Skip to main content

Westminster Abbey and Coronavirus (COVID-19)

The Abbey is not currently open for public worship, general visiting or private prayer. Meanwhile, the community of Abbey clergy are continuing to worship and pray, in-line with government guidance. They are also producing a podcast to mark key liturgical events.

Find out more

The Charles Gore Lecture 2005 No. 1

Faith in Asylum

Lecturer: Canon Nicholas Sagovsky

Tuesday, 15th February 2005 at 6.15 PM


Before I moved to Westminster Abbey, I used to live near an Immigration Detention Centre. Three years ago, just before Christmas, I heard there was no priest working at the Chaplaincy. That meant there was no priest to preside at the Eucharist, which is the central act of Christian worship. I was teaching during the week but free at weekends, so I offered to help. The offer was accepted, and within a few days I was going into the Chapel daily to take services and to talk to the asylum seekers. The Chapel was an old lecture room, with plain furnishings and nothing other than a wooden cross to mark it out as a place of prayer. In the weeks I ministered at that Detention Centre, I found myself pitched into an abyss of human suffering far beyond anything I had ever experienced. Daily, I was hearing from deeply troubled people of the imprisonment and beatings and torture from which they had fled, of the terror they had experienced as they gave themselves upon arrival in Britain, and of their relief that at last they were safe. What they did not know, but I knew, was that they were passing through the Centre on a 'fast-track' procedure for those with a 'manifestly unfounded' claim to asylum. Almost without exception they were refused asylum within days of arriving here.

After about three weeks, in something of a state of shock myself, I went away to a monastery for a short ecumenical conference. I wanted to buy an icon for the Chapel, but did not have much money. There was a selection of fine icons but few that were sufficiently large and sufficiently cheap. The monk who ran the shop showed me a copy of the well-known Rublev icon which depicts three angels in a circle round a table, leaving a space to invite the viewer in. I had been praying that I might find the right icon. The Rublev icon doesn't show Jesus and doesn't show Mary, so I was very unsure it would be right for the Chapel. Then, suddenly, the monk said to me, 'You know the Greek name for this icon, don't you?' I said I didn't. I had always thought of it as an icon of the Trinity. 'What is it?' I asked. ' Philoxenia', he replied - and in that instant I knew this was the icon for the Chapel - because philoxeniameans love of the foreigner, or, quite simply, Âhospitality'. 'Do not neglect to show hospitality - philoxenia- to strangers', says the New Testament, 'for thereby some have entertained angels unawares' (Heb 13:2).

Immigration, Asylum and Human Rights

When I proposed Faith in Asylumas the subject for this lecture, I had no idea how topical it would be. My intention was not - and is not - political provocation. It is to bring to the debate about asylum a perspective that first became clear to me in the chapel of the Detention Centre: the perspective of those who have come to Britain as a country in which they can be safe, a country which will give them a fair hearing when make their claim for asylum. I speak, not as an asylum seeker, though after the Russian Revolution my father's family found asylum in this country; I speak as a Christian pastor and a theologian. I hope, however, that what I have to say will contribute to the political debate because it will help to define the theological ground on which the Churches stand. I have no doubt that Charles Gore, if he were with us today, would, from his deep knowledge of the Christian tradition, his compassion for the needy, and his commitment to social justice, be speaking out on just this issue.

The wider issue of immigration to this country should not be confused with the narrower issue of asylum. Certainly, there is an area of overlap between the two, as a proportion of immigrants are refugees who have sought and been given asylum. Most immigrants are, however, voluntary migrants. Refugees are involuntary migrants. The issue of asylum is the issue of refuge from persecution, and the person who qualifies for asylum is the person who has what the 1951 Refugee Convention calls 'a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion'.

Given this important difference between immigration generally and asylum in particular, I do not intend in this lecture to discuss immigration policy as a whole, but only what is, in terms of numbers, a minor issue. As I read the latest Home Office figures, net immigration in 2003 was about 150,000. In that year some 50,000 people applied for asylum and some 26,000 were granted either indefinite leave to remain or humanitarian protection. Of the net immigrants in that year about one sixth were people who received asylum. It looks as though the number of applications for asylum in 2004 will be down on the previous year. The number receiving refugee status may then be less than one-sixth of net immigrants. Compared with net immigration and the much larger numbers of those who come here on work permits, refugee numbers are relatively small.

From the point of view of the major world faiths, however, the way we treat this needy minority is a test of the health of the whole of our society. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, hospitality and compassion are defining human virtues which indicate whether or not a person and a society reflects the hospitality and compassion of God. You may recall the way in which, during the US military campaign in Iraq, Private Jessica Lynch of the US Army, was injured and in need of medical help. She was taken to an Iraqi hospital, and, despite the scarcity of medical resources, given first-class care and treatment before being reunited with her compatriots. That was a striking example of the way in which the obligation to show hospitality is interpreted by ordinary Muslims today.

It is not, of course, only religious believers who share this commitment to human beings in need. The Human Rights Movement of the second half of the Twentieth Century, which now unites believers and non-believers, came out of the general shock at what had been allowed to happen to the Jews: how, in the middle of supposedly civilised Europe, Jews had been systematically persecuted and deprived of human dignity, so that Hitler's 'Final Solution' in the end became 'thinkable' to ordinary men and women. The Jews, the Roma and others were victims of persecution on the grounds of their race, their religion, their membership of particular social groups. They could not turn to the state for protection because the state itself was their persecutor. When they looked to other states for the protection they needed, many were refused. Britain has a mixed record in this respect: substantial numbers of refugees from Hitler's Germany were accepted and went on to make a remarkable contribution in British public life, but there are also shameful stories of Jews being turned away. It was in a spirit of shock, penitence, and shame after the Holocaust, and in the confident hope that such things should never be allowed to happen again, that the United Nations was born, and the major nations signed up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) and other major human rights instruments. Britain signed up fully to these ground-breaking declarations, as it has done to the European Convention on Human Rights which was taken into UK law in 1998.

Charles Gore

Charles Gore's prophetic ministry was at its height about a hundred years ago. He was a Canon of Westminster from 1895 to 1902. From Westminster he went on to become Bishop of Worcester, then the first Bishop of Birmingham, and, finally, Bishop of Oxford. He became a towering and controversial figure within the Church of England, and the outstanding theological thinker of his time. Gore's most significant writing was in the field of Christian doctrine, where he maintained a robust belief in traditional Christian teaching, but much of his most significant action was in support of those we would today call the oppressed or the marginalised. At the end of his life, a friend wrote, 'I have never known his profound humility to fail; nor his passion for righteousness; nor his eager championship of the "poor and oppressed"'.

Before Gore came to Westminster Abbey, he had already founded the Christian Social Union, an early Christian Socialist initiative which aimed to study 'how to apply the moral truths and principles of Christianity to the social and economic conditions of modern times' [Prestige: 92]. Not long after, he founded the Community of the Resurrection, which continues today at Mirfield in Yorkshire. The best-known member of the Community, after Gore, was perhaps Trevor Huddleston, who, in the spirit of Gore, opposed the apartheid regime in South Africa as an affront to the human dignity of black South Africans. Huddleston in his turn provided inspiration for the young Desmond Tutu, who went on to train at Mirfield with the Community that Gore founded. Tutu's work as Chairman of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been an inspiration whereever people work to overcome the legacy of hatred and mistrust left by regimes that abuse human rights. I have no doubt that our topic tonight does honour to the memory of Charles Gore, who saw Westminster Abbey both as a place to explore the riches of the Christian Faith and to explore how the Faith relates to the urgent problems of the day.

The Christian Tradition

Gore's own inspiration, as is clear from his many books, came from the Christian tradition, which, in its care for the oppressed and the needy, builds on the Jewish teaching of the Law and the prophets. Gore often stressed his debt to the social teaching of the Old Testament. For example, The Book of Deuteronomy, one of the books of the Jewish Law, reminds the Israelites that they, who were once exiles in a foreign land, should have a special care for exiles, or sojourners, in their midst:

'The Lord your God is God of Gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow [that is, those who need protection], and loves the sojourner[that is the resident exile], giving food and clothing. Love the sojournertherefore; for you were sojournersin the land of Egypt.' (Dt 10:17-19)

The prophets frequently return to similar themes of social inclusion. I take just one example taken from the set reading for next Sunday:

'Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless and the widow.' (Jer 22:3)

This teaching of the Law and the prophets is expanded and reinforced by Jesus, who describes the Judgment at the end of time, when 'all the nations' - not just Christians - will be gathered before the Son of Man. There are those who are judged favourably and those who are judged unfavourably. The reason some are judged favourably is because 'I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Those who are judged favourably are surprised at this, because they weren't conscious of anything they did specifically for him, and he replies, 'Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these ... you did it to me.' (Mt 25: 35:40). Passages such as this show why Christians feel it is not merely a duty to help those who are in particular need, but, more than that, an inestimable privilege.

In this former Benedictine Abbey, it is good to recall how the Rule of Benedict speaks about the virtue of hospitality: 'All who arrive as guests are to be welcomed like Christ, for he is going to say, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." The Abbot should give all the guests water to wash their hands and with the whole community he should wash their feet. When they have done so, they should recite the verse, "We have received your mercy, O God, in the midst of your temple." ( RuleLIII). As Mother Theresa so often stressed, it is in the midst of the most extreme human need that we meet Jesus Christ in new and unexpected ways.

Given this background, it is not surprising that both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible focus in various ways on the issue of asylum. In the Jewish Law (Numbers 35) it is prescribed that six 'cities of refuge' should be established. This provision was made to stop people killing each other in prolonged vendettas. These cities were places to which anyone who killed another person had could flee. There could then be a proper investigation to decide whether the killing was deliberate or accidental. If it was deliberate, the killer would be punished as a murderer. If it was accidental the killer could receive asylum in the city of refuge. It was on this basis that, in the Middle Ages, Abbeys throughout England, including Westminster Abbey, were established as places of 'sanctuary' for those in need of refuge. They were regarded rather as we would regard a foreign embassy: they were under a different jurisdiction, in this case the jurisdiction of God's Church.

The practice of sanctuary was, however, abused. It became increasingly unpopular because it attracted criminals rather than refugees to the Abbey precincts. In the early seventeenth century it was abolished, and the state became in effect the sole arbiter of personal safety. Though there were waves of immigrants coming to Britain as a result of persecution abroad, such as the Huguenots and Jews from Eastern Europe, not until twentieth century did the provision of asylum for foreign nationals become the explicit responsibility of the state. Even today the Church can play its part in the provision of sanctuary when, with other partners, it holds the state to account for its stewardship of the right to asylum.

For Christians, that which is inviolable is not primarily the holy place. That which is inviolable, and for the sake of which certain places have in the past been regarded as inviolable, is that which only God can give- life itself. This applies not only to human life but to the whole fragile, living world which we share with all other living creatures. A religiously-grounded wonder at the gift of life and the sense that human life ultimately belongs to God alone, is the reason why Christians struggle with issues of abortion and euthanasia, with slavery and the death penalty, and, of course, with the notion of human rights. Christians have had a lot to learn over the years, but at the root of our social concern is the conviction that human life and human society are fundamentally God's gift and that we are accountable to God for the way we use that gift: that is to say, we are responsible to God for the common good. One way of looking at the challenge of being a Christian is to say that it is all about learning what it means truly to be a human being. Gore put it this way:

'Each creature - inanimate, animate, rational - should find its joy in realising its own function - that is, in being the thing it is meant to be, in experiencing the joy proper to itself, and in seeing all the other creatures realising all their separate functions, while all together contribute to a common end.' [ Prayer and the Lord's Prayer62].

The Problem

My concern tonight, then, is for a relatively small number of people within our society who are involuntary exiles from their own country, many of whom are daily denied what is needed 'to be the thing - or the person - we are meant to be'. In many cases these people have come to Britain to find themselves disbelieved, denied the possibility of working, kept waiting for months and years and then finally refused. They have often been detained behind barbed wire, and threatened with deportation back to the country and the security forces from which they fled. One of the most corrosive and undermining experiences for someone who has escaped persecution, especially for those who have suffered rape, imprisonment and torture, is to be told by officialdom that their story - their own, personal human narrative -lacks credibility; in other words, that they are lying. To a person who has suffered the loss of home, torture or rape, this assault on their human identity can make it almost impossible to function. Sleeplessness, nightmares, depression and loss of confidence are endemic amongst asylum seekers.

Time and again I have heard asylum seekers ask the agonised and outraged question, 'How can this immigration official, or that Adjudicator, or the Secretary of State, with his or her limited experience of my country, so confidently dismiss not only what I say, but who I am?' As anyone who has worked closely with asylum seekers will surely testify, one of the fundamental needs through the months and years of the asylum process is to help such people hold on to the sense of their own identity which gets eaten away by the system in a way they may never have experienced even at the hands of physical torturers.

In the present situation, where we have a political auction to buy the sympathies of voters by talking tough about asylum seekers, the churches have a key role to play - reminding politicians of all parties that asylum seekers are people too, and that there are many within the electorate who wish to welcome them hospitably. The announcement of yet more tough measures, such as increased numbers of detentions, creates waves of fear and insecurity amongst this already traumatised group. The vicious rhetoric against asylum seekers from some sections of the popular press causes immense distress; but so too do Government announcements which may be aimed at the press and completely misunderstood by frightened asylum seekers.

The question of Britain's withdrawal from the 1951 Convention on Refugees, and the 1967 Protocol that extends its remit to the present day, has been raised and will no doubt continue to be discussed. If we were to withdraw from the 1951 Convention, the giving of asylum to individuals and groups would in effect become discretionary. It would be a matter of the numbers we chose to take, not the right of those who came here to claim asylum. Under any quota system, the numbers who were granted asylum would be subject to political pressure. We would probably be turning people away, saying, 'We know you may need asylum, but we are not prepared to give it to you here as we have used up our quota for this year.' The 1951 Refugee Convention has proved a powerful instrument for saving lives and protecting people from persecution. Before we can begin to think of withdrawing from a human rights instrument which has proved so valuable a force for good we need to know exactly what is going to be put in its place. Though the Refugee Convention was drafted at a time when the understanding of 'a well-founded fear of persecution' was markedly different from that of today, it is hard to see what could be put in its place which could come anywhere near it as an effective human rights instrument.

One of the reasons people come to Britain for asylum is because they admire this country as a parliamentary democracy with a long tradition of civil peace. There is a respect for Britain's commitment to human rights and 'fair play' and international communications with Britain are good. Often there are links through the English language, through family or national groups, The fact that people, who may know very little about the reality of Britain today or what asylum means, should turn to Britain in their hour of need is in itself a kind of compliment - a compliment that, when I read the popular press or see how asylum seekers are treated by the system, too often seems undeserved.

Nevertheless, there are aspects of the asylum system of which we should be genuinely proud. Though it is subject to heavy political pressure, to which it responds with suspicious agility, as with the recent pledge to cut the number of asylum seekers in half, it remains subject to the rule of law and it still remains, though in a worryingly attenuated sense, subject to judicial oversight. We maintain a legal mechanism by which each person's claim to asylum is tested, though in practice it is only where lawyers are working pro bono or for charities that asylum seekers can be confident of receiving adequate, competent legal support. The amount of legal aid now made available simply doesn't allow for cases to be thoroughly researched and well presented. Though the initial decision-making is overwhelmingly negative, in the end a substantial number of these negative decisions is overturned - but always after a prolonged period of stress for the asylum seeker and considerable expense all round. Though the administration of the NASS system for supporting asylum seekers is often chaotic, and it can prove hard to get attention for particular practical problems and needs, there is at least a system which should in theory provide support when asylum seekers are not permitted to work. The appalling Section 55, which meant that substantial numbers of asylum seekers were totally destitute, was thankfully overruled by the House of Lords- a further testimony to the importance of keeping the whole system under judicial not political control.

I have to say that I have never heard any political leader, or indeed anyone in the public domain say that they are proud of Britain's recent asylum policy, and I think this should give us cause for thought. Time and again the tone in which new measures are introduced is reactive and negative. It must be incredibly dispiriting to operate a system which seems determined to find reasons not to grant asylum and so is permeated by a Âculture of disbelief'.

In recent years the churches have made significant contributions that have helped to turn round public policy on inner city regeneration, and on unemployment and the availability of 'good work' for all. Amongst the churches there is a wealth of first-hand knowledge of the experience of asylum seekers at every stage of the process, often including first-hand knowledge of the countries from which they come. The churches have a unique contribution to make when political leaders give ground to the vitriolic hostility towards asylum seekers in some sections of the popular press, - perhaps because this hostility is reflected back to them by focus groups. The churches have a duty to speak out for the pride we should take in the human rights instruments that we have and for the absolute necessity of sticking by them if our own humanity as hospitable human beings is not to be diminished. The churches can also contribute to public debate about reforms to the asylum system by ensuring that the voices of the real experts - the refugees who have come through the system - receive a hearing.

The Proposal

My proposal is that we need to look for ways to assess and to rethink the asylum system from the point of view of Âfaith in asylum'. This is by no means new territory. Recently, the Asylum Rights Campaign, a coalition of all the major organisations working with asylum seekers, from Amnesty International to the United Nations Association, produced an in-depth study of the British asylum system, called Providing Protection in the Twenty First Century.Its first recommendation was that

An independent panel should carry out a comprehensive and systematic review of the whole asylum system, based on an objective evaluation of the evidence taken from all parties involved. [ARC 2004: 6]

This is exactly what I am arguing for. It is the sort of work that is done by Royal Commissions, whose whole function is to assemble the evidence on an issue, take it out of the political domain, and make well thought-through recommendations which serve the common good. The ARC recommendation goes on to say:

Any reform, premised on the panel's conclusion, should refocus efforts to establish clearer and simpler procedures, which concentrate on well-resourced, quality initial decision-making, undertaken with the upholding of international human rights law as its primary concern. [ARC 2004:6]

Much in line with this, the Church of England General Synod called last year for its own study of issues surrounding asylum. It asked for a study of the arguments which have been advanced to provide 'a more positive approach to asylum seekers'. This study is now complete and will be published, I gather, in May. This is just the time to be asking what will be the next steps for the Church of England with its ecumenical partners and colleagues in other faith-communities.

Last week, by contrast, the Government published its own document outlining what it called its five year strategy for asylum and immigration. Significantly, the paper is called Controlling Our Borders: Making Migration Work for Britain.This is not at all the wide-ranging review of the asylum system that we need. There is no detailed discussion to show on what the strategy is based. As far as asylum is concerned, there is simply a sketch of the next steps in the campaign against what is seen as abuse of the system. The fundamental commitment remains that what are called 'genuine refugees' will be allowed to stay and there is a promise to take some 'genuine refugees' from their regions - but, as I read it, there is not one single clear measure or proposal to give applicants a better chance to establish their right to asylum. Instead, there is talk of possible return to countries of origin after up to five years' Exceptional Leave to Remain; fingerprinting all visa applicants; expanding the work of Airline Liaison Officers to prevent undocumented passengers reaching the UK; detaining more (I quote) 'failed asylum seekers'; introducing fast-track processing of (I quote) 'unfounded asylum seekers'; creating more detention capacity and the use of electronic tagging'; preventing applicants concealing their identity to frustrate removal; continuing to prosecute those who arrive without documents; fingerprinting people from (I quote) 'high risk' countries on arrival; working with countries that generate the most 'failed asylum seekers' to ensure they re-document and accept back 'failed asylum seekers' (this would, in recent years, have meant working with Afghanistan, Iran and Zimbabwe); expanding the voluntary returns schemes; maximising returns to 'safe countries' and finding ways to return unaccompanied asylum seeking children. The whole package presupposes an unquestioned faith in the asylum system to determine who is a genuine refugee and who is not. It is this underlying faith which I am arguing needs to be tested: we have to know to what extent the system currently fails the very people who trust it with their lives, and what can be done to reform it.

So, what would an asylum system premised on faith in asylum look like?

First, it would address the causes why people seek asylum. It would look for positive linkage between development and the prevention of involuntary migration, as with the excellent recent report of the House of Commons International Development Committee on Migration and Development. All of this must link with our commitment to the UN and the strengthening of its work in peacemaking and development. In this general area the wider issue of migration overlaps very much with the narrower issue of asylum. It is important that Britain's policy over asylum is developed in harmony with its policy over development - that the Home Office and the Foreign Office work closely with DFID.

Second, it would recognise the survival skills and political courage that are to be found amongst asylum seekers. It would ask searching questions about the number of people with a genuine claim to asylum who are prevented from travelling to Britain in the first place. Inevitably, some put themselves in the hands of traffickers - an act which in itself makes it unlikely they will be able successfully to claim asylum.

Third, a system that had 'faith in asylum' would address the very serious concerns there are over the quality of initial decision making, a point on which the House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee did not mince its words when it reported on Asylum and Immigration Appealsin February 2004. It would approach initial interviews in a positive spirit, not so much seeking to catch applicants out, but to establish as fully as possible what are the relevant facts of the case. It would give applicants time and resources to assemble the evidence they need, especially medical reports; it would be scrupulous about the quality of interpreters; it would approach the all-important question of credibility in a manner that is well-informed about the scientific, philosophical, cross-cultural and psychological issues that surround this most difficult issue - on the handling of which may hand a person's life. At the moment, proper scrutiny of the individual case comes only at the appeal stage - that is, if the appeal is properly prepared and presented. When things have gone wrong for the applicant in the initial stages it is almost impossible to recover from this legally.

A reformed system would work throughout with the best available Country Information, presenting it in an unbiased way. The Immigration Advisory Service has been monitoring the quality of the country reports on which decisions are made. In its review of the 2004 Reports, whilst it recognised that there have been improvements, it concluded that serious problems remain. I quote: 'The most significant of these is a lack of objectivity. At times this involves the direct insertion by the CIPU author of opinion into the text, at other times it is by way of an unbalanced representation of material from selected sources. Other notable concerns include the poor presentation of the reports which allows contradictory material to stand without comment, over-reliance on one source of material, serious omissions and poor sourcing. In some cases, these problems are so serious that they make the report an inaccurate representation of the conditions in the country to the extent that, in our opinion, it should not be used in determining asylum claims.' The question of establishing a non-political body to provide unbiased country reports which fully acknowledge their sources urgently needs further examination.

Fifth, a system with 'faith in asylum' would provide proper legal support. Current caps on legal aid mean it is almost impossible for lawyers to make a living by good immigration work - and the result of bad work is not only poor decisions that cannot be trusted, but yet more legal work to fight against poor decisions. It is absolutely crucial that there should be confidence in the quality of decision-making - something which under present conditions it is just not possible to have.

Sixth, it would minimise use of detention, especially for children. Asylum seekers know very well that if they do not report to police stations or immigration authorities as directed, sooner or later they will be caught. The use of detention always causes huge suffering, which is particularly shocking in the case of those who have already been traumatised by imprisonment in their own country. Overshadowing detention in what are now called Removal Centres, is the fear of imminent deportation, and of what will happen when one is handed over to the authorities in one's own country. There is an urgent need to review the use of detention as an instrument of policy - if for no other reason than on grounds of expense alone.

Seventh, a system with 'faith in asylum' would not leave people in limbo for months and years after refusal. The tragedy is that those who support asylum seekers time and again find themselves fighting deportation because we believe that the system has failed them, but there is no way back into the system to get a fresh examination of the case. I return to the first point: central to any review based on 'faith in asylum' must be a rigorous analysis of the quality of decision-making, especially initial decision-making. And, as a rider, a system that respected human dignity would never use in official documents the pejorative term 'failed asylum seeker'. The judicial process is not an examination. The correct term, surely, is 'refused asylum seekers'.

There is a great deal more I would like to say about the asylum process but I have run out of time. At the moment I believe it is expensive, inefficient and inhumane and too often leaves one with a sick feeling that it has not come to the right decision. It has, however, not been my aim in this lecture to offer a blueprint for a reformed asylum system. I do believe, however, that the churches have their distinctive part to play in working for such reform to come about. What we need is an independent Commission that can review the whole system in a non-political way. This is not something the churches can or should undertake on their own. What they can do is to act as a catalyst, working with representatives of other faith-communities, to bring into being an independent Commission which has the standing and expertise to review the whole working of the asylum system from the point of view of 'faith in asylum'. This Commission should take evidence, including evidence from refugees, and should review the asylum system in a non-political way, making practical suggestions for its reform in the service of the common good, which is to say our common humanity. I hope that in this way people of faith in Humanity and faith in God can work together for a thoroughly reformed system that is based upon a commitment to human rights and a commitment to the practice of hospitality.


Over the West door of Westminster Abbey are the statues of ten 'twentieth century martyrs' from all round the world. One of them is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spoke out early against Hitler's persecution of the Jews and who eventually went to his death for his active opposition to Hitler's regime. In accounting for the stand he had taken, he used to quote a verse from Proverbs:

Open your mouth for the dumb
For the rights of all who are left desolate
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
Maintain the rights of the poor and needy. (Prov 31:8-9)

Emboldened by the example of Bonhoeffer, and of my predecessor as a Canon of Westminster, Charles Gore, I have tried tonight to 'open my mouth' for the rights of many, whose courage and faith I admire very much, and who have been left desolate, not only in their own societies, but also in ours. I am very conscious that the matter of 'judging righteously' is not for one individual to determine. This is something to work at together, because the command to 'maintain the rights of the poor and needy' is a command to us all. We are together called to have 'faith in asylum'.


Asylum Rights Campaign, Providing Protection in the Twenty First century (London: Asylum Rights Campaign, 2004)

Carpenter, J., Gore: A Study in Liberal Catholic Thought (London: Faith Press, 1960)

Controlling Our Borders; Making Migration Work for Britain, Five Year Strategy for Asylum and Immigration (Cm 6472, 2005)

Gore, C., Christ and Society (London: Allen and Unwin, 1928)

Gore, C., Prayer and the Lord's Prayer (London: Wells Gardner, Darton, 1906)

House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee, Asylum and Immigration Appeals (HC 211-1, 2004)

House of Commons International Development Committee: Migration and Development: How to Make Migration Work for Poverty Reduction (HC 79-1, 2004)

House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights: Fourteenth Report (accessed 15 February 2005)

Immigration Advisory Service, Country Reports Analysis, April 2004 (accessed 8 February 2005)

Prestige, G.L., The Life of Charles Gore (London: Heinemann, 1935)

Refugee Council, Refugees: Renewing the Vision (London: Refugee Council, 2004)

Stanley, A.P., Memorials of Westminster Abbey (London: John Murray, 1896)

The Rule of St Benedict, translated by David Parry OSB (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1984)

Twitter logo Tweet this