Vincent Nichols criticises government's slow response to refugee crisis: 'Their plight doesn't wait'

Cardinal Vincent Nichols called on the UK to "play our full part" in welcoming refugees.Reuters

The Archbishop of Westminster today criticised the British government's slow response to the refugee crisis, claiming that it is compromising the dignity of those in need.

Speaking at the Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) annual reception at the House of Lords, Archbishop Vincent Nichols praised the willingness of UK citizens to welcome refugees.

"I never cease to be amazed at how generous so many people are today, as a growing awareness of the suffering of others constantly, again and again, evokes real compassion from people. I think we see this in the face of the ongoing refugee crisis, in our Catholic parishes across the UK and similarly in other church communities and in people more generally. There's been a very generous response," he said.

"I believe Pope Francis' call to offer assistance and shelter to migrant families has found an echo in many hearts, and I appreciate the initiative of our government to bring Syrian refugees direct to our shores, and we are cooperating with that scheme as best we can."

However, progress is very slow, he said. Many groups – including 84 Anglican bishops – have criticised Prime Minister David Cameron for agreeing to allow just 20,000 refugees into the UK over the next five years. Estimates suggest that Germany, on the other hand, could take in 1.5 million by the end of 2015.

"The plight of refugees doesn't wait," Nichols said.

"People's generosity, in my view, far outstrips the response of our government so far. Yes, it is right to help people avoid the dreadful journeys that are being undertaken at such high cost by many. Yes, it is right to put significant help into the refugee work on the borders of conflict zones, and I am glad that we as a country are leading the way in that.

"But so much more needs to be done, both in welcoming refugees here and across Europe, to make the response to this crisis better organised and monitored, and thereby becoming more respectful of the dignity of those who seek help.

"As a member of the EU, I think we should be playing our full part in this effort in Europe."

Speaking to Christian Today, Jacky Verhaegen, a field worker with Catholic charity Secours Catholique which works with refugees in Calais, echoed Nichols' call for the UK government to step up its response.

At least 6,000 refugees are now living in the Calais 'Jungle', Verhaegen said, more than ever before. "It's a catastrophe. I've never seen such a thing before. If you didn't know where you were, you could think you're in a third world country," he said.

"It's horrific. It's terrible...People are living among the rubbish, there's a lack of drinking water, a lack of toilets and there's not enough food."

Verhaegen is working to help those who can legally seek asylum in the UK to do so; a job he's been doing for 15 years. He estimates that a third of those living in the Jungle, some 2,000 people, have the right to move to the UK, and wants the Home Office to establish a base in Calais to help them.

Nichols also highlighted the plight of those trying to cross the Channel. "They must wash in public, and queue for food, and live among rubbish...These conditions dehumanise those living there, and rob them of their dignity," he said.

According to Nichols, the crisis offers an opportunity for the Church to "witness to the kind of community we want to be". Highlighting the work of Christian charities like Secours Catholique as well as those that work in the UK on issues like unemployment, he issued a passionate call for Christians to respond with mercy to those in need.

"In the Church, we seek to walk alongside those families – whether trapped in the camp in Calais, or suffering on winter seas in the hands of criminals, or victims of systematic human trafficking, or struggling with emotional, social or financial problems," he said.

"We seek always to offer the authentic, pastoral care of a heart attuned to Christ's mercy."