in the UK would be far lower than it is. That would be an arbitrary and harsh system. But the main time that the backlog was in fact cleared by arbitrary action over the last 30 years, it was to allow the claimants to stay.

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      1. Thanks Jonathan. we could have quite a debate over these issues but lets recognize that in the end we are both on the same side…of justice and compassion

        Indeed there are things to be thankful for in that many asylum seekers are eventually given leave to remain and rights to work and benefits etc. and the UK still has a pretty good legal framework that understands human rights (- though for how long?)… I’ve heard that recently several have been given leave to remain outside the usual rules… a sort of unofficial amnesty .. welcome and generous .. but a bit arbitrary.

        I guess the worst things asylum seekers face are:
        1: being treated with suspicion and disbelief
        2.so many bureaucratic hoops to jump through in a system most do not understand – and the resulting long delays for decision making.
        3. support levels of less than £40 a week plus housing per person which keep them in poverty and poor housing situations
        4. Mostly being denied the right to work making them vulnerable to exploitation
        5. the fear / risk of being rendered destitute if their case is rejected, with the no recourse to public funds rule, plus the possibility of being detained and removed against their will.. : with the result that many disappear from the official radar and become very vulnerable.. BTW I don’t like the term “failed asylum claimants” — “refused …. ” is better.

        I would accept government has a right to control immigration , though long term the economic and social benefits are so great there doesn’t seem to be much point on a numbers cap. Possibly the worst thing about encouraging immigration is that is tends to be a “brain drain” on developing countries..

        If some should be removed the categories are those who are a security risk, have been convicted of serious criminality, or can be shown to have deliberately cheated or defrauded the system. I suspect there may be more in these categories who have entered the UK under other migration conditions than seeking asylum… overstayers on tourist, student or business visas for example.
        I would be very reluctant to advocate removing refused asylum seekers back to their home countries unless it was very clear they had peace, freedom of religion and expression, high standard human rights.

        I don’t think it really matters much how or from where people arrived – desperation produces resourcefulness and resilience. The exception may be for people who have already been given asylum/received refugee status in a third safe country.

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  2. Greg, super further points – you are clearly very deep in these areas and issues. Just a few further points, largely again coming from a place of significant alignment with you:
    1. Yes things may become more challenging in this area going forward under the new Nationality and Borders Act.
    2. I do not like the legal lines, and differential treatment as a result of that, drawn between different types of migrants. If you lived in Syria and your shop was bombed but you weren’t persecuted by the Govt are you a refugee or an economic migrant? if you fled to Turkey but Turkey wouldn’t let you work and you move on, are you a refugee or an economic migrant? Etc.. Why should it matter. But unfortunately international and domestic laws do draw those lines and distinctions. And, in a bid to support refugees, often of course it is UNHCR and the refugee supporting sector that is one of the biggest defenders of those lines and distinctions.
    3. Just as you cannot compartmentalise people’s motivations for coming to the UK, I have found it hard to compartmentalise them after arrival also. You split out those seeking asylum from overstayers on tourist, student or business visas. But it can all get quite blurred. My own personal experience has been that many people in detention for removal from the UK for overstaying then make an asylum claim from detention prior to their removal in a last ditch bid to remain in the country. Some may have a convincing refugee story, but for many it is because (i) they realise that it is the only option they have left to stay in the country and (ii) if they succeed it comes with lots of rights attached. I don’t think badly of those people. As you say, many of these people are super resourceful and resilient people, and it is their last shot. I would 100% do the same. But it does blur the lines, and not in a way that is helpful to building trust and cooperation between the two sides of the system. Maybe the refugee supporting sector could help itself by at least acknowledging this issue a little more.
    4. Yes, just to be clear those working on assisted voluntary returns as properly constituted do not advocate removing refused asylum seekers. They advocate engaging with those people through an independent third party organisation, not connected to immigration enforcement, that can build a relationship with and gauge a person’s situation and whether they would, with assistance, wish to themselves consider returning to their country, having had access to all assistance and advice about their position in this country. Clearly that has to be managed very carefully, but other countries seem to manage that. And indeed the UK seemed to manage that OK prior to 2015.
    5. From the perspective of the countries that migrants come from, indeed we should not forget about those. There is a very healthy debate on the conditions under which “brain drain” can become “brain gain”, ie the originating country can also gain rather than lose out. The UK does a far better job than most countries in at least taking this issue into account, particularly in its process for recruitment of health professionals.

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