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Welcome?

In a chapel address last week, our School Chaplain Reverend Moloney spoke about the tragic recent drowning of migrants in the English Channel.  He quoted Michael Morpurgo’s imagined tale of a migrant child rescued from a dinghy, and left us with the question on his mind: are we a welcoming country?

It is not an easy question to answer. Over the weekend, Pope Francis spoke about the treatment of migrants across Europe, saying that “in Europe there are those who persist in treating the problem as a matter that does not concern them – this is tragic.” And going on to reflect that “history teaches us that narrow self-interest and nationalism lead to disastrous consequences.”

If you make your judgement about whether we are welcoming from the narrative in much of the UK’s media, you might come to the conclusion that the answer is “no, not very”. While there were compassionate responses from the media and political parties in the immediate aftermath of this latest tragedy, there have been many headlines over recent times which strike a very different note. Headlines expressing outrage at the number of people trying to enter the UK, the use of language such as ‘migrant crisis’, and politicians pledging to reduce the numbers entering the country as a way of gaining votes.  

Thinking about this subject, I wondered whether the terminology referring to people seeking new lives in the UK has become blurred, and that these labels are causing us to lose track of the humans behind the headlines.  If we look at the definitions of the terms most commonly used, refugee – a person seeking refuge – refers to people fleeing armed conflict or persecution, and at risk of death if returned to their own country. One of the most fundamental principles laid down in international law is that refugees should not be expelled or returned to situations where their life or freedom would be under threat.

In contrast, asylum seeker is the term given to people who are going through the process which will determine whether they are granted refugee status.  Not every asylum seeker will be recognised as a refugee, but all refugees are known as asylum seekers until the process is complete.  Finally, migrants are people who choose to move, not because of direct threat of persecution or death, but for any number of reasons such as to reunite with family members, for education, or to improve their lives by finding work in another country. 

If we consider the experiences of people arriving in the UK, even via a legal route, it could be fair to say that the complexity of the process might not make it feel very warm or compassionate.  Asylum applicants attend a screening interview, soon after making their application, and are then assigned to a casework team. At a second, more detailed interview, they must provide evidence to back up their asylum claim. Government policy is that it should take around six months for a decision to be made about whether a person’s claim for asylum is valid, but in reality it can take a lot longer. While they wait, asylum seekers are sent to ‘dispersal areas’. They cannot work until their status is determined and they are not entitled to claim mainstream welfare benefits. In this state of limbo, asylum seekers simply have to wait for the outcome of their application to be decided. 

While many people express sympathy for refugees, there is a tendency to be more judgemental about people with other reasons for choosing to enter the UK. What can we do to better understand the motivations driving these people? They will all have their own stories – not necessarily ones that are straightforward – but many will be hoping for a better standard of life than the one they can achieve in the country of their birth. 

In Michael Morpurgo’s story, the fictional uncle describes what life in the UK will be like: the best place on earth where there is no war, where children go to good schools, where there are houses for everyone, food for everyone, hospitals and doctors to care for you, parks, hills and mountains… We might not always appreciate the freedom and (comparative) affluence of our society, but surely we can understand why people might aspire to this, even if they are not at risk in their own countries.  In situations where some are looking for criminal behaviour, can we not recognise the human tales of courage, determination and ambition?  It is an even bigger topic – one I think our economics students might find interesting – but research on the relative increase of wealth across the world if borders were open raises thought-provoking ideas.  

And so I go back to where I started and ask: are we welcoming?  According to data from the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, the UK is one of the least ‘anti-immigration’ countries in Europe (only Sweden and Norway were more favourable).  And their research also suggests that anti-immigration sentiment is decreasing. Maybe we can take that as a positive sign, but it is still hard to say how welcoming we are as a nation when we see these challenging issues played out and debated on the international stage and in the media with no apparent solutions.

Morpurgo began his tale with the words “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”.  As we approach Christmas, and a time when we are all encouraged to think of others, let’s remember that we don’t know the stories and the characters of the people captured in photographs under the headlines.  Perhaps the very least we can do is approach them with an attitude of humanity and compassion.

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.  Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey