The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, has been strongly criticised for backing an attempt by anti-immigration campaigners to turn migration into a confrontational election issue and for appearing to want migrants who accept 'Christian values' to have priority.
A group of largely Conservative politicians, backed by Lord Carey, Baroness Boothroyd and Labour's Frank Field MP, issued a call on 6 January 2010 for manifesto commitments from the main parties to drastically reduce net immigration to the UK to 1990s levels and to except a population cap of 70 million.
However, data from the Office of National Statistics released in November 2009 concluded that net migration – the number of people who come to live in Britain minus the number who move abroad – actually fell by more than a third to 163,000 in 2008, its lowest level since Poland joined the European Union.
Immigration reached 590,000, with the largest single group comprising 85,000 British citizens returning to live in the UK. That total compares with 574,000 in 2007 and 596,000 in 2006.
The 'Balanced Migration' campaign, which has the backing of the established anti-immigration lobby organisation Migration Watch has been received enthusiastically by Britain's tabloid newspapers. It says it is attempting to thwart the political progress of the far-right British National Party.
However, critics - including church figures, human rights activists and refugee and asylum campaigners - suggest that accepting similar assumptions to the BNP and proposing policies which look like watered-down versions of theirs, is part of the problem, not the solution.
Meanwhile, Lord Carey is in trouble for appearing to suggest that Christian migrants should be given priority over others. According to a Daily Express article by Alison Little, headlined 'Let Christian migrants in first, demands Carey' and a Times opinion piece by the former archbishop entitled 'Migration threatens the DNA of our nation' (7 January 2010) he stressed however that he did not want to prevent non-Christian immigrants from entering the country.
The Rev Vaughan Jones, a United Reformed Church minister who heads the cross-London agency Praxis, which specialises in working with displaced people, said yesterday:
On the substantive issue of radically cutting migration and introducing a population cap, Jones said:
Lord Carey is living in an unreal world. Church offices and local clergy face daily frustration around immigration issues for members of churches, international theological students and visiting church officials. Immigration controls are biting and biting hard, creating many pastoral problems including the forced separation of families.
Obscurely worded rhetoric about supposed 'Christian values' and British society is far removed from the coal face. We so desperately need church leaders to devote time and love for our Christian brothers and sisters languishing in Britain’s deportation centres - and for all people fleeing misery and persecution. Lord Carey's interventions let down hard-working clergy in his own Church and others who are supporting desperate people.
The demand for an optimum population is fundamentally at odds with orthodoxHe added:
Christian teaching. Christians believe in the protection of life and a just stewardship and sharing of the earth's resources. Without immigration we would need to take some very drastic decisions about who could and who could not live. This is a life and death issue for many.
We are faced with a changing demography which will either require the UK to have a smaller population with fewer elderly people or a larger one which has a sufficient base of people who are economically active to support the larger number of people who are not. Numbers are not the issue. In place of populist and vacuous statements and sterile debates we need urgent action to create international agreements on the movement and exchange of labour, peace-building, ecological responsibility and respect between people of faith.In his Times article Lord Carey responded to interpretations of his earlier remarks which had been construed by the BBC Radio 4 Today programme and the Express as wanting Christians as a group to be given priority. He wrote: "what I am saying is that those who seek to live in this country [should] recognise that they are coming to a country with a Christian heritage and an established Church."
Carey also wrote: "[t]he sheer numbers of migrants from within Europe and elsewhere put the resources of Britain under enormous pressure, but also threaten the very ethos or DNA of our nation."
On BBC Radio FiveLive's breakfast programme, Lord Carey responded to broadcaster Nicky Campbell's question "So because we want people with certain values, it's more likely that they will come from Christian countries?" by saying, "Exactly"
But senior Welsh churchman and ecumenist the Rev Aled Edwards OBE, responding on his website, said: "Lord Carey’s discussion around matters of faith is deeply problematic. Migrants who wish to enter the UK lawfully cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their religion or belief."
He went on: "His sense of the ‘DNA of our nation’ will not be shared by many good British citizens of different faiths and of none. The UK now also has three devolved Governments containing parties with a sense of national identity that isn’t primarily British. This reality impacts increasingly on faith communities. The notion that migrants to Wales should be made to believe that they live in a country with an established church is as quaint as it is erroneous. Wales has no established church."
The evangelical Jubilee Centre commented: "Irrespective of whether it is even realistic for politicians to set population targets, our response to this widely-felt concern should surely be tempered by compassion."
Meanwhile, a New Statesman journalist, Samira Shackle responded to Lord Carey:
There is something profoundly uncomfortable about taking one faith and stating that its members are by nature more democratic, particularly given that Christianity is by no means monolithic... Let's not pretend that Christians always, by default, do democracy... Christianity is the dominant religion in Belarus, the last remaining dictatorship in Europe. So, too, in Zimbabwe.She concluded:
The call for a cap on immigration is said to be motivated in part by a desire not to play into the hands of the far right. But stirring up divisions along religious lines risks doing just that.
By Ekklesia staff writers
Isn't all this debate yet another argument for keeping religion - any religion - out of politics?