Britain's treatment of asylum seekers is “highly irresponsible” and at odds with the vision of Pope Francis, the director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in the UK said during a Vatican press conference.
Speaking at the presentation of the Pope’s annual message for migrants and refugees, Sarah Teather argued the policies pursued by Boris Johnson’s government do not give asylum seekers the chance to be integrated.
Her remarks came as Francis warned that across the world the recognition of a common humanity is “crumbling and cracking due to myopic and aggressive forms of nationalism and radical individualism.” The “highest price” for populist-nationalist policies, the Jesuit Pope stressed, is “being paid by those who most easily become viewed as others: foreigners, migrants, the marginalised.”
The former Liberal Democrat MP and former Government minister said that in the UK migrants were bearing the brunt of divisive policies.
“I think they are pursuing a highly irresponsible strategy that seeks to divide through scapegoating both in terms of the use of rhetoric and language and also new policy,” Ms Teather said in answer to a question from The Tablet on the British government’s migrant and refugee policies.
“All of this is pulling away from the message of Pope Francis when he is talking about journeying together, creating a common human journey, a common human family.”
She pointed to the increasing use of the Napier Barracks asylum centre in Kent, South East England, to house hundreds of refugees. The former military site has been described as “filthy and run-down” by inspectors.
“The Government seem to be pursuing a policy that is deliberately divisive, that deliberately separates asylum seekers, that prevents them from integrating and being welcomed,” Teather, whose organisation offers support for those displaced from their home countries, explained. “They are not really giving the British people the benefit of having the opportunity to welcome people, and I think the British people are much better than that.”
The Jesuit refugee director has in the past described plans to overhaul the British asylum system, where new arrivals would have their claim based on how they arrived in the UK, as “cruel and dishonest”.
At the today's briefing she said: “They [the government] are seeking to malign asylum seekers who are forced to use irregular routes to enter the UK to try and seek asylum, when in fact they have done almost nothing to put in place any safe and regular routes to seek sanctuary.”
Ms Teather took part in the press briefing remotely and was joined by Bishop Paul McAleenan, an auxiliary in Westminster, Fr Fabbio Baggio, from the Holy See’s migrants and refugees section, Sister Alessandra Smerilli, from the Vatican’s human development department, and the Cardinal Michael Czerny, who is the Pope’s point man on migrants and refugees work and a fellow Jesuit.
In his message for the 107th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2021, Francis stressed that the Church’s “catholicity” made it possible to “embrace everyone" and to build unity in diversity without it booming uniformity.
“In encountering the diversity of foreigners, migrants and refugees, and in the intercultural dialogue that can emerge from this encounter, we have an opportunity to grow as Church and to enrich one another,” the Pope writes.
During the briefing, Cardinal Czerny addressed the fears that some in the Church and wider society have expressed about immigration into Europe from Muslim countries and the threat this poses to Christian identity.
“If we feel that welcoming others is a threat to our faith, then we have to find a solution…it is a real problem if one feels insecure or threatened or vulnerable in our faith life because of others,” he said.
“We need to get beyond the wall, and beyond the barrier. One simple way of highlighting the point is to honestly ask myself: ‘have I ever spoken with or even listened to someone of that other faith? Do I know what I am talking about or am I relying on images, slogans and hearsay. Just as we would feel a religious obligation to find out the truth about other issues, we are also obliged to find out the truth about others, religiously. And not to rely on these fear-mongering cliches which are not only baseless but in fact serving other motives, very different from the real living of my faith as a Christian or, much less of the real living of the newly arrived faith of where he or she comes from.”
Along with the Pope’s message for migrants, the Vatican also released a video which included testimony from the Bishop of El Paso, Mark Seitz, who describes his work with migrants at the US-Mexico border, including when he went to meet families in Mexico “at a time when many were being deported across the border.”
Ms Teather served as an Education Minister from 2010-12 in the Conservative-led coalition government. The Jesuit Refugee Service UK is part of the international Jesuit Refugee Service, founded by the Society of Jesus in 1980, and active in over 50 countries.