Religious Leaders Urge British Government to Stop Victimizing Asylum Seekers

In October, Rev. John Sentamu (center) was confirmed as the new Archbishop of York, the second highest post in the Church of England. Dr. Sentamu, a former judge who escaped persecution under the regime of Idi Amin in Uganda in the 1970's, is the Church of England's first black archbishop. (Photo: Chris Young / AFP-Getty Images)

Forty seven religious leaders and heads of Christian churches and denominations have called on the British government to change the policies that force asylum seekers into destitution and homelessness.

In a petition published in The Times (Dec. 3, 2005), the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu; the Roman Catholic Bishop of Lancaster, the Rev. Patrick O'Donoghue; chairperson of the Methodist Church's Oxford & Leicester District, the Rev. Alison Tomlin and their fellow bishops and church leaders said it was inhuman and unacceptable that some people are left homeless and destitute by government policies.

They observed that there are people in every city in Britain who the state has made destitute and who are living on donated food because they have no other means of supporting themselves.

The church leaders expressed concern that the threat of destitution is being used by the state as a way of pressuring people to leave Britain.

They castigated the British government for abandoning its international moral and legal responsibilities to welcome those fleeing persecution and adversity from other parts of the world and provide them with social security.

"There are many people seeking asylum who have their cases refused but have no safe route to return or whose travel documents cause logistical problems for removal. There are also many cases where people are unjustly refused asylum.

"All those within our borders — including people seeking asylum — should have the opportunity to help themselves and society through paid employment. Where this is not possible, people seeking asylum, whatever their status, should be given the necessary rights to food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.

"Refused asylum seekers are still human, and deserve to be treated the same, as we would expect if we had to flee to another country," the church leaders emphasized.

They urged the British government to allow people seeking asylum to sustain themselves and contribute to society through paid work, and where this is not possible, to re-instate "refused" asylum seekers' entitlement to benefits until such a time as they may be removed.

The petition was signed by archbishops, bishops, and ministers of religion from the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, the Baptist Union, the Church of Ireland, the Church of Wales, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church, the Scottish Episcopal Church, church-led racial justice and refugee agencies, and the co-presidents of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland — Sister Eluned Williams (Methodist Church) and the Rev. Nezlin Sterling (national and international secretary, New Testament Assembly).

Britain's immigration minister, Tony McNulty, in a response also published in The Times (Dec. 6, 2005), denied that current government policies lead asylum seekers whose applications have been unsuccessful into destitution.

"Where there is no viable route of return or there are problems with documentation, the government does provide accommodation and essential living needs. Where there are no children involved this provision is conditional on co-operation with the voluntary return process, which we are also beginning to impose in a small number of family cases," Tony McNulty said.

A recent investigation by the leading children's charity, Barnardo's, and the Refugee Children's Consortium revealed that the children of asylum seekers were being harmed by the British government's asylum and immigration policy.

Barnardo's and the Refugee Children's Consortium investigated 33 local authorities, including 18 that have been taking part in the government's pilot implementation of section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004 and found that the removal of basic support is leaving families destitute.

Section 9 of the Act removes or significantly restricts the welfare entitlement of families who have reached the end of the asylum process and who have "failed to take reasonable steps" to leave the U.K.

Some 116 families, with 36 adult dependants and 216 children, have been affected by the government's pilot implementation of Section 9. Those affected include 25 families from Pakistan, 16 from Somalia, 8 from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 10 from Zimbabwe.

The families affected are reluctant to return to their countries of origin because the countries are unsafe. Many of the families are at risk of arrest, torture, detention and death at the hands of agents of the state should they return.

In a test case in October, three judges in the British Asylum and Immigration Tribunal ruled that a Zimbabwean asylum seeker, who cannot be named for legal reasons, would be at risk if he were sent back to Harare. One of the results of this ruling is that the British Home Office cannot return Zimbabweans to that country because to do so would be in violation of the tribunal's ruling.

Nancy Kelley, who authored the Barnardo's report on the investigation, says: "Refugee children often come to this country traumatized by what they have seen. Unfortunately arrival in the U.K. rarely marks the beginning of a safe and comfortable life; indeed they are likely to experience continued stress, hunger, poor health and extreme poverty. Whatever the intention of Section 9, it is being implemented in a way that runs the risk of causing life long damage to children and families who are already among the most vulnerable people in society."

McNulty conceded that many unsuccessful asylum-seekers who have exhausted all rights of appeal drop out of sight of the British government rather than agree to be deported back to the countries from which they fled.

"Instead, we hear that they are destitute or living on food parcels," McNulty said.

He added that the British government set out its proposals for clarifying the migration system in the five-year strategy published last February. McNulty believes that managed migration is a valuable source of skills and labor for the British economy.

"However, entering the country for economic reasons is not the same as seeking asylum and it is important to maintain the distinction between the two. This is why we do not generally allow asylum-seekers to work," he said.

The petition by church leaders coincides with the launch of a nationwide campaign by the Refugee Council against the British government's policies, which push asylum seekers into destitution, and for asylum seekers to be granted the right to work.

The Refugee Council, the largest organization of its kind in Britain works with asylum seekers and refugees to ensure their needs and concerns are addressed.

It says that this winter thousands of asylum seekers in Britain will be forced to survive without any money for food, shelter and the everyday things people take for granted.

"They will be sleeping rough or crashing on the floor at friends' houses. They will be relying on food handouts or eating in soup kitchens set up by churches or charities.

"This misery is a direct consequence of government policy. Ministers appear to be deliberately forcing asylum seekers into destitution in order to drive asylum numbers down," the Refugee Council says.

Section 55 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act of 2004 deprives asylum seekers of any support if they did not make their claim immediately upon arrival in Britain. This policy caused suffering to thousands of people, many of who went on to have their asylum claims accepted. Campaigns and legal action by the Refugee Council, Shelter and other organizations stopped the government from enforcing it. However, Section 55 has not been scrapped.

Section 9 allows the government to take all benefits away from asylum seeker families and possibly to take their children into care if they don't cooperate with efforts to remove them from the U.K., while Section 4 of the same Act means "failed" asylum seekers can only get basic-level support — bed and board in a hostel — if they sign up to say they are willing to be sent back to the country from which they fled.

"These policies are only the most glaring examples of where the government forces asylum seekers into poverty. In fact, the vast majority of asylum seekers are very poor, as they have to live off a benefit set at 30% below standard income support. That means a single person getting by on less than £40 a week.

"What makes it worse is that many asylum seekers have qualifications, skills and experience that we need — but the government won't allow them to work and instead keeps people in poverty and destitution. It is such a waste. A waste of lives, a waste of skills," the Refugee Council says.

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