December 22, 2022 - 7:00am

Remember the Huguenots? The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, says we should. In a debate in the House of Lords on 9th December, he reminded peers of the welcome the Huguenots — French Protestants persecuted by Catholic France — received in England, and from the Church of England in particular. Their plight is well worth recalling, as is the policy of the English Crown to encourage (and pay for) tens of thousands of them to settle in England and in the colonies abroad. 

Offering asylum to foreigners fleeing oppression is, Welby says, “our tradition, our history and our pride”. We should, he concludes, “make it our future”, too. There is much truth here, but the Archbishop’s wider reflections on the morality of asylum are misconceived. He misunderstands the responsibilities of government and the ways in which our country has in the past, and should in future, help oppressed foreigners. In particular, he is wrong about how to deal with small boats.

The sanctuary offered to the Huguenots should be a cause for national pride. In encouraging settlement in England, the Crown, with the support of Parliament, helped protect tens of thousands in a neighbouring state from persecution. It also denounced the injustice of France, England’s main rival, and weakened it by draining it of some of its ablest citizens.

Several centuries later, many continue to leave France seeking asylum on our shores, but not because they face persecution there. They are safe in France but choose to cross the Channel in a small boat, paying considerable sums to people smugglers to arrange entry into the UK, in breach of our immigration law. The worsening crisis of the Channel crossings is the context in which the moral foundations of asylum must now be considered. 

Welby has been a fierce critic of the morality of the government’s Rwanda plan, denouncing it in his Easter sermon, in a subsequent Telegraph article, and in a letter to the Times with the other Lords Spiritual. In a Policy Exchange paper published a fortnight ago, I took issue with some of the Archbishop’s claims, as well as those of other church leaders, arguing that the moral imperative of caring for the stranger, which the Gospels mandate, does not mean that the Channel has to be an open route into Britain. 

In the recent debate Welby says more than once, and quite forcefully, that the UK cannot take everyone, cannot help all those in need of help, and should have “a system which balances effective, accurate and clear control with compassion and dignity.” The Archbishop says he aims to support action that would “prevent small boats from crossing the channel”, but he also stresses that the UK is not taking many refugees and should take many more. 

Astonishingly, he dismisses the provision our country has made to welcome Hong Kong residents — well over 100,000 to date and many more to come — by saying “and that, by the way, is not asylum but financial visas”. It may not involve an application for asylum as such, but it clearly involves flight from oppression. Welby also draws the wrong conclusion from the fact that developing countries host many more refugees than developed countries. This is much cheaper than settlement in the West and makes return more likely. Developed countries should help pay the costs, and the UK leads the way in this regard.

The control Welby claims to support does not presently exist. The small boats cannot safely be turned around in the Channel and France will not accept their immediate return. The Rwanda plan is a rational (if imperfect) attempt to address the problem, removing asylum-seekers to a safe third country, where they will be protected, yet the Archbishop decries the plan on the grounds that it outsources our responsibilities. This makes no sense, for the UK not only accepts that Rwanda must comply with international standards, but also commits to funding the protection of those who prove to be refugees. Welby asserts that the plan has failed to deter. Indeed, because it has not yet been tried at all. 

The UK has good reason to resettle in safe third countries those who enter unlawfully on small boats, which would discourage others from (dangerous) unlawful entry and restore control of our borders. The historic tradition on which the Archbishop relies is alive and well in the provision our government has made, with wide public support, for temporary protection from Ukrainians escaping Russian aggression and for resettlement of the new Huguenots, the Hong Kong residents seeking to escape the oppressive reach of the Chinese Communist state. 

Richard Ekins is Head of Policy Exchange’s Judicial Power Project and Professor of Law and Constitutional Government, University of Oxford

Richard Ekins is Head of Policy Exchange’s Judicial Power Project and Professor of Law and Constitutional Government, University of Oxford.