Archbishop Justin Welby: Rwanda immigration plan ‘cannot stand up to judgment of God’

For Christians it's a day of celebration, but Justin Welby had a much tougher Easter message for ministers - as Political Reporter Kathryn Samson reports

The head of the Church of England has made a stark intervention in the government's controversial plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby told his Easter sermon at Canterbury Cathedral on Sunday the policy cannot stand up to the judgment of God.

He said the measures announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel this week “cannot carry the weight of our national responsibility as a country formed by Christian values”.

He said this is “because sub-contracting out our responsibilities, even to a country that seeks to do well, like Rwanda, is the opposite of the nature of God who himself took responsibility for our failures”.

The Archbishop of York has added his voice to the criticism too, telling his Easter Sunday sermon at York Minster it “so depressing and distressing this week to find that asylum seekers fleeing war, famine and oppression from deeply, deeply troubled parts of the world will not be treated with the dignity and compassion that is the right of every human being, and instead of being dealt with quickly and efficiently here on our soil will be shipped to Rwanda”.

There has been plenty of criticism of this policy - will it have any impact?

Stephen Cottrell added: “We can do better than this. After all, there is in law no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker. It is the people who exploit them that we need to crack down on, not our sisters and brothers in their need.

"We don’t need to build more barriers and cower in the darkness of the shadows they create.”

Earlier this week the government announced plans to curb migrant crossings of the English Channel in small boats, and people who are deemed to have entered Britain by unlawful means since January 1 may be sent to Rwanda where they will be permitted to apply for asylum in the African country.

ITV News exclusively revealed on Friday that Ms Patel had to sign off the new proposal because the most senior civil servant in her department was not convinced the policy would be effective enough to deliver value for money.

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The policy was only able to proceed with a "ministerial direction" - which is used when the permanent secretary (in this case Matthew Rycroft) has specific concerns that means they ask the minister to sign off the spending proposal.

In this case, ITV News Deputy Editor Anushka Asthana reported, there was not enough evidence to prove the key aim of the policy - that sending asylum seekers to Rwanda would deter others from trying to make dangerous crossings by boat.

The measures have faced a fierce backlash from opposition parties, some within the Conservative Party, and charities.

The UN Refugee Agency opposed the plans and on Saturday Robina Qureshi, director of the refugee homelessness charity Positive Action in Housing, said: “The refugee policy of this country should be clear by now.

“It’s not about saving refugees’ skins, it’s about saving this government’s skin.”

Conservative MPs have backed the plans, claiming the small boats issue is important to constituents.

But the archbishop is expected to say there are “serious ethical questions about sending asylum seekers overseas”.

He will say: “The details are for politics. The principle must stand the judgment of God, and it cannot. It cannot carry the weight of resurrection justice, of life conquering death. It cannot carry the weight of the resurrection that was first to the least valued, for it privileges the rich and strong.”

The deal, shown being signed by Home Secretary Priti Patel and Rwandan foreign affairs minister Vincent Biruta, is worth £120 million Credit: Flora Thompson/PA

Earlier, former child refugee and Labour peer Alf Dubs said ministers would face opposition in the Lords over the plan.

In an interview with The Guardian, Lord Dubs said the government was attempting to “ride roughshod” over international agreements.

He said: “I think it’s a way of getting rid of people the government doesn’t want, dumping them in a distant African country, and they’ll have no chance of getting out of there again.

“I think it’s a breach of the 1951 Geneva conventions on refugees. You can’t just shunt them around like unwanted people.”

However, the Home Office and Ms Patel defended the plans.

She said she expected other countries to follow the UK’s example, while the Home Office insisted its approach was not in breach of refugee agreements.

Ms Patel said Denmark could be among those to reproduce the UK government’s “blueprint”.

“There is no question now that the model we have put forward, I’m convinced, is world class and a world first, and it will be used as a blueprint going forward, there’s no doubt about that,” Ms Patel said.

“I would not be surprised if other countries start coming to us direct on the back of this as well.”

A group of people thought to be migrants arrive in an inflatable boat at Kingsdown beach, near Dover, Kent. Credit: PA

The Home Secretary said Copenhagen was in talks with Rwanda, adding that the Council of Europe “have also basically said they are interested in working with us”.

But Lord Dubs, who came to the UK from then Czechoslovakia on one of the Kindertransport trains in 1939, told The Guardian there would be legal challenges and opposition by peers.

“If (Ms Patel) says she’ll get rid of the ‘lefty lawyers” claims, well, I think she may have another thing coming. My understanding is that they’re going to have real difficulties in getting this through anyway,” he said.

The SNP has also come out criticising the plan, branding it a “cataclysmic waste of taxpayers’ money”.

The party’s home affairs spokesman Stuart McDonald MP described it as an “abhorrent policy” and called on Westminster to drop the plan and use the money to support people hit by the cost-of-living crisis.

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said: “Our broken asylum system is currently costing the UK taxpayer £1.5bn a year – the highest amount in two decades.

“This world-leading migration partnership will overhaul the UK’s broken asylum system. It means those arriving dangerously, illegally or unnecessarily into the UK can be relocated to have their claims for asylum considered and, if recognised as refugees, to build their lives there.

“There is nothing in the UN Refugee Convention which prevents removal to a safe country. Under this agreement, Rwanda will process claims in accordance with national and international human rights laws and the convention.”