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We Are Surely Not Yet a Nation Whose Instinctive Response Is to Say 'Our Door Is Closed'

23/06/2015 17:32 BST | Updated 23/06/2016 10:59 BST

On 1 June Lord Alton asked a question in the House of Lords about deterring the trafficking of migrants and creating safe havens for them in Africa and the Middle East. Baroness Anelay of St John's, replying for the Government, said that it is important to "break the link between travelling on the boat to get here and the certainty of getting settled... if we offer settlement to 1,000 people, what do you say to the 1,001st? Do you say 'No, our door is closed?'"

In the brief debate which followed I asked about the tragic situation of refugees and migrants trapped in Libya: "Since neighbouring countries have closed their borders and current plans are to sink the boats that are smuggling people from Libya, are these refugees and migrants simply consigned to certain abuse and death? Can we do nothing at all to help them?"

We must try to find sustainable long-term strategies which will address the underlying problems and help people to stay where in almost all cases they would rather be, namely their own home country.

As the conflict continues in Syria, it should be acknowledged that the UK has committed £800million of support in response to the humanitarian crisis, including food, medical care and relief items to people in desperate need in Syria and in the region.

But safe and properly organised routes to humanitarian protection, for those who really need it, should also be part of the response.

We welcome David Cameron's announcement last week that the UK will boost the number of places to resettle the most vulnerable Syrian refugees. We believe that many people around the country are showing that they are ready to welcome and support more people in real need.

The Church of England is working closely with the Conference of European Churches and other transnational bodies, to achieve effective international cooperation in relation to the thousands already in countries like Italy and Greece, the thousands more who are ready to risk boarding a boat, the even further thousands desperate in their own or surrounding countries.

My question, however, still remains in my mind: 'Can we do nothing at all to help them?' Is any help just creating a 'pull factor'? Is it right for us to regard individual deaths as a necessary and acceptable trade-off in the interest of a wider policy? I believe that few in political life really take that view.

Every person who lives in a vicarage, and, of course, very many others, know the doubts that come when a needy person appears at the door: 'If I try to help this person in some practical way, what about others? Will many others come? Shall we be overrun with requests that we cannot meet?' The answer can never be 'OK, then, it's better to help no one'.

The Anglican Church in Athens knows this experience. Six years ago, with the Orthodox Archdiocese, it set up 'The Church in the Street', which provides food for around 1,000 people every day mostly migrants and refugees. The Lent Appeal for the Diocese in Europe this year raised money for 'Hestia', a hostel established by the Greek Orthodox Church for unaccompanied minors who are migrants/refugees. This year our church in Athens made a significant response to a further appeal for telephone cards for migrants/refugees who are unaccompanied minors and for migrants and refugees landing on the island of Leros. Around 160 cards were purchased and distributed. These contributions cannot meet the magnitude of the need but without them there would be even less hope.

Local churches in this country know the same tensions. I know there are many towns and cities in England where Christians are active in organised, systematic work to help destitute people from overseas. Many great projects began with local church initiatives and have grown healthily into much more broad-based services. The people of this country have a tremendous history of generosity to those in real need. That British value has not changed.

'Can we do nothing at all to help them?' Surely we can. It is not for me to put a number on those we can help. Jesus put no number on it when he said "whatever you did for one of the least of these brother and sisters of mine you did also for me..." (Matthew 25:40). It may be relatively few; but the number so far, even if it rises to 1,000, is still small compared to the need and we are surely not yet a nation whose instinctive response is to say 'our door is closed'.

Graham James is the Bishop of Norwich