Immigration and asylum
The Church and immigration policy
Global migration is a reality at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Migration policy has become a key concern for all communities. Churches are aware of the gift of migrants within their own lives, as well as the tensions that can emerge. When engaging with migration issues the Church seeks to clarify issues of justice and understand the forces behind the movement of people (economic, persecution, climate change, war, civil unrest).
Migration is a global phenomenon, often unpredictable. In 2004 the General Synod of the Church of England called on HMG to 'to raise public awareness of the global phenomenon of migration including the needs of asylum seekers, economic migrants and displaced people and the disproportionate burden borne by developing countries'.
In 2007 Churches Together in Britain and Ireland suggested the following core principles for churches working on migration issues:
- Christians believe that all people are created equal in dignity, made in the image of God
- As Christians, we fully accept our obligations as citizens of the countries in which we live…[but] do not attribute absolute value to the rights and privileges of nationality and citizenship
- Christians affirm that people moving from one part of the world to another contribute their gifts and valuable qualities…to the country where they come to live
- Christian belief in a personal God states good relationships as the foundation of community cohesion.
Churches and asylum seekers
In recent years local churches have found themselves facing new and at times
distressing challenges with increasing numbers of asylum seekers facing greater
financial and personal insecurity. Churches have often responded generously welcoming asylum seekers as part of congregations, and collaboratively, often in new coalitions across towns, boroughs or cities providing support, advice, education or just space for newly arrived communities to begin to organise themselves.
Congregations have offered hospitality and found their
perceptions and world view radically altered - whether through
giving space to congregations from different linguistic or
denominational groups, or welcoming Christians, or members of
faith communities, to worship and prayer. Experience of individual cases has often led to clergy and congregations becoming involved in appeals and the legalities surrounding removals. This engagement has often been drawn on when Bishops have intervened during the passage of legislation in the House of Lords.
Asylum Principles is an ecumenical statement of theological principles for the churches' work on asylum issues.
Our Christian task is remembering and recognising how Christ suffers in the stranger, remembering and recognising how Christ is to be seen, in wonder and joy, in the stranger, whose life is now bound up with mine. We as believers have the unenviable job of trying to hear and interpret the wounds of everyone involved and to ask for the justice of the Bible, a situation in which each acts for the good of the other. This is what the church is supposed to be and show a place of justice
Archbishop Rowan Williams
A stain on our proud tradition
By the Right Reverend John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds and the Bishops' Parliamentary Spokesperson for immigration & asylum. 31st January 2013.
Alarmingly low levels of support are forcing around 10,000 children and their families seeking safety in the UK into severe poverty and, in some cases, outright destitution. In the worst cases this is putting babies' and mothers' lives at risk.
The issue of asylum is a particularly sensitive one. It actually involves children and families escaping from war, violence and terror. However, many seem to believe that asylum seekers are merely seeking a better life rather than searching for a safe life.
Over the past few months, I have been part of the first parliamentary inquiry examining how asylum support affects children and young people whose families have fled to our shores seeking sanctuary.
This country has a long and proud tradition of providing help, compassion and safety to those in need. But with this tradition comes the responsibility to make sure that those fleeing danger are provided with the basics to live a reasonable life.
What we heard from over 200 individuals and organisations is nothing less than alarming. It is clear that, even though Britain signed the United Nations refugee convention over 50 years ago, under which it agrees to give those in need international protection, successive governments have failed in their duty to make sure people are not pushed into poverty and destitution.
One case we heard was of a mother who, despite having applied for asylum support was left with nothing for five months while her application was being considered. With nothing to live on and nowhere to stay, she and her two children, aged three and six, had no other option but to sleep on the floor of a mosque and depend on handouts for food.
Across the UK, families that are seeking asylum are on such drastically low levels of support - some on just £5 a day per person - that they can barely put food on the table or buy a winter coat.
Many who are on the lowest form of support from the Home Office get no cash. They receive their allowance on a card, which can only be used in designated shops. As a result, they cannot even buy milk at the corner shop and are unable to take the bus to the doctors or take their children to school.
One mother told us how she did not have enough money to buy a buggy and could not use the bus because she was not given cash support so she had to walk home from the hospital with her newborn baby in her arms in the snow.
Most families fleeing persecution and tyranny arrive in the UK
with nothing and only have asylum support on which to survive.
Despite commonly held beliefs that they choose to come to the UK in
order to take advantage of our benefits system or to find jobs, in
reality they cannot do either. They are not allowed to work in the
UK or claim such mainstream benefits as child benefit, income
support, disability living allowance or housing benefit.
Shockingly, instead of being treated with respect and humanity, they are forced to live in cramped, crowded, dirty and unsafe accommodation in areas where they are often subjected to racial abuse.
Families are frequently moved with no regard to their children's education, support networks, health needs or home life. One mother told of how she and her six-year-old son were moved six times in just two years, leading to huge disruption to his school life and ability to form friendships.
They were never given more than a few days' notice that they would be moved, nor were they given the information needed to help them settle in to their new location. They were left isolated and afraid.
Fears that providing decent levels of asylum support will lead to our being 'flooded with asylum-seekers' are completely unfounded. There is no link between the two, not least because those seeking safety have little knowledge of the support system before they arrive and are grateful for any support they get. The truth is that many families fleeing danger from places like Afghanistan and Iran claim asylum in neighbouring countries. In fact, most of the world's refugees are in developing countries such as Pakistan, where they may also face danger.
The majority of those who do manage to reach Europe seek protection in other countries. In 2011, the UK received 25,500 asylum applicants. France, Germany, Sweden and Belgium all received more applications, with France receiving twice as many.
The UK has always been a global leader in protecting human
rights. In 1989, we ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the
Child, which set out clearly that children, no matter where they
come from or who their parents are, need special protection and
need to be treated equally. Yet our inquiry found that children and
their families are being forced to live in appalling conditions and
pushed into deprivation that is unacceptable by anybody's
This government can break the cycle of inhumanity and make a difference by making sure the support given to asylum seekers is adequate to live with dignity. It needs to abolish the cashless system that is particularly punitive and is forcing children to grow up in extreme hardship.
Ending the cashless system would actually save money for the public purse. And increasing cash-based support would take only a tiny amount in the grand scheme of overall public spending, ending the misery this so-called system of support is inflicting on families.
It is vital that we stay true to the best part of our humanity and do not turn our backs on the many children and families fleeing tyranny and violence who desperately need protection within our borders. Let us instead help them to rebuild their lives and help children to thrive and be part of our society.
Bishop John Packer was a member of the cross-party parliamentary inquiry, chaired by Sarah Teather MP, into the impact of asylum support on children and young people. Its report was published this week. See The Children's Society campaign to find how you can help end forced destitution