The following statement is issued today by Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue, chairman of the Office for Refugee Policy of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales: On 2 October 2000, the Human Rights Act comes into force in the UK, incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights. Human rights are more than legislation; they are an important means by which all people, regardless of differences, can realise their dignity and fulfilment as human beings. We are a long way from achieving the ideals enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. As we know from our television screens, human rights and fundamental freedoms are being challenged around the world. But we would be wrong to think that human rights violations only occur in far-distant countries. In Europe and in Britain the situation is far from perfect; refugees and asylum seekers know this very well, because they are one group whose human rights concerns are urgent. There is a worrying trend to erect barriers that make it more difficult for refugees to gain access to protection on this continent. Refugees are often vilified and ridiculed in public and in some of the media. When refugees assert a right to protection, this is met with doubt and suspicion. In its turn, the atmosphere of unwelcome sets the stage for measures which restrict their civil, political, social and cultural rights, and, in some cases, their fundamental right to protection. The rights of asylum seekers and refugees are further put at risk by a narrow interpretation of legal instruments that are intended to protect them. They suffer under the rigidity of the new support system, from lack of access to legal advice, from limitations on the right to appeal, and from a system increasingly geared towards deterrence and detention. As Christians, we are aware of the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger (Hebrews 13:2; Romans 15:7). In this Jubilee year 2000, Pope John Paul II has condemned injustice and discrimination against refugees, and called for a "culture of acceptance, joined with prudent and far-sighted laws and norms" (7 June). In our current situation, the Human Rights Act is a very welcome piece of legislation. It is a timely reminder of the need to remain vigilant if we are to uphold the concept of human rights for all. It is a chance to reflect on the ideals and aspirations that we all hold dear, and on which our societies are built. And, very importantly, it is an opportunity for each of us to help create a protective, welcoming and caring Britain for everyone. The real challenge now is to incorporate the spirit, not just the letter, of those core values of respect for life, dignity and freedom into our society. In this year, as UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) marks its 50th anniversary, the Catholic Church appeals to everyone to empathise with the plight of refugees, to embrace the challenge of guaranteeing their inherent dignity, and to respect their need for protection.
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