The right wing press and politicians of all stripes attacking asylum seekers for being ‘bogus’ or ‘fake’ is nothing new. The right wing press verbally attacking Muslims and mosques is nothing new. Attacking the Church of England is though a new frontier in the never ending war against asylum seekers and migrants generally.
With news breaking that Emad al-Swealmeen, an Iraqi national who is accused of last week’s attack in Liverpool, converted to Christianity after arrival in the United Kingdom, politicians on both sides of the divide lined up to prove their credentials as tough on immigration. First, former Labour MP, Tom Harris claimed that ‘for decades, optimistic asylum seekers have cited their newfound faith as a reason not to remove them to their intolerant home countries’. Harris relied on information he was given by the Home Office, the body tasked with determining asylum applications, 20 years ago to support his position.
Priti Patel then launched the latest Conservative tirade against the UK legal system, and asylum and immigration lawyers specifically. Claiming that lawyers ‘exploit the system’ and referring to the ‘merry-go-round’ of appeals against asylum refusals. This comes despite a drop in the number of people claiming asylum. Even though there are now fewer claims to consider, there are so many appeals because decision making by the Home Office is so poor – currently 48% of asylum refusals are overturned on appeal. This means that almost half of Home Office decisions are wrong for people facing life and death situations.
Trying to intimidate churches and other religious institutions into abandoning migrants in the UK is a sinister turn though. For years, ever since the introduction of the hostile environment, an ever expanding array of regular citizens have become de facto immigration officers. Landlords now face penalties for renting properties to undocumented migrants, employers face penalties for hiring those without immigration status and banks must refuse to open accounts for those who cannot prove they are legally resident. These measures create distrust and fear, and see regular people, just doing their jobs, having to take punitive measures against migrants in the UK just seeking to complete everyday activities.
Perhaps it is not surprising that churches have now come into view, as for long the kindness and support offered by parishes and their members have provided invaluable emotional and practical support to vulnerable migrants.
At the Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London, we work with migrants from all corners of the world and of every religion. Many of our clients are survivors of torture and other awful physical and mental abuse. Many are in the UK without status, waiting lengthy periods for decisions on applications to the Home Office. On numerous occasions, we have encountered clients who have legitimate grounds to remain in the UK, but who have been let down by previous legal representatives or have seen their cases lost in the Home Office’s labyrinth bureaucracy. Contrary to Patel’s suggestion that legal aid lawyers are raking in profits, RAMFEL faces considerable obstacles in supporting people to access legal aid, as legal aid firms will often not take on cases as they lose money on them.
Many of our clients have relied upon their local church, mosque, temple or synagogue for support in their darkest hours. And of those, more than a few have either found religion or converted to a new religion only after arriving in the UK and finding themselves far away from home, separated from their families and unable to work and contribute to the society they hoped to rebuild their lives in. Their chosen place of worship has welcomed them in and offered a vital support network, which is no exaggeration to say can be the difference between retaining and giving up hope.
If churches and other places of worship start to feel pressured into no longer supporting those seeking refuge, one of the final support networks available to migrants in the UK will fall. As the Chelmsford Diocese Refugee co-ordinator, Reverend Canon Gareth Jones, a long-term partner of RAMFEL, has written in response to Harris and Patel: ‘The Church offers considerable support to refugees and asylum seekers, often picking up the work statutory agencies fail to do. Tens of thousands of Christians volunteer everyday to walk alongside displaced peoples, often at great cost to themselves. Every day our clergy bring hope, love and practical help to those applying for asylum in the UK. I am proud of the Church’s commitment to walk alongside some of the world’s most vulnerable people. It is though not our job to assess the veracity of their asylum claims.’
In the aftermath of events like those in Liverpool last weekend, the temptation is always to respond reactively. As we have seen time and time again, knee jerk reactions not only see marginalised groups targeted but lead to bad policy decisions being made.
What happened in Liverpool was a tragedy and should be condemned. However, what does it say about us as a society if we use that as a pretext to attack the Church of England for offering support to vulnerable migrants who have turned to them in their hour of need?