Equality and human dignity

Recognising that all people are made in the image of God, regardless of where they come from or their legal status.

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Immigration systems divide people into categories and assign differing rights according to their legal status.33 Catholic social teaching, on the other hand, places an emphasis on the equal human dignity of all citizens, migrants, and refugees.

People who arrive in our country face challenges which we can help them overcome. Providing such assistance can be a fulfilling and enriching experience. We can act as individuals, working with charities, through our parishes and in many other ways. Reflecting on the challenges faced by people arriving in a new country, Pope Francis explains that: “No one will ever openly deny that they are human beings, yet in practice, by our decisions and the way we treat them, we can show that we consider them less worthy, less important, less human. For Christians, this way of thinking and acting is unacceptable, since it sets certain political preferences above deep convictions of our faith: the inalienable dignity of each human person regardless of origin, race or religion, and the supreme law of fraternal love.”34

We must ensure that all migrants and refugees receive dignified treatment irrespective of the legal status they are assigned. This has implications for several aspects of government policy, including the treatment of those who might be present in breach of immigration laws. The need for such dignified treatment has been highlighted in teaching documents by various Bishops’ Conferences including Welcoming the Stranger Among Us, published by the US Conference. This reiterates that human dignity must be respected even in cases of non-legal immigration.35 Furthermore, the Refugee Convention acknowledges that those who seek asylum may have to breach national immigration rules in order to enter a country.36 It is important for governments to recognise that this does not undermine their rights. 

Pope Francis has outlined the practical steps that we should take towards upholding the human dignity of migrants and refugees. For example, he has emphasised the need for states to offer “personal safety and access to basic services.”37 This is expanded upon in the twenty pastoral action points published by the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican. These specify actions governments should take such as providing access to basic healthcare, free movement within the host country, and an equal right to schooling for child migrants and refugees. These should be provided regardless of legal status.38

It is important that border security measures prioritise human dignity and the sanctity of life. The Catechism states that: “moral law prohibits exposing someone to mortal danger without grave reason, as well as refusing assistance to a person in danger.”39 While there may be legitimate debate about the best way for a government to protect those crossing its borders, there is nevertheless a clear responsibility not to endanger human life and to assist people in distress wherever possible. As Pope Benedict XVI emphasised: “States have the right to regulate migration flows and to defend their own frontiers, always guaranteeing the respect due to the dignity of each and every human person.”40

Accordingly, Pope Francis has called for states to end “the return of migrants to unsafe countries and to give priority to saving lives at sea, with predictable rescue and disembarkation devices”.41 This has important implications for an island nation such as our own. Bishops’ Conferences, including the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and COMECE, have called for priority to be placed on rescue operations in areas such as the Mediterranean and the English Channel. We have also called for the establishment of more safe routes so that people do not need to risk their lives at sea.42 

The Holy Father has drawn to our attention specific policies which we should avoid in order to protect the dignity of migrants and refugees, including the use of immigration detention, stating: “For the sake of the fundamental dignity of every human person, we must strive to find alternative solutions to detention for those who enter a country without authorisation.”43 

The Catholic Church has long proposed forms of international governance to uphold universal rights. This is especially important when it comes to migrants and refugees. International laws and conventions can play an important role in protecting their human dignity. For this reason, the Holy See supports treaties such as the Refugee Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

The Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church, which recognises the international nature of these challenges, states: “Concern for refugees must lead us to reaffirm and highlight universally recognized human rights, and to ask that the effective recognition of these rights be guaranteed”.44 The Compendium also highlights the protection of family life as an essential aspect of upholding human dignity among migrants and refugees, stating that: “Immigrants are to be received as persons and helped, together with their families, to become a part of societal life. In this context, the right of reuniting families should be respected and promoted.”45 We must ensure that this is reflected in the United Kingdom’s own laws.

Our principles

  • We defend the fundamental human dignity of all migrants and refugees, regardless of their legal status, including through policies providing access to decent accommodation, healthcare, and childhood education, as well as facilitating family reunification
  • We call for the sanctity of life to be prioritised in all border security arrangements and reject measures that unnecessarily place people in danger or deny reasonable assistance to those in need
  • We call upon the government to avoid the use of immigration detention, arbitrary expulsion and other practices which violate human dignity
  • We urge the fulfilment of obligations under international frameworks protecting migrants and refugees, such as the Refugee Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Global Compact on Refugees, and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration
  • Recognising the practical contribution that our Church can make, we support the work of Catholic organisations such as Caritas, the Jesuit Refugee Service, and the St Vincent De Paul Society, as well as parish and diocesan initiatives, in upholding the human dignity of migrants and refugees


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33. For example, among the various immigration statuses in the UK, people may be present on work visas, study visas, or family visas, have pre-settled status or settled status under the EU settlement scheme, be at different stages in the asylum process or have leave to remain under a resettlement scheme.

34. Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti (2020) 39.

35. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity (2000).

36. Refugee Convention (1951).

37. Pope Francis, Message for the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees (2018).

38. Vatican Migrants and Refugees Section, Responding to Refugees and Migrants: Twenty pastoral action points (2018).

39. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2269.

40. Pope Benedict XVI, Message for the 97th World Day of Migrants and Refugees (2011).

41. Pope Francis, Angelus (24 October 2021).

42. Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Conference on the Future of Europe: Perspectives from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Department for International Affairs (2021).

43. Pope Francis, Message for the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees (2018).

44. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004) 505.

45. Ibid, 298.