In a joint letter to the Home Secretary, the leaders of five Churches have expressed their concern at the Government's announcement that it intends to suspend the programme for the safe re-settlement of unaccompanied minors seeking refuge in the United Kingdom.
In May 2016 Parliament committed itself to an ongoing programme of resettlement for lone children, following Lord Dubs' amendment. While exact figures were not given in final legislation, the number envisaged was considerably more than the limit that has now been imposed. The intention to suspend the programme was made in a written ministerial statement earlier this week.
In a joint statement and a letter to the Home Secretary, leaders of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, Quakers in Britain, the United Reformed Church and the Methodist Church have urged the Government to reconsider and adopt a policy that prioritises the wellbeing of children. The statement points out the potentially damaging effect of signalling to already vulnerable minors that they are unlikely to find safe passage and re-settlement if they make themselves known to relevant authorities. Compelling evidence shows that many such children have simply "disappeared" from the temporary refugee camps. The statement also highlights work already done by churches and community groups to provide welcome and support for refugee children and families, and encourages an approach that actively seeks to engage with such agencies, rather than limiting provision to the capacity of Local Authorities.
Commenting on the statement, Rt Rev Dr Russell Barr, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, said: "We urge UK Government ministers to reconsider and we remain willing to work with the Home Office to find creative ways to deliver on the widespread expectation on the part of the general public to achieve the goal of 3,000 children as soon as possible. As Christians we believe that there is a moral imperative to 'love our neighbour', illustrated in Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan, that defines anyone in need as our neighbour regardless of race, nationality, religion, language or culture."
Revd Lynn Green, General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, commented: "I have visited some of the temporary camps for myself and have been deeply moved both by the humanity of those who live there, and the vulnerability of unaccompanied children and young people who seek shelter within those communities. Many have already been robbed of much of their childhood and we have a moral responsibility to do all that we can to protect them and provide places of refuge and support"
The Revd Dr Roger Walton, President of the Methodist Conference, commented: "It is not a question of the management of resources, but rather a matter of political will. The way that we treat the most vulnerable is a sign of what we aspire to be as a society."
Paul Parker, Recording Clerk for Quakers in Britain, said: "The ability to ask for sanctuary is a human right, and the willingness to provide it is an act of basic humanity. If the effect of the Government's decision is that a child's safest route to sanctuary in Britain is to risk their life on the back of a truck, then we as a country must do better."
The Revd Kevin Watson, General Assembly Moderator of the United Reformed Church, added: "We lament this decision made by the Government, which must do all that is within its power to recognise and uphold the rights of children fleeing conflict."
We are dismayed to hear, through the announcement from the Immigration Minister this week, of our Government's intention to suspend its programme of resettling unaccompanied minors in March 2017. We urge the Government to reconsider this decision and to recognise the potential harm that this policy might cause.
Throughout the United Kingdom, our churches have sought to offer welcome and practical support to refugees and asylum seekers of all ages, often working in partnership with other faith and community groups. It is disappointing your consideration of provision is restricted to the perceived capacity of Local Authorities. This approach is devoid of ambition and lacks creativity. We would encourage an approach to refugee re-settlement that actively includes and engages those community groups and agencies, who offer the potential of raising our existing capacity.
There is compelling evidence that many young people have "disappeared" from temporary camps. If this disturbing trend is to be avoided in future, it is vital that they have the confidence to present themselves to the relevant authorities at their earliest opportunity. This will only happen if they know that in so doing, they will be cared for and given safe passage. The current policy announcement risks sending out a message that will further discourage this, and thus significantly increase the risk of harm to these children.
As the minister rightly asserted, the UK can be proud of its record in welcoming refugee children, which now extends back for over half a century. We believe that this should continue to be the case and would urge the abandonment of any policy that gives any impression to the contrary.
As a nation we have a rigorous approach to safeguarding, reflecting a strong commitment to the wellbeing of children and vulnerable citizens. We do not believe that this commitment should be limited by political borders.
We urge you therefore to adopt a policy that places the wellbeing and safety of children above every other consideration. Not only do we commend this as representing our own Christian values, but it is what we believe the overwhelming majority of UK citizens would believe to be right and just.
Revd Lynn Green, General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain
Rt Rev Dr Russell Barr, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
Revd Kevin Watson, General Assembly Moderator of the United Reformed Church
Mr Alan Yates, General Assembly Moderator of the United Reformed Church
Revd Dr Roger Walton, President of the Methodist Conference
Ms Rachel Lampard, Vice-President of the Methodist Conference
Mr Paul Parker, Recording Clerk for Quakers in Britain