I’m proud today to have had a part in the letter from many leaders of many faiths, encouraging the government to adopt a more generous and inclusive policy towards those who seek asylum in this country. You can find the letter here, and coverage of it here and here – and these are my reflections:

Our government is committed to offering asylum to those who come to this country and who have a genuine claim. It is even more committed to preventing them from doing so. Successive governments have made it more and difficult for anyone to get here in order to make a claim: the ‘wall of Calais’ is just the latest attempt. We levy heavy fines on those who transport people to this country without passports and visas – and those genuinely in need of asylum are exactly the ones who can’t get documents to allow them to travel. We take advantage of the fact that few asylum seekers can get here direct, to insist they should have made their claim somewhere else.

The result? We drive asylum seekers into the hands of people traffickers. Those who only have to spend all their resources are the lucky ones – they didn’t die along the way. We increase the profits from organised crime. I hope that very few people, as individuals, would treat another human being that way. And it’s still wrong when it’s done by the government on our behalf.

There are simple things the government could do which would have a huge impact. To issue humanitarian visas so that people could come here to have their claim assessed, so that refugees don’t have to risk their lives to reach their families. To reduce the many restrictive rules that prevent families from being re-united, by preventing lone refugee children from bringing their parents to the UK, and making it extremely difficult even for adult British citizens to do so.

These changes would be neither expensive nor impossibly complex. In Italy, the government is working in alliance with churches and charities to issue visas in the Middle East and North Africa which allow those seeking asylum to avoid the traffickers. On arrival, the sponsoring churches look after the new arrivals, teaching them the language and helping them become integrated into the community. In this country likewise, there are thousands who have family members still in areas of conflict, there are hundreds of churches, mosques and charities who would be glad to offer sponsorship or support. But the UK government isn’t interested.

These moves should not be controversial. The wonder to me is that we have ever put in place measures which divide families in this way. The leaders of many faiths who have written today to the Prime Minister have done so in the conviction that the proposals we make are in the best interests of our country as well as those we should be reaching out to help. All our faiths compel us to affirm the dignity of all human beings, and to offer help to anyone in need. We rejoice in the mosaic of different faiths and British communities that we now represent. Some of us came to this country from other countries of birth; others, like myself, have been British for many generations. But we all recognize that the best of this country is represented by the generosity, kindness, solidarity and decency that Britain has at many times shown those fleeing persecution, even at times of far greater deprivation and difficulty than the present day. The U.K. should be proud to take its fair share of refugees, as we have done in the past, to exhibit to those in most need the very best of Britain.

 

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.

I know it’s a bit long for a blog post, but I want to share the ‘Position Statement’ passed unanimously at the Churches’ Refugee Network conference, meeting at Sheffield on 5th April 2014. I’ve recently become Chair of the Network, and I’m privileged to be working alongside people who demonstrate concern for the most marginalised in our society – who do what Jesus will ask of us all, according to Matthew 25:31-46. For me these are not party political arguments. Firstly because none of the main political parties dare to stand against the climate of fear which they discern in this country. Secondly because the statements from the conference, though they relate to the law as it is, flow from Christian values, from a vision of the God-given dignity of all human beings. Enough – I could go on even longer. Please do read it – and share it.

This conference of the Churches’ Refugee Network of Britain and Ireland affirms the dignity and worth of all human beings as a fundamental principle of every civilised society. From this flows the right of every person to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution, not only under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Refugee Convention, to which the UK is a signatory, but as a right recognised in civilisations from ancient times.

We also affirm what immigrants and refugees from many lands and of different faiths have, for centuries, contributed to the culture and achievement of the UK.  Immigration vitally enriches our national life, just as those going out from these islands have often contributed to the well-being of countries where they have worked or settled. Refugees and those who seek asylum are a special category of immigrant, but politicians’ discourse and media-led perceptions often obscure this, doing them further injustice.

We accept the need for reasonable border control and the Government’s responsibility for the well-being of all its citizens. Yet this conference believes that many provisions of the current Immigration Bill will not simply reinforce national borders but create damaging boundaries and divisions within national life, separating those who have civic entitlements from those who have not.  This breeds an unhealthy culture of mistrust and suspicion, undermining social cohesion and inevitably leads to increased social costs.

The conference affirms the biblical Christian and Jewish traditions of the importance of welcoming strangers and of offering special protection and provision towards aliens, even those ‘unlawfully’ present.

In particular, the conference registers its concerns about the following:

Detention

The levels and lengths of detention, both for adults and minors, are already unacceptable (and unnecessarily costly) and the Bill’s proposals threaten to make them more so. Indefinite detention should end. Those who have served their sentence should not continue to be detained.

Destitution and the need to permit paid work

A civilised society should allow no-one to become destitute. The refusal to allow those who have been waiting many months for a decision on their asylum status to obtain work to support themselves or their families is demeaning. It makes eventual integration more difficult, and will lead to health problems and to unnecessary NHS costs, whilst access to benefits is minimal and insufficient.

Restrictions on Legal Aid

Although asylum is expressly exempted from the restrictions now placed on legal aid, there has been a drastic decline in the number of good immigration lawyers, caused directly by Government changes to fees and contracting, with a consequent disincentive for new entrants to the legal profession to specialise in immigration law. This places asylum seekers at a great disadvantage in terms of access to professional legal advice. It also slows down the Courts, where judges increasingly have to exercise representatives’ functions such as cross examination, clarification and summarizing. We are seeing serious delays of hearing schedules extended not by weeks but by months. Slow justice eventually becomes injustice.

Outsourcing to private firms

The involvement of private firms in removals and deportation has led to injuries and occasional death due to improper restraints; the separation between the Home Office and such firms leads to a lack of accountability and an evasion of responsibility. Whilst it may marginally save costs, it is bad governance of a public function. Recent examples do not even justify a reduced cost argument; eg. the tagging scandal.


On the Immigration Bill

The welfare and safety of thousands of children who have been born or grown up here, and have no home elsewhere to which they can be returned, but whose parent(s) have been deported,  will be severely prejudiced, as will their legal claims. Likewise those young people who came as unaccompanied minors but who are now between 19 and 24, and in whose attempted deportation the UK Government often flouts the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Alongside the new restrictions on legal aid and those proposed on judicial reviews, the range of grounds for appeal, and the opportunities for bail and to appeal, are dramatically reduced. Despite numerous attempts to improve administration, the decision-making process within the Home Office still leads to a high rate of successful appeals: Substituting an internal review system for an independent appeal mechanism is unlikely to produce adequate justice. Poor decision-making will be harder to challenge and correct.

Placing onerous obligations on landlords and staff in banks, clinics, surgeries and DVLA to scrutinise and police complex immigration documents will prejudice many people who are lawfully here as well as those ‘unlawfully’ here who have fled persecution or violence but may wait years for decisions on their asylum status and who under Human Rights legislation are entitled to legal protection.

While we would give no support to sham marriages, mistrust about all mixed relationships will be created and many genuinely seeking marriage will be caused stress and pain at a time which should be happy and filled with promise.  The right to a private and family life and relationships is as important to those ‘unlawfully’ here as to those who have full right to residence.

Family Migration

The income level of £18,600 set for bringing foreign-born spouses and/or children of British citizen to the UK is too high for some 48% of British people, including those British citizens who have married while working abroad. It does not reflect lower average incomes in parts of Britain outside London and the South-east, nor does it take into account significant differences in median incomes of British ethnic citizens, especially women. While this does not include families established by asylum seekers before their own arrival in the UK, it does impact on those refused asylum who are granted Indefinite Leave to Remain, and limits the right of those with status subsequently to marry someone from their home country.

The rules relating to Adult Dependent Relatives are harsh to the point of cruelty and should be eased.

Gathered for this conference, we commit ourselves to work for better welcome, care and justice for all who seek to find in the United Kingdom sanctuary from persecution and violence.