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23 June, 2022

R is for...

R is for...

We are nearing the end of Refugee Week, a time when organisations up and down the country celebrate the considerable contribution that refugees make to the UK. There will be a lot of wonderfully tasty food consumed, films and theatre productions watched and talented artists and musicians on show. It’s designed, quite rightly, as a feel-good celebration of all things refugee.

This year the contrast between those celebrations and the hostile environment experienced by those languishing in the UK asylum system could not be starker.

It’s time to take a step back, and ask ourselves where we are as a nation with regard to refugee issues.

R is for Reality

What we have seen happening in Ukraine has catapulted the reality of war into our sitting rooms. We have seen the destruction of cities, the deaths of thousands of innocent people and the devastation of lives just like our own. In response, individuals and families up and down the country have opened the doors of their homes to those fleeing the conflict. Those who have taken in Ukrainians are now, a few weeks in, experiencing just a taste of the daily (and nightly) trauma these refugees are living through, many having left sons, brothers and fathers behind to fight.

That is the reality of war.

It’s the same reality that is still happening in Syria, where Russian bombs flattened Aleppo in the same way that they flattened Mariupol. Syrians are still picking up the pieces of devastated lives and trying their best to survive the ongoing nightmare, year-on-year.

War has also devastated Yemen, a nation of 30 million people, where 24 million are in need of the basics of food, water and healthcare just to survive... and South Sudan, where civil war has been made worse by catastrophic floods in the last two years, affecting almost a million people and drowning an estimated 800,000 cattle.

Across the world there are similar conflicts in many countries, and on every continent, which have led to a worldwide estimate of around 26 million refugees. In 2018 there were a further 48 million internally displaced people. According to today’s estimates, that number has now reached 100 million.

With wars and climate change dominating the news, it’s easy to forget that one of the main causes of people fleeing their homeland is persecution. The refugee convention recognises the following grounds for claiming asylum: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, membership of a particular social group. That would include, for example, persecution on the grounds of gender or sexuality.

The news tends to focus on well documented atrocities against whole ethnic minorities such as the treatment of Uighurs in China, the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Yazidis in Iraq, all of which are appalling abuses of power. The persecution of Christians is rarely mentioned, perhaps because Christians can be found in every people group, and therefore are less conspicuous. They are also much less likely to take up arms or demonstrate, so persecution often goes unnoticed in the wider world.

Nevertheless, those who follow Christ do so at great risk in many countries. Open Doors produces an annual World Watch List that documents the top 50 countries for persecution of Christians. Last year 5,898 Christians were murdered for their faith.

It would be wise to bear the huge numbers of displaced and persecuted people across the world in mind when we see a few hundred migrants landing on our beaches in Kent on a fine day.

R is for Reasons

Why do people seek asylum in the UK? Why can’t they stay in France or another safe country before they get here? Aren’t they just economic migrants, coming for our generous welfare benefits or the opportunity of working in a developed and prosperous society?

There are many reasons why people choose the UK, but the first thing to say is that, there is no law that says that refugees have to seek asylum in the first safe country they come to. The UN Convention on Refugees, to which the UK is a signatory, recognises that. One reason they may not choose to do so is that those countries are already full! Turkey has over 4 million refugees, mainly from Syria. Lebanon’s population is over 25% refugees. Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya and many other countries that border conflict zones have refugee camps that are the size of cities – and they are often unsafe for vulnerable refugees.

As things stand the UK is 14th in terms of per capita asylum applications in Europe.

These are the main reasons people choose the UK.

• They already have family or relatives here. Lord Dubs, a survivor of the Holocaust who came on the Kindertransport to the UK, tabled an amendment to the 2016 Immigration Act, which sought to ensure that unaccompanied minors in Europe who had close relatives here seeking asylum would be able to join them. After resettling 480 the government scrapped the scheme, leaving many young refugees in danger of exploitation in Europe.

• They speak English as a second language. If you come from a country like Zimbabwe or Nigeria, the chances are that you will speak good English. Most Congolese asylum seekers will choose to stay in France, because they speak French: the same should apply to English speakers wanting to come to the UK.

• They come from a commonwealth country. For many who come from countries that were part of the British Empire, the UK is seen as a type of ‘Mother Country’. It’s a natural destination if you have to flee your homeland.

Rightly or wrongly the UK actually has a reputation for welcoming refugees, and this can be a motivator for refugees to come. Perhaps this hearks back to the second world war, when 10,000 children were offered asylum, and saved enduring the horrors of Nazi concentration camps.

I think the following extract from an interview with Hanes, from the Oromo tribe in Ethiopia, sheds some light on the way the UK may be regarded in some countries. He said this:

“When I was a little boy we learned about England. We learned that it was a beautiful country, how they helped to defeat the Nazis, how they took many refugees from Jewish communities – those are the kind of things that we remember, that the teacher told us. We knew England had a reputation as a sanctuary for asylum seekers, and was far away from trouble – that’s why we had it in our mind to go to England and find sanctuary. That was my dream.”

It was a dream that turned into a nightmare, when Hanes’ asylum application was refused. After a period of homelessness and destitution, an interminable wait for a decision on a fresh asylum claim and bureaucratic wrangling at the Home Office, he was eventually accepted as a refugee.

R is for Response

There is no quick fix for the refugee crisis. Solutions won’t come cheap or easy, any more than a solution to the climate crisis will. It will take time, effort and collaboration.

The UK government response is one of deterrence. The idea is that by making it harder to get to the UK, by refusing to allow them to work, by forcing them to live on £5 a day, and by threatening them with deportation to Rwanda, it will stop them coming to the UK.

As Krish Kandiah outlined in his article for the The Times at the weekend, this approach criminalises the trafficked, rather than the trafficker:

"Firstly, the planned deportations target the wrong people. Imagine if we decided to tackle child abuse by deporting children. Or we chose to put an end to the scams that target the elderly by sending all retired persons to live in a detention centre on another continent."

There is much talk from government of ‘breaking the business model’ of people smugglers but little of what is arguably the most effective way to do so: , creating safe and legal routes into the UK for those claiming asylum (see Lord Kerr’s speech on this matter).

At the moment safe and legal routes simply do not exist, bar the short-term schemes for Ukrainian and Afghan refugees.

There is no evidence that the recently announced offshoring policy form of deterrence that actually works – and it is hugely expensive. Australia has implemented a policy of offshoring asylum seekers on Papua New Guinea and Nauru for many years. The cost to the Australian taxpayer worked out at £1.38 million per asylum seeker – a total cost of £4.3 billion for 3,127 asylum seekers. Add to that the human cost in mental and physical health: self-harm in the centres is commonplace, and there have been at least 12 deaths from poor healthcare or suicide.

So, how should Christians respond? The Bible is explicitly clear that we are to welcome strangers (Hebrews 13:2 and Matthew 25:31-46), treating others as we would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12).

Whether arriving in small boats, or on aeroplanes, refugees – simply by being in our vicinity – have become our neighbours (see this week’s Monday Mercy). And, as Tim Keller so helpfully puts it, ‘your neighbour has a claim on you simply by being your neighbour’. There is no bar, or threshold greater than this that needs to be crossed.

What will showing love and compassion to our neighbours look like? Well, that will vary from person to person. By imagining what people have gone through, understanding what they are facing in the asylum system here, and being open to whatever God wants, you will soon find that the Holy Spirit is prompting you to take action.

That may be offering a spare room to someone who has been made homeless or destitute or finding a local project where you can volunteer . It may mean visiting someone in a detention centre , helping a newly granted refugee to navigate the job market or find accommodation , or supporting someone at a tribunal . If you don’t live near any asylum seekers or refugees, you can still be an advocate, writing letters, signing petitions and supporting organisations financially . "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice." (Proverbs 31:8-9)

What else is ‘r’ for? How about righteousness? Proverbs 14:34 says: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people.” Let’s pray that our nation does what is right by those who come here seeking sanctuary.

Written by Dave Smith, Jubilee+ Refugee Network


You can find hosting projects across the UK on the NACCOM website - https://naccom.org.uk/areas_of_work/hosting/

* There are over 300 local projects on the Jubilee+ Refugee Network website: https://jubilee-plus.org/refugee-network/find-your-local-project/

* Avid has a list of visitor groups at UK Immigration Removal Centres: you will find them, along with a quick guide to visiting, here - https://jubilee-plus.org/refugee-network/visiting-detention-centres/

* There are many ways of helping people integrate: you can find them here - https://jubilee-plus.org/refugee-network/integration-into-uk-society/

* This explains what a lay person can and can’t do to help an asylum seeker with their claim – including at a tribunal. https://jubilee-plus.org/refugee-network/helping-with-an-asylum-claim/

* See https://jubilee-plus.org/refugee-network/speaking-up/ for guidance on how to advocate effectively

23 June, 2022

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