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.

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.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the Churches’ Refugee Network conference, an ecumenical gathering of Christians from across the country. The Conference was a very sobering affair, as we heard the stories of some asylum seekers and refugees, and reflected on the harsh regime to which they are subjected in our country.

I was reminded of a couple of personal stories which were reported to the recent Parliamentary Enquiry into asylum support for children and young people:

The Refugee Council worked with a mother Nicole who applied for support at the beginning of January 2012 but her application was not accepted until June. During these five months, she and her two children aged six and three were sleeping on the floor of a mosque and surviving on hand-outs from people attending the mosque.

Mary applied for the maternity grant more than a month before she was due to give birth but only received it two months after the birth. Because she had no money to buy a buggy, or to pay for a taxi, she had to walk home from hospital in the snow with her newborn baby in her arms.

The report states: ‘Many members of the public continue to believe myths about asylum seekers, in particular that the UK accepts more than its fair share of refugees and that they receive all manner of luxuries. Yet the reality is that many families desperately needing support are left unable to meet even their most basic living needs.’

As I was thinking of all these things, I was reflecting also on the multi-cultural congregations I meet, and also on how many of us either are, or are descended from refugees and migrants: some of my own ancestors were Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Our calling as God’s people is to bring our faith to bear on all aspects of our lives, including our life in society. Concern for the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees is not a party political affair; it is rooted in our faith, in what is often called the Micah Challenge (Micah 6:8):

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Our system for treating refugees and asylum seekers may or may not be just – that is a matter for political debate – but no-one who knows anything about it would accuse it of being kind.