Actually, the crisis is not in Europe, but in the appallingly destructive states from which millions of people are fleeing.

If, as some politicians and commentators are suggesting, we can't solve the problem by simply taking more and more refugees (and, which has some truth to it, thereby feeding the people-traffickers), then more strategic attention has to be paid to tackling the problem at source. And that is where it gets embarrassing – many of the problems have arisen because of western military intervention in places that have now collapsed into violence.

The Prime Minister is reported as saying that “we can't take any more”. This is not a given – it is a choice. We can take more refugees – we choose not to. That is a different matter.

Perhaps the compassionate and costly response of Germany has something to do with a living memory of such humanitarian need on their own land and caused by their own choices. There is no reason why we on our island should not demonstrate a similar compassionate imagination. Furthermore, if not already being done with some urgency, other Middle Eastern countries (probably excluding Jordan which has already absorbed huge numbers during the last few years) should be pressured to take refugees – something they seem not to be keen to do.

The mass migration – from which we in the UK have largely been protected since the aftermath of the Second World War – we are seeing now demands a strategic European response. Anything else will be both incoherent and inhumane. That is the political demand in a humanitarian crisis.

 

So, the BBC is being hounded again as if the producers are leftie, hand-wringing imbeciles. Songs of Praise is coming from Calais, and some people don't like it. Nothing to do with the French, of course.

Songs of Praise usually gets slagged off for being … er …Songs of Praise. Often the critique is that it is bland or anodyne. Well, not now it isn't.

The decision to record in the Jungle of Calais, right at the heart of where migrants are trying desperately to find a new life in a place of safety, is absolutely the right one. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Christian Faith is about God in the real world, not relegated to some imaginary fairy land where it can't do any harm or embarrass anyone. The Psalms – the hymn book Jesus used – are full of lament, question, anger, frustration and challenge: why do the rich always prosper, why are the dice always loaded in favour of the powerful, why do the oppressors seem to get away with it? In other words, faith impacts on politics.
  2. Worship, as suggested above, does not happen in the abstract. It pours out of hearts and minds and bodies and mouths of real people – often where the realities of life are the most difficult. The Incarnation – seen particularly in the cross of Calvary – is about God opting into the reality of human life and suffering and not exempting himself from it. He comes to where the pain is most acute and does not turn away.

So, why does broadcasting from Calais cause such a wild reaction? Part of the answer lies in the ideological drum being banged by those – particularly in the media – who want to sell off the BBC and turn it into just another media outfit. Stuff the world reputation and its inherent value. But, I wonder if Calais is just too difficult for us when we feel human compassion, but intuit its clash with political preference.

If we don't like being exposed to worship from Calais, then it is for us to face the hard question of why – not simply to project this on to the soft target of the BBC.

The BBC is doing precisely what it is there for – something no other channel would do, probably. Instead of being dissed, the BBC and its producers of Songs of Praise should be praised for doing their job and doing it well.

(I have just seen Steve Chalke's good piece on the same theme here.)

 

The current rhetoric around immigration, asylum and 'foreigners' is not one might call constructive. Statistics are bandied around, particularly by politicians determined to cut numbers. However, behind the numbers are people.

Last week I visited PAFRAS, a centre dedicated to care for and serve asylum-seekers and refugees, based in a church hall in Leeds. PAFRAS stands for 'Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers'. It is a charity, runs mainly on volunteers, and is interested purely in the human faces behind the bald statistics. They feed them, offer community and human society, screen them for medical needs and offer advice in a range of matters. They also run classes for teaching English. Food is also provided and served by a group of young Muslim men who asked to be involved.

What is remarkable is how all this goes on without remark. It isn't done for kudos or gain, but in order to help some very vulnerable people. Yet, what you notice in visiting and speaking with people there is that behind the factual vulnerability of their circumstances, there are some very impressive people who have the determination to withstand poverty in order to make a better life. Many are here because they would have had (literally) no life in their country of origin.

People who bandy statistics should be compelled to visit such places, meet such people, listen to their stories, look them in the eyes, then return to the narrative lent credence by the use of statistics.

Interestingly, this visit followed a visit earlier in the week to the National Coal Mining Museum for England. Apart from finding myself in a deep pit – OK, only 140 metres down – I had to think through the way in which (in some cases) centuries of mining had shaped the sociopsychology of whole communities … and how the abrupt ending (for economic reasons) of this industry deeply scarred these communities, probably for decades to come.

Again, behind the headlines and the economic/political debates there are people with faces and histories – relationships forged and torn apart by the strikes of the 1980s. Yet, while some have engaged in forgiveness and reconciliation, others remain isolated by their former allegiances.

It is not for me to cast judgement on this. But, as with the asylum-seekers and refugees at PAFRAS, human beings bring stories and memories, cultures and relationships, commitments and costs. Sometimes it is important to step back from rhetoric and judgement, and to look and listen – and to see the complicating human person behind it all.

This evening I am going out to the Saturday Gathering, a young church community in Halifax where all-comers – including some of the most vulnerable people in the town – have found love, grace, unreserved care and genuine fellowship. I will be baptising a family of four. Tomorrow I will be at Wakefield Cathedral to preach at two 'hospice' services in the afternoon for people who have been bereaved – we expect around 1,100 people to take part. Behind all these encounters echoes the haunting melody of the Gospel reading read always at Christmas: John 1:1-14. “The Word (the logos, the idea) took flesh and lived among us”… the 'incarnation' changes everything. God comes to us – not vice versa – and we find that we have already been found by him.

That is what underlies the commitment of many who give themselves through the church to the most vulnerable people in our society: love has to take flesh, and the most surprising people can open their eyes and know that they matter.

(And when I go to the meeting of the House of Bishops in London on Monday, these are the people and places that shape the lens through which we do the business.)

 

In his book Culture and the Death of God Terry Eagleton quotes Voltaire being rude about the English. “They give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts,” he said. I guess his point was that the English are cool about religion, hating extremes and being wary of enthusiasm. It also suggests, though, that the English are concerned only with money, and that the greatest blasphemy is to lose it.

But, heard in today's world, it questions our basic values and what, essentially, we consider to be worth living and dying for – or, at least, what we consider worth allowing others to die for.

At the end of August I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in which I put a series of questions about British foreign policy in the Middle East and its coherence within a clear strategy for realising a thought-through vision. The letter caused a bit of a media storm when it was published in the Observer newspaper. The PM was – understandably – not pleased.

When I received a long, helpful and detailed response from David Cameron, he addressed some questions more clearly than others; but, it was certainly not a fob-off response. I replied to his letter recently and pressed certain points.

As I said at the time, my purpose in writing the letter was to articulate what I thought to be the focused questions that went to the heart of people's concerns about what was going on particularly (but not exclusively) in Syria and Northern Iraq. What, I asked, is the overarching vision that guides responses to the particular crises that keep exploding? In my response I explained that the reason for allowing the Observer to publish the letter was that too many people were writing to ministers and MPs with serious concerns about the plight of suffering people and simply getting no response – including the Archbishop of York. For weeks. My approach certainly got the debate out into the public and media and placed the question of coherence at the top of the agenda.

Or did it?

Parliament is being recalled on Friday in order to – and I quote the BBC news report I heard on the way to the airport this morning, prior to writing this post on the flight to Berlin – “endorse military attacks on Islamic State”. Not to debate and decide, but to endorse a decision already made.

Now, the morality of this decision will be for another discussion. What concerns me here is the strategic purpose of the decision. What I meant in my question about coherence and (ad hoc) reaction is this: how do we avoid foreign policy commitments that simply respond pragmatically to short-term stimuli whereby yesterday's friend (to whom we supplied arms and money) becomes my enemy and today's enemy becomes my reluctant friend simply because he happens – for now, at least – to be my new enemy's enemy?

Is the planned use of violence part of a coherent long-term plan, or a short-term pragmatic response to an immediate stimulus – which might cause problems down the line which haven't been thought through properly now? Killing terrorists is the easy bit.

One of the problems with our politics is that we don't allow space for doubt. Repeatedly stating that “our policy is clear” does not make that policy clear, any more than me repeatedly saying I am a banana makes me yellow. But, politicians aren't allowed to ask difficult questions publicly because (apparently) we, the electorate, want clarity and certainty. Not always helpful, is it? I, for one, would prefer honesty – and some clarity about what would be gained and lost by any particular policy, without the pretence that every policy has to be 100% clear and certain. And right.

So, what have I learned from recent correspondence? (a) If the overarching vision and strategy are clear and coherent, then I still can't see it. Perhaps that says more about my limited mind than it does about policy. (b) What is very clear, however, is that there is no intention to make any asylum provision for IS refugees beyond what is already open to people wanting to claim asylum in the UK. I suspect this is because the PM (but other leaders are not breaking ranks on this) sees electoral suicide in doing anything that feeds UKIP or associates such provision with toxic immigration contamination. The only way to get around this is for those – particularly Christians – who don't like this to bombard party leaders and MPs with very focused letters that demonstrate that not all voters are xenophobic. (c) Asylum provision should be made, but should not be a tool for encouraging the evacuation of Christians and other minorities from the Middle East where they have been for centuries and where their spiritual, social and cultural contribution must not be lost. The stakes are high.

Incidentally, the two unanswered questions put down in the House of Lords by the Bishop of Coventry regarding asylum were eventually answered on 15 September by Lord Wallace of Saltaire. They read as follows:

“There are no current plans to resettle those displaced from ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq. However, we are proud of the UK's record of offering protection to those genuinely in need, and the Government will of course continue to consider asylum claims, including from Iraqi nationals suffering religious persecution, under the normal rules.”

“The safety and security of the UK are our priority. An essential part of delivering this is knowing who is coming to the UK and carrying out all necessary checks in advance of their arrival. We therefore ensure that the necessary checks are undertaken before those accepted on the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme arrive in the UK. We have also been working with local partners, including local authorities, the police and healthcare sector, to ensure the safeguarding of individuals on the scheme when they arrive in the UK.”

Was Voltaire right in his assessment of the English? Discuss.

(And the reason it has taken me so long to post on this blog is simply that I have been working all hours for weeks – the creation of this new diocese is a little demanding at present – and haven't had the headspace or time to write. And, coincidentally, I am now in Berlin with the Meissen Commission, having spent time today in the Reichstag being hugely impressed with the approach and deep thinking of German political leaders.)

PS. Letters from anonymous people who don't have the courage to put their name and contact details on their communication will be disappointed that all their green ink was spilled in vain. I don't even read anonymous letters – they go straight in the bin.

 

I was at the BBC studios in MediaCity, Salford, this morning to take part in a radio discussion about immigration. Well, not about immigration itself, but the campaign currently being run by the Tory part of the government (their Liberal Democrat coalition partners are distinctly queasy about it) to show how hard they are regarding illegal immigrants.

Maybe it is a coincidence – and I know Godwin's Law might be invoked here – but yesterday was the anniversary of Zigeunernacht – the night of 2/3 August 1944 when the Gypsy Family Camp (The Zigeunerlager) at Auschwitz-Birkenau was ‘liquidated’. 2,897 men, women and children of Roma or Sinti origin were murdered in the gas chambers by the Nazis, their corpses being burned in pits. Of the 23,000 Gypsies imprisoned within the camp, it is estimated that around 20,000 were ultimately murdered.

Well, it all began with the corruption of language. That's how propaganda works. You change the associations and re-align semantics in order (often subliminally) to change perceptions and manipulate affections. So, yes, I have banged on about language many times before now – and, no, I am not suggesting that the government's current immigration campaign will inevitably lead to another holocaust. But, what I failed to get across coherently on the radio this morning is this:

  • We need a full, informed and intelligent public debate about immigration, and not the current polarised, nasty slanging match in which parties compete to be the 'hardest'.
  • We must distinguish between the 'issue' of immigration and the current campaign by the government. Immigration is a good thing and without it Britain would be stuffed. Our wealth has been created (for good and ill) by immigrants to this country in recent centuries.
  • It is a nasty little distraction to compensate for complete failure by governments to establish, monitor and run an effective immigration policy by targeting a few illegal immigrants with a crude campaign.
  • If effectiveness is important in evaluating any policy, then this one must surely be doomed. How many 'offenders' have turned themselves in so far? We are getting daily updates on numbers of 'immigration offenders' on the Home Office's twitter feed, so why not a daily update on the numbers of those handing themselves over?
  • Isn't it the great British addition to maintain that people are innocent until proven guilty? Then why are these people called 'immigration offenders' when they can only be 'suspected immigration offenders'? And how many of them are turning out to be people whose applications for asylum or right to remain are held up in the massive and endless backlog queues at the Home Office?
  • Net migration is not a problem. Yet, from time to time we hear that we are not getting enough immigrants to met the needs of our economy. Why are immigrants being targeted (and impugned as a financial and social burden) – and why is this being coupled with welfare costs or burdens on the NHS?

These are just some of the questions hanging around. The real issue, however, has to do with the motivation for this unpleasant political campaign. And it is political. It is a macho PR stunt that will achieve little, but cause real damage to language, culture and community. It relies on the sort of categorisation of 'sorts of people' that dehumanises them by association – thus rendering them subject to 'different' values of behaviour or treatment.

The point is that the campaign with the vans, the twitter feed and the selective picking on people at London stations (based on crude racial profiling – if you are not white, you are fair game for stopping and checking) contributes to a coarsening of perceptions about immigrants, regardless of whether they are legal or illegal. It increases fear on the part of immigrants, creates a culture of suspicion and 'anti-otherness', and achieves nothing of any positive purpose.

It all begins with the corruption of language and the confusion of issues. 'Illegal immigrants' morphs into 'immigrants' and the categorisation has begun.

Has any Home Office minister ever visited airport deportation centres and sat down with frightened people to listen to their human story? Aha! But, there's the rub: that would humanise the 'illegal immigrant' and make it harder to get rid of him/her.

If the government wants to address immigration, it should do so by sorting out a workable policy and ensure that those who do apply for asylum or a right to remain are treated humanely, efficiently and effectively – and, if appropriate, prevented from entering the country in the first place. To distract attention with displays of hardness has everything to do with political PR and little to do with reality – except for those whose reality is to be a victim of the campaign.

(And I haven't even started on a Christian theological anthropology of immigration…)

 

Yesterday was an odd one. It was Yorkshire Day here in … er … Yorkshire – the annual celebration of the White Rose counties just south of 'Desolation'. It was also Swiss National Day – which caused me to say, at the start of an address in Skipton, that we should tip our hats to Toblerone and recognise that William Tell would never get a clean CRB for shooting a crossbow at an apple on the head of some kid.

But, if moving elegantly – if bizarrely – from lessons learned in my last two years in Yorkshire (including when it is unwise to go anywhere without a 'priest' and a 'condom') to the human vocation to be generous to outsiders (it all has to do with Deuteronomy 26, never forgetting your origins as homeless people, and making space for the strangers) seems odd, then have a look at today's news.

The US Secretary of State has called the military coup in Egypt “restoring democracy“. So, whatever we might think of its behaviour and policies in office, a democratically elected government is ousted by the armed forces and this is “restoring democracy”? Forgive the rest of us simpletons for having trouble with this notion – which sounds like it came out of 1984. This has nothing to do with Morsi's credentials or the Muslim Brotherhood's real intentions, but a lot to do with principles. How many other 'democracies' might be overturned by the military because they don't like who got freely elected – only to find this approved by the USA?

On the other hand, the US administration is furious at Russia's decision to grant Edward Snowden one year's asylum in their country – not one renowned for upholding human rights or freedom of information. But, if a Russian exposed what the Russian secret services were doing to bug the world's communications systems, would the US simply return him to Russia at Putin's request? 'Our' spies are always traitors; others' spies are always courageous heroes. And isn't there something profoundly undemocratic about a surveillance state harvesting electronic communications indiscriminately and without the sanction or knowledge of those who elected them?

However serious we need to be about having an intelligent and informed debate in the UK about immigration, the current output of the UK Government on Twitter (@ukhomeoffice) on the matter is disturbing. The feed regularly updates the number of people being arrested and where they are. You don't have to be a defender of illegal immigration to find this sort of reporting by a government department as worrying. If, for example, the Zimbabwean Government did a similar thing, would we find it acceptable – or deliberately intimidating? Campaigns of fear are questionable at best.

Which brings us back to the irony of Deuteronomy and the injunction to have rituals whereby we compel ourselves to remember where we have come from and that we are all transient in one way or another. I spoke at the service today in Yorkshire, a county that owes much of its industrial growth in previous generations to immigrants (in Bradford's case, from Ireland and Germany) and much of its entrepreneurial development now to newer generations of immigrants (from South Asia and beyond).

The terms in which we currently 'debate' immigration in the UK cast a dark moral shadow. It is a strange world we live in.

(And a 'priest' is the wooden thing you hit a fish with when you have caught it; a 'flying condom' is a spinner, apparently – although I erroneously called it a 'fly'. Just proves I am at heart a city boy.)

 

While we are waiting to see what the reality of the ‘Big Society’ might look like here in the UK – and while we are absorbing the implications of the Wikileaks deluge of Iraq documentation (as well as wondering if Liverpool will be bottom of the Premier League by the end of this afternoon), it is good to hear that all is going well again in Zimbabwe.

Last week (14 October, to be precise) Immigration Minister Damian Green made a written statement in Parliament. He made the case that the time is now right to send asylum seekers back because conditions in Zimbabwe have improved so much since the formation of a Government of National Unity in 2009 between President Robert Mugabe (Zanu-PF) and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai (Movement for Democratic Change). This is what Green said:

I am announcing today our intention to end the current suspension of enforced returns of failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe. There are some Zimbabweans who continue to have a well-founded fear of persecution; we continue to grant protection to those people. As with any other nationality, every case is considered on its individual merits and against the background of the latest available country information from a wide range of reliable sources including international organisations, non-governmental organisations and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.The courts have found that not all Zimbabweans are in need of international protection and given the improved situation on the ground in Zimbabwe since the formation of the inclusive Government in 2009, the time is now right to bring our policy on returns of failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers into line with that on every other country. This will mean that failed asylum seekers from Zimbabwe will from now on be treated in exactly the same way as failed asylum seekers of all other countries when it comes to enforcing returns.

Those found not to be in need of protection have always been expected to return home. We prefer these individuals to return voluntarily and many hundreds have done so. It is in everyone’s interest for people to return to Zimbabwe and use their skills to support themselves and help rebuild the country. The Government support this process and are in active dialogue with Zimbabweans to explore how this process can be further assisted.

It remains open to Zimbabweans to return home voluntarily under one of the assisted voluntary return (AVR) programmes which are available for individuals of all nationalities. There are three programmes available under which all returnees receive support in acquiring travel documentation, flight costs to their country of origin and onward domestic transport, airport assistance at departure and arrival airports and, for those eligible, up to £1,500 worth of reintegration assistance per person including a £500 relocation grant on departure for immediate resettlement needs and, once home, a range of reintegration options which are delivered “in kind”.

The Immigration and Asylum Chamber of the Unified Tribunal Service (IAC) will be hearing in the near future a further country guidance case on general safety of return to Zimbabwe which we expect to reflect the improvements in Zimbabwe since the previous country guidance case was decided in 2008. Therefore, although there is no reason why Zimbabweans who both we, and the courts, have found not to be in need of protection should not now be removed, we will not enforce the first returns until the IAC has delivered its determination. Those who have no right to remain in the UK, and who chose not to return voluntarily, will then face enforced return, in exactly the same way as failed asylum seekers of all other countries.

This change in asylum policy which I have announced today does not reflect any change in our categorical opposition to human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. We will continue to call, both bilaterally and with our international partners, for an end to all such abuses and the restoration of internationally accepted human rights standards in Zimbabwe.

So, there is still no rule of law. Violence is still being used against ordinary people. The forthcoming referendum on the new Constitution looks likely to be followed by a new election. And reports we get every day from contacts on the ground in Zimbabwe tell of fear, threat and intimidation. Just because the US Dollar has allowed a degree of economic stability should not be interpreted as an ‘improvement’ in the overall situation in the country.

Consider the following few facts and be grateful for the ‘improvements’:

  • The Bishops of Manicaland and Harare have been out of Zimbabwe for a couple of weeks because they were threatened with assassination. One has returned – against advice from within Zimbabwe – but has been given emergency contacts with diplomats in case of trouble. (If someone turns up to shoot you, do you ask him to wait while you phone an embassy?)
  • Court rulings in favour of the Province of Central Africa in respect of legal status, appropriation of assets and use of buildings belonging to the Province are ignored by the Police who claim to have orders ‘from above’ which overrule the court rulings.
  • Police intimidation and violence against ordinary people who choose not to leave the legitimate Anglican Church in favour of the utterly corrupt (and ‘excommunicated’) Nolbert Kunonga – now self-appointed ‘Archbishop of Zimbabwe’ and unrecognised by any other Anglican anywhere!
  • Incursions into other dioceses by the deposed bishops, Kunonga and Jakazi, backed by police and intimidatory in the extreme.
  • Harrassment and abuse of returned (failed) asylum seekers from the UK.

Well, all of that is clearly of little relevance to the ideological needs of the coalition government in the UK to get shot of as many asylum seekers as possible in as short a time as possible.

OK, sarcasm aside, at least let’s be honest about what is going on and why. If it is for economic, political or ideological reasons, let’s admit it. But, don’t let’s pretend that Zimbabwe is a safe place to be returned to – especially from the old colonialist enemy and fount of all evil, the UK.

Given that I am one of those who fundamentally agreed with Morgan Tsvangarai that Zimbabwean expats in the UK need to go back as soon as possible in order to help re-build their country and take responsibility for establishing their democracy, I don’t write this lightly. We shall await the ruling of the Immigration and Asylum Chamber of the Unified Tribunal Service with both interest and concern – especially as the Minister seemed to know the likely outcome four days before the court even met.