The Church believes that we have a moral and Christian duty to welcome migrants. This much has been proclaimed by the Holy Father, and by the hierarchy in Italy, Poland and other countries as well, as this magazine has repeatedly reported.
Here are three immediate distinctions to be made when it comes to welcoming migrants. First, there are the migrants who are actually migrating right now, the ones who are, for example, in the reception centre in Lesbos, which the Pope visited in 2016.
Second, there are those migrants who are already here, but who are undocumented, as they say in certain places, or clandestine, as they say in others (or simply ‘illegal’, as yet others have it).
Thirdly, there are people who could be best described as former migrants, people who entered a country in a perfectly legal and above board way, and who have been in their new country for decades and who have by and large assimilated into the host culture.
I do not think it is controversial to see these three groups as distinct, and each group making a particular claim on our Christian charity. Each group has different needs. But it is the third group that commands attention at present, a group exemplified by the “Windrush generation”, those who came from the West Indies to Britain in 1948 and the years immediately afterwards.
The British government’s shabby treatment of the Windrush generation, which has been widely reported in the last few days, reveals that our government seems to have forgotten that the rulers have a moral obligation to the ruled. The privileges of power come with a responsibility not only to be just but also to be charitable.
It is clear that the government has been unjust to members of the Windrush generation. They are perfectly entitled to be in Britain, and it is unjust that they should be treated as if this right were questionable. That injustice is bad enough; but what is far worse is the sheer lack of charity and human kindness. If someone who came to Britain in the 1950’s no longer has the requisite documentation that the government now suddenly requires of them, surely this should be overlooked? I think of some of the people I knew who came to Britain from Trinidad in 1958, and who were deeply patriotic Britons, and I am horrified to think that 60 years later someone should even dare to suggest that they were somehow here on false pretences.
All who speak English know of Charles Dickens, and even those who have not read the book know the story of Oliver Twist. The poor orphaned boy is looked after by the parish and placed in a workhouse: the ‘charity’ he receives is so cold and so cruel that it is designed to make its recipients regard the acceptance of such miscalled charity as an absolute last resort. In other words, the Victorian state gives in such a way that no one will want to ask for what it gives. (This is called the principle of less eligibility).
Dickens rightly saw the workhouse system (invented by a Liberal government) as cruel and hard-hearted. He was completely correct to see that justice which is not coupled with love can turn into a monstrous virtue. By aiming to create a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants, Teresa May and Amber Rudd have, in the search for justice, lost sight of charity. This is disastrous for the entire country – who wants to live under a government that can be so callous? – and a disaster for them personally and politically.
What is needed is a fundamental rethink of the purpose of government. There is always going to be difficulty resolving the competing claims of justice and charity. The centre of gravity in the continuum between the two has shifted too far towards law enforcement and too far away from the considerations of personal need and the debt of kindness we owe to our fellow beings. It needs recalibrating: perhaps the Windrush debacle may serve some useful purpose in waking us up to what a cruel nation we have become.