What Benedict XVI can teach us about welcoming refugees

Pope Benedict XVI waves after celebrating mass in the Amadou Ahidjo stadium in Yaounde (Getty Images)

This week, as we published a new report at the Jesuit Refugee Service looking at homelessness amongst refugees, words from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical came flooding back to me. Christian love of neighbour, he said, is a response to and a sharing of God’s love. But neighbours aren’t only people like me, because the Christian concept of neighbour is a universal, that is, a catholic one.

Benedict warned that this love is especially important where we are confronted with the idea that we have a “duty of hatred”. Such a perverse “duty of hatred”, I realised, finds a close parallel in a key aspect of government policy towards certain groups of forcibly displaced people: the hostile environment agenda.

At the Jesuit Refugee Service in East London, we serve forcibly displaced people struggling to gain recognition of their refugee status. Prohibited from working and without access to any government support, they are rendered destitute. This destitution is crafted by government. Policy-makers pursue what they term a “hostile environment agenda” towards undocumented migrants. This criminalises for them many everyday activities and makes it extremely difficult for undocumented migrants to access vital services, notably healthcare.

Furthermore, the hostile environment agenda shuts down the space for individuals of conscience to act within a moral, and especially a Christian, framework. It co-opts as agents people encountering undocumented migrants in their daily lives and professions. NHS staff must report on patients; doctors can find themselves with a “duty” to refuse care; landlords must report on tenants; those renting privately are precariously placed if they offer a sofa to friends or family members without immigration status. In short, the government imposes on individuals and communities a duty to be hostile.

This is all done to enforce compliance with decisions about immigration. This troubles me because I know the stories of some of those this system targets from JRS UK. Those we work with have often initially been refused asylum, but many are ultimately granted it. That is, the government declares that they do not need international protection. Then, perhaps after years, it acknowledges that they do. How can this happen? The asylum determination system does not work, yet extreme hardship is imposed to enforce the decisions of this broken system, ensnaring many trapped by circumstances outside their control.

A survey at our day centre, detailed in our report Out in the Cold, uncovered the disturbing reality they then face: people often slept rough, and otherwise in insecure accommodation where many were vulnerable to abuse.

The hostile environment infects the moral fibre of our society. In some cases, it criminalises basic moral duties we owe to each other. In myriad others it breaks community bonds, enforcing marginalisation where it should promote integration. The purposeful manufacture of human suffering is the action of a society without moral narrative or purpose, and with no respect for the sanctity of human life.

Benedict’s vision of Christian love in Deus Caritas Est is by contrast, rich with moral purpose, grounded in “The Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny.” Anyone concerned with such an image of God, mankind, and human destiny must be gravely troubled by the destitution of forcibly displaced people.