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.
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?
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