Asylum


refugees-welcome

The march through London yesterday

I was privileged not just to be at the Refugees Welcome march yesterday in London, but also to speak at the rally in Parliament Square.

You can catch me here

 

2015-11-14 15.20.27

A fairly average photo of where people live in the Jungle – which is actually a piece of ex-industrial waste ground off an industrial estate

Last Saturday I was in Calais visiting the Jungle Camp. I’m still not sure what to make of the experience. The conditions were atrocious, especially on a dismal, chilly November day of perpetual rain. If you will forgive the seeming inappropriate analogy, I was reminded of attending music festivals in the 1980s – disgusting toilets, occasional standpipes for cold water, rubbish everywhere. And this is how people are living not for a weekend, but day by day, week by week, month by month. There had been a fire the previous night, and some of the refugees staying there had been burnt out even of what little they had. But no wonder, when there is no alternative but to cook on an open fire inside your tent.

A cooking fire in a tent in the family area of the camp

A cooking fire in a tent in the family area of the camp

And in these atrocious conditions we met some remarkable people. We met Solomon, who led the building and now is the guardian of one of the two churches in the Jungle. Dedicated to St Michael the Archangel, it reflects the Orthodox tradition of Eritrea and Ethiopia, where most of the Christian refugees come from.

Inside St Michael in the Jungle

Inside St Michael in the Jungle

And we were made welcome, given tea and cake and biscuits, and shown around the camp, by a most remarkable Sudanese man who ran one of the little shops and cafes which have emerged to serve the needs of the camp residents. He also kept a store of tents and sleeping bags to give to new arrivals, who might turn up at any time of day or night; in an environment that might drive others to despair, he was a sign of hope.

And that was the strangest thing for me – that I was not driven to despair by visiting the Jungle. I felt I should be – but I wasn’t. In the Jungle I found signs of the antidote and opposite to despair, which is hope. Not foolish optimism – there’s no space for that. The situation of the people in the camp is by objective standards unbearable, and will only get worse as winter comes on. The political situation is stuck, with doors across Europe closing ever more firmly against refugees. But hope is about something else, and in these two characters, one Muslim and one Christian, I saw hope at work.

Christian hope is not unrealistic about the world – in fact, Christians have often got distracted from the hoped for kingdom by concentrating on the travails that come before its arrival. But that’s not meant to be our focus. The end of the world may look like it’s coming, but God’s salvation does not come to an end. Hope is not a fleeting emotion, like happiness after seeing a good film, or contentment after a good meal. As Vaclav Havel said, “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” That is the call of the kingdom, too, to work for something that is good, regardless of the chances of its coming to be.

As Jesus told his disciples, we do not know when the Kingdom of God will arrive, neither the day nor the hour. But as the church year winds down, as we move into the darkest time of the year, we also turn once again to the anticipation of the season of Advent and all it foretells. We turn once again to hope in the Light of the World, the hope of our redemption, and the promise of God’s kingdom.

This response from the Churches’ Refugee Network, which I am proud to chair

The CRN thanks the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration for the thorough and substantial work they have done in their joint inquiry into the use of Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom, and for the report published this week.  “The report is a searing indictment of the UK practice.   As the report makes clear, in detaining people for indefinite periods of time, and for administrative purposes alone, the UK goes well beyond the practice in other European countries” said Jonathan Clark, Bishop of Croydon and chair of CRN.

Although the Government’s stated policy is that detention should be used sparingly and for the shortest possible time, the evidence received by the Commission in its six months inquiry is that the guidance is not adhered to, and that detainees are held indefinitely for long periods, with significant mental health costs to those detained and with huge and unnecessary costs to the public purse.

The Churches’ Refugee Network supports the Inquiry’s recommendations that indefinite detention should be abandoned and that, within a maximum time limit of 28 days, detention should be very rare and only for the shortest possible time in order to effect removal. The Inquiry examined a wide range of far less costly alternatives to detention used in other countries, and recommends that the Government should learn from international best practice.

It is not criminal to seek asylum.  It is a basic, and long acknowledged, human right for those fleeing desperate conditions in their homeland.  All people who seek sanctuary should be treated with dignity and respect.  It is shocking that the Inquiry has found so many instances of this not being so in Britain.  The Churches’ Refugee Network draws attention to the Inquiry’s finding that UK Detention Centres make use of conditions tantamount to high security prison settings, and its call for suitable accommodation conducive to an open and relaxed regime.

The Churches’ Refugee Network urges voters at the coming General Election to seek candidates’ commitments to bring about the changes called for by this cross-party Inquiry, especially the setting of 28-days as a maximum time limit to Detention.

If you think our system for dealing with immigration is just and fair, read this – if it doesn’t change your mind I’ll be surprised

Inquiry into the use of Immigration Detention

A cross-party group of MPs and Peers has recommended that the next government should introduce a maximum time limit of 28 days on the length of time anyone can be detained in immigration detention. The call comes in a report published today following a joint inquiry into the use of immigration detention in the UK by the APPG on Refugees and the APPG on Migration.

The panel, which included a former Cabinet Minister, a former Chief Inspector of Prisons, and a former law lord, considered evidence over 8 months, and three panel members visited the Swedish Migration Board to discuss with officials and parliamentarians the role detention plays in the Swedish immigration system.

The inquiry panel conclude that the enforcement-focused culture of the Home Office means that official guidance, which states that detention should be used sparingly and for the shortest possible time, is not being followed, resulting in too…

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Photo: Ambrose Musiyiwa of Civic Leicester.

Photo: Ambrose Musiyiwa of Civic Leicester.

It was a privilege to be there on Saturday – to be with several hundred others who were, or had been, or simply cared about the situation of asylum seekers in this country. Since I became involved with supporting and speaking for asylum seekers and refugees – and especially since taking on the chair of the Churches’ Refugee Network – I’ve got used to being made angry and depressed by the political struggle in this country by all the main parties to outflank each other in the hostility they show to those coming to the UK for help. Yes, there was still quite a bit of that. But there was also the inspiration of being together with many others who equally share a better vision of what the UK can be and can do – and a few who had come all the way from the Republic of Ireland as well. And maybe even more, there was the inspiration of those who had survived the system and come out the other side as resolute campaigners for the justice they did not experience.

I’m very glad to be a signatory to the declaration that came out of the day – you can see it here. Do go and see – and think about whether any of the group’s you are part of might sign it too. Not just campaign groups: I hope all sorts of organisations and groups could sign this. The five principles are these:

1. All asylum seekers, refugees and migrants should be treated with dignity and respect.

2. A fair and effective process to decide whether people need protection should be in place.

3. No one should be locked up indefinitely.

4. No one should be left sick or destitute in our society.

5. We should welcome the stranger and help them to integrate.

And in case you’re wondering, no – none of these are presently or fully in place for asylum seekers and refugees in this country. I think we can do better than this, because I believe as a country we are better than this. We need to let our politicians know that that’s what we want.

 

Refugees in northern Iraq

 

How much do people have to suffer before we will show mercy on them? Asylum is one of the most precious gifts that we have to offer – a place of safety for those who have nowhere else to go. We live in a country which is safe and wealthy; the vast majority of us believe that we do have an obligation to help those less fortunate than ourselves. But we seem to be drawing ever tighter lines in defining who might deserve our help. Anyone from outside the United Kingdom is no longer our concern.

The government resolutely refuses to answer questions about whether we might offer asylum to Iraqi minority communities who have been driven from their homes to avoid being murdered. Have we now come to the point where political parties cannot dare to offer a safe haven even to people so obviously in need? That would be yet another indictment of the race that Labour and the Conservatives have been conducting for decades, as to who can be the more hostile and intolerant to those who need (not want) to come to this country. Rather say nothing than say anything that might expose yourself to the accusation of ‘being soft’. Even if it means leaving people to die.

I am ashamed to be represented by a government which has so little moral conviction (and the opposition hasn’t demonstrated any more). But what can you expect from a government proclaiming its desire to support families, while refusing visas for elderly parents whose children are prepared to met all the costs of supporting them? Or demanding that people demonstrate a purely arbitrary level of income (it applies regardless of how much their spouse might earn, for instance) before their husband or wife can live with them in the UK?

This is all part of a huge moral cowardice, an inability to stand up for principles of basic human solidarity when they are unpopular. It is all part of the greatest ethical threat facing the United Kingdom, that we become a closed-minded, hard-hearted nation of misers, sitting on our precious freedoms and protecting them from all comers. On the end, it is a way of life which will backfire, because those freedoms will themselves become eroded. It is only when we stand up for those who are different from ourselves that we have any sense of what human dignity means. Without that, we lose our own sense of our own dignity and worth.

Once when I was doing a door-to-door collection for Christian Aid, someone refused to give on the grounds that ‘charity begins at home’. That is not just someone else’s opinion – it is a lie. True charity is love that is poured out to those far from us, those who are different from us. It is love that responds to the need of another human being, not our calculation of our own advantage. Charity comes home when it has drawn us out of ourselves. When will we rediscover that sort of charity as a nation?

“We are united against Isis, against terrorism, against atrocity, against pain and suffering”. A great sentiment, but even more so when I put the missing word back in: “We are Muslims united against Isis …” That is a quote from the message produced by Muslim leaders in Britain of different groups, Sunni and Shia together. It was produced primarily for the Muslim community, and a few weeks ago now, but I think it’s just as important for all of us, now.

People of no faith may be tempted to blame religion for the violence presently being unleashed across Syria and Iraq by the so-called Islamic State. Christians, Hindus and others might even be tempted to think that Islam is an especially violent religion. Neither of those assertions holds water: there’s plenty of evidence of warfare among followers of all religions, and the 20th Century’s greatest murderers were the atheists Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot.

Violence isn’t about religion, whether it’s your own or anyone else’s. It’s something all human beings are capable of – every one of us. But we are also all capable of being peacemakers. At the heart of the world’s great religions is that desire for peace, a desire shared by many of no faith at all. The message from Britain’s Muslim leaders reminds us that we can’t blame some other group, religious or not.

There’s not a lot most of us can do about the conflict in the Middle East, except prayer (for those of us who pray). But we can all be peacemakers in our own lives, families and communities. It’s important that the word is peacemakers. It’s not just about living a quiet life; peacemaking is an active thing. It means reaching out to those we might otherwise not meet, understanding their lives and allowing them to understand ours, and finding the common ground of our shared humanity. Leaders of the different faith communities here in Croydon have recently started meeting together in order to get to know each other and to understand the lives of the different faith communities we represent. But when it comes to making peace, we can all be leaders.

And we can at least do one thing on the wider stage: the blogger known as Archbishop Cranmer has begun to gather support for the following statement:

“While conflicts rage in the Middle East, we continue to pray for peace. Britain has a history of providing refuge to the oppressed. We ask the Government to offer sanctuary to Christians and others who have been expelled under threat of death.”

If you agree that our government should do this, why not ask your MP whether they do too?