Talk given to Clergy Conference in Diocese of Harare, Zimbabwe.
In a parliamentary debate about immigration, Dennis Skinner, a left-wing Labour MP addressed a member of United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a right wing, suspicious of immigration party, with these words:
‘I have a United Nations heart by-pass and it was done by a Syrian cardiologist, a Malaysian surgeon, a Dutch doctor and a Nigerian registrar and these UKIP people here talk about ‘sending them back from whence they came.’ If you take immigrant workers out of hospitals in London, half of London would be dead in 6 months.’
Throughout their history, the lands that make up the UK have frequently been refreshed by migrants. Sometimes migrants have invaded the country, for instance, the Normans in the eleventh century and the Vikings even earlier and sometimes migrants have been invited and encouraged in to the UK.
Currently the UK is facing challenging decisions on immigration on three specific fronts. First, the European Union has as one its core principles freedom of movement across the Union. As the number of member countries increases, so more people are wanting to avail themselves of this freedom of movement and are wanting to live and work in the UK.
Secondly, there is the latest movement of refugees across Europe from the conflicts in the Middle East as a result of the growth and expansion of ISIS. It is estimated that there are approximately half a million to a million refugees seeking refuge/asylum in Europe. Though this number is small beside the fifteen million refugees here in Africa.
Finally, there is an another movement of refugees towards the UK from a number of countries across the Middle East and Africa which is manifesting itself in Calais, a town just across the Channel from England. There is a make-shift camp that has been steadily growing and refugees have been trying to cross the Channel in a number of ways. Some have been jumping into lorries. Others have been sitting on axles under the lorries. Some have been hiding themselves in boots of the cars of unsuspecting tourists. And some have climbed on to the roofs of trains going through the tunnel under the sea. The risks which some refugees take are an indication of their desperation: a number have died trying to cross the Channel in these ways.
Before considering how we can exercise responsible citizenship in this situation, I need to make three points. Firstly, the country has benefited and been enriched in many ways from migration and many of our institutions would collapse without them. Immigration is part of the DNA of UK. Dmitris Avramapoulos, politician in the EU with responsibility for migration and home affairs, has said that Europe will need migrants in the future in the light of an ageing population across Europe as a whole.
Secondly, it is difficult to locate reliable and impartial data about the impact of migration on health services. Some newspapers stir up anti-immigrant feeling with headlines like that of the Daily Mail (30thSeptember, 2015): ‘Sickly immigrants add £1bn to National Health Service bill.’ In the Daily Telegraph of 8th December, 2013 a report begins, ‘Each immigrant costs the taxpayer up to £8,350 a year in healthcare, education and benefits bills, according to official government figures. ‘ However, other research undertook a survey and discovered that a group of probable immigrants used hospital care relatively rarely – in fact, admission rates were around half that of English-born people of the same age and sex. So it is important that a tone of reality is injected into such debates and ensures that those who do not wish to have migrants in the country and who set out to distort and interpret figures for their own political or social purposes, do not go unchallenged. This is responsible citizenship.
Christians have something to say in this area. Deep in the tradition of Jewish and Christian scripture is a requirement to look to the needs of the stranger and the alien. Abraham gave hospitality to three strangers, unaware that they were angels from God (Genesis 18.1-15). The church has a responsibility to get across these important points. We should not get into the war about numbers and statistics because all numbers can be manipulated.
Having said that, any major increase in migration is bound to have an impact on health and other services and this will be particularly noticed in poorer areas where there are already migrants. Responsible citizenship (and the church has a role here) needs to ensure that the climate of decision making about the future of these migrants is just and that those voices that encourage hatred against migrants entering the country do not drown out other voices that want to be generous in their response to this humanitarian catastrophe.
In the UK, the reaction has swung wildly from anti-migrant talk to ‘migrants welcome’ posters being held up. But the climate in which numbers are discussed needs to be less volatile and more measured. It is in this climate that really difficult questions can be faced about the numbers that the infra-structure can support and manage.
At present, the government is thinking of ways to alleviate the strain on the infra-structure in two ways. First there is a charge levied on the cost of the visa which goes towards to healthcare which may be used by the immigrant. Secondly, there will be a charge for some services, for example, if a person approaches a doctor for help, they could be charged for the doctor’s services. These were aspirations, hopes, for the future, but I have not heard how far they have been implemented. The Church tries to ensure that the poorest do not suffer injustice through the system and the church tries to be the voice of the poor.
All of this points to ways in which Christians can exercise responsible citizenship. It is important that we pray for our leaders and support our leaders when it is right to do so. However, it is also important that we are not identified with them completely. We need to be critical friends of our leaders and hopefully they will be critical friends to us. Finally, we need to steer clear of the numbers game, and instead we need to elucidate the principles and witness on which we stand.
7th October, 2015