At its annual conference held in Islington on Saturday 21 March, the Churches’ Refugee Network passed unanimously a Position Statement calling for all asylum seekers to be treated with dignity and respect. Conference asked voters in the General Election to seek an end to asylum detention, better administration of justice, and for those seeking asylum to be given adequate support with the right to work and to have a dignified standard of living. The Churches’ Refugee Network is an ecumenical network comprising churches across the UK engaged in ministry to asylum seekers and refugees. The Position Statement will be sent to political leaders as well as being sent out widely through the churches.
For centuries Britain has been outstanding in offering protection to people fleeing persecution. Many of them have done much to create this country’s reputation for fairness and justice and have contributed to the well-being of the nation. That reputation still draws to the United Kingdom people experiencing political and religious discrimination, torture, rape and other trauma in their countries of origin.
In recent years Europe has seen a vast increase in the numbers of people desperate to reach safety for themselves and their families, a place where they can study and work and contribute to the society in which they find sanctuary. The journeys they make reveal their life-or-death desperation. Many perish on the way.
Successive governments in Britain have seen huge deterrent measures placed in the way of those who get here, creating detention centres little different from prisons, refusing opportunities to work and find dignity in work, providing meagre sustenance, and erecting a caseworking climate of disbelief in which those seeking asylum must first prove their credibility with scarce resources to do so. Numerous voluntary organisations and churches have drawn governments’ attention to these defects with little response. Yet many who seek sanctuary here come from countries where British policy measures have contributed to their plight.
The Churches’ Refugee Network of Britain and Ireland is an ecumenical network comprising churches engaged in ministry to asylum seekers and refugees based on our strategic location in local communities across the UK. Our engagement in this work is based on our understanding of God’s special concern for the alien and stranger who come to live among us, not as objects of our charity or pity, but as people bearing the right to be treated with the dignity and respect that their inherent worth as human beings created in God’s image demands; to treat them with less respect than their worth demands is in fact to wrong them.
The right of every person to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution comes 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, not least in Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures. It is a fundamental principle of Christian faith. Strangers are to be welcomed; aliens are to be given protection and provision, including those ‘unlawfully’ present.
THEREFORE this Conference commits itself to the following:
We call upon all voters at the General Election to press candidates to commit themselves to the recommendations of the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into the use of Immigration Detention in the UK. Specifically,
(a) instituting a time limit of 28 days on the length of time anyone can be held in immigration detention;
(b) pregnant women should never be detained;
(c) there should be a presumption in theory and in practice in favour of community-based resolutions and against detention;
(d) decisions to detain should be very rare and detention should be for the shortest possible time and only to effect removal;
(e) detainees should only be held in suitable accommodation, conducive to an open and relaxed regime, not in prison-like conditions;
(f) there should be independent regular audits on the quality of legal advice provided by contracted firms within Immigration Removal Centres (IRC);
(g) transfers of detainees from one IRC to another should be only when absolutely necessary, with legal representatives informed, and monitored by Home Office quarterly review and publication;
(h) the incoming Government should learn from international best practice and introduce a much wider range of alternatives to detention than are currently used in the UK.
Destitution and the need to permit paid work.
We call for the level of Section 95 Support to be raised to at least 70% of the comparable support levels for a British citizen and for those seeking asylum to be given the right to work after six months’ residence in the UK, not only in the so-called ‘ jobs in the shortage occupation list’. No-one should be allowed to become destitute in a civilised society: it is demeaning for them, makes eventual integration more difficult, and is harmful to children. The amount allowed for food in some support rates is not sufficient to provide a healthy diet over an extended period of time. In that sense it cannot fulfil the human rights requirement for ‘adequate food’.
Those unable to be returned to their own country lose statutory support but are ‘still human, still here’. A prolonged wait to find honourable work leads to health problems for themselves and to unnecessary costs to the NHS, and wastes opportunities. All children need not only formal education, but the opportunity to engage in sport and music and all that can assist their development. It accords with the European Commission’s Reception Conditions Directive which requires minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers and states that they are entitled to have a ‘dignified standard of living’ whilst their application is processed. Free access to the NHS is essential.
The Justice system
We call for the Government to take active steps to reverse the decline in the availability of good immigration lawyers and to ensure that adequate publicly-funded legal advice and aid is available to all who seek asylum, reasonably close to where they live. The intended cut in criminal legal aid contracts next October from 1,500 to 427 should be cancelled as it will also impact upon the availability of immigration lawyers. The proposed requirement that all asylum seekers whose initial applications have been refused should travel to Liverpool to make any further submissions must be abandoned in the absence of travel and necessary accommodation costs being provided or reimbursed. People seeking asylum should not be placed at grave disadvantage in terms of access to professional legal advice. Case-owners, judges, and staff in the Home Office and the Foreign Office should receive regular training in understanding distinctions in various forms of religious belief and affiliation. The Legal Aid Agency’s three key strategic objectives (improving casework in the context of reducing costs, enhancing control, giving better customer service, and contributing fully to wider justice and Government aims) should be changed to give priority and greater clarity to the aim of providing wider justice. After years of evident shortcomings in the British justice system, it must be a high priority for the incoming Government to ensure a high standard of decision-making with fair and efficient justice for people who need and seek protection.
Outsourcing to private firms
We call upon the Home Office to ensure that there is proper oversight and accountability for all matters in connection with asylum and refugees which are outsourced to private firms. There is widespread concern about the standards of behaviour of successive contract-holders in relation to detention and deportation. Poor monitoring of the contractual relationship between the Home Office and such firms has sometimes led to a lack of accountability and an evasion of responsibility. Furthermore, the enforcement culture seen in Immigration Removal Centres and in removal processes has now begun to affect the treatment of people in accommodation where these are run by the same private contractors. People at all stages of the asylum process must be treated with dignity and respect.
We call upon all candidates and others involved in the General Election, and upon the media, to avoid inaccurate and inflammatory language, to take care to ensure that statements are factual and correct, and to strive for all asylum seekers, refugees and migrants to be treated with dignity and respect, mindful of the particular risks to those who have no voice in the public domain and who are made more vulnerable by careless and untruthful debate.
We call upon the incoming Government to lower the income level of £18,600 set for bringing foreign-born spouses and/or children of British citizen to the UK. £18,600 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 citizens from minority ethnic backgrounds, 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 who have a form of subsidiary protection (through case resolution exercise, discretionary leave &c) subsequently to marry someone from their home country.
In particular, we also urge that the rules relating to Adult Dependent Relatives should be eased; they are harsh to the point of cruelty and take no account of the stability and other benefits which adult dependent relatives may bring to families integrating into British society.
We call upon all members of our various Churches across the United Kingdom, and all members of the community, to go out of their way to welcome and respect the stranger, to befriend new arrivals and those in vulnerable circumstances, and to encourage and assist integration, including help with the learning of English and the understanding of British customs, traditions and laws.
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.