Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Refugee Protection: Policies by Number or a Creative Welcome...

...was the title of the Churches Refugee Network’s annual day conference on Saturday, held on June 4th, at Saint James’ parish church, Piccadilly. The whole area of UK Border Agency asylum policy and practice is rightly always under scrutiny in the media, but never more than in the media in the week running up to this year’s gathering of folk from all over the country, who work in specialised projects, or befriend individual asylum seekers and their families.
“Amnesty given to 160,000 asylum seekers”, was the headline in the Times. “Britain Opens the Door to Asylum Seekers”, declared the Daily Express. “HOW DREADFUL!” you are invited to think. “What ever is the Government doing, letting in 160,000 more unwanted people?”
But no one at the conference swallowed the bait, because they knew better. Over 50 attendees signed a statement, which explains, amongst other things, that large numbers of the 160,000, will be bonafide international refugees who have fled from violence and terror, torture and rape. Their applications for sanctuary in the UK had lain in administrative piles of paperwork over months and in some cases, years, whilst they were surviving in poverty. Many of them will have spent months in detention, because they arrived illegally and, not knowing our laws and language, did not immediately explain why they had left home in the first place.
The headlines did not disclose either that the so called “amnesty” had actually been taking place over several years, as paperwork gradually emerged from the constipated system, or that people seeking Sanctuary, are not in the same situation as people who are judged to be economic migrants. (Although this group too deserves compassion, they are not defined as International Refugees.) The numbers of people currently claiming sanctuary is just a small proportion of the net ebb and flow of those overstaying their visas. The majority only claim asylum because they dared not remain a moment longer at home. They have left everything and fled. This ‘demonization’ of this truly vulnerable group of people, by some of our media, is totally unacceptable.
The day after the Conference, the Sunday Express carried the lead headline, “Asylum Gravy Train”, reporting that, “Foreign companies, private health care providers, property businesses, even a luxury travel agent, are being paid hundreds of millions a year in a bid to contain thousands of illegal migrants.” But, hang on a moment: are we talking about ‘asylum seekers’, or all ‘illegal migrants’? It is not the asylum seekers who are at fault – it is the inhuman administrative mess, that they are forced to suffer. What happens to our human compassion when it comes to receiving traumatised people who are just looking for ways to escape experiences of fear and pain?
The Conference was a huge success. Dr Anna Rowlands, a lecturer at St Margaret’s Institute of Theology in Cambridge, our first keynote speaker, shared her paper, ‘Human Rights for Real Humans: past and present views and practices in religion and politics’. Frances Webber, who has recently retired as a senior Human Rights/Immigration barrister with Garden Court Chambers, gave us a wonderfully complementary view on the social and political reality for people seeking Sanctuary in the UK. “Why is it”, Frances Webber asked us, “that a newspaper will be reporting the appalling suffering and breakdown in overseas communities on one day and then later, demonises the very same people who have turned to us for help?”
After a delicious lunch, prepared by Migrant Voices, Gillian Allnutt, the published poet from the north east England, put us in touch with the feelings of some sanctuary seekers, as she read poems they had contributed to her project, ‘The Galloping Stone’. And the African band, Zvichanakachete, had us dancing in the aisles!