Thousands of asylum seekers in the UK are destitute, marginalised and fear for their lives. Ruth Dickinson finds out what you can do to help the strangers on your doorstep.
Samar is not sure if she will be here next week. She has lived in a perpetual state of uncertainty about what future she has in the UK ever since the Home Office rejected her application for asylum. Like thousands of other failed asylum seekers, Samar is also not sure what awaits her when she returns to her native Iran.
She originally fled after converting to Christianity – not a popular decision in her country, where apostates have been known to be excluded from their families, imprisoned or worse, executed.
Her church – The Father’s House Church in Poole, Dorset, has campaigned tirelessly on her behalf, drawing support from the local media and MPs including Ann Widdecome, and delivered a petition to Downing Street.
Despite this, she could be deported at any time and given the now high-profile nature of her case, is likely to face severe consequences back in Iran. Asylum is a complex issue. Nothing is black and white. Not every Iranian Christian convert, for instance, faces certain death should they be made to return. Nor is every asylum seeker actually fleeing persecution, or every person claiming to have converted to Christianity genuine. However, it does not change the reality that across the UK, asylum seekers are turning up on the doorsteps of churches, which are often not sure how to address their problems.
Poverty and destitution
“Thousands of asylum seekers are destitute and it is illegal for them to work,” explains Niall Cooper, national co-ordinator of Church Action on Poverty (CAP). “Many are turning up at the doors of churches and they are providing asylum seekers with food, clothes and in some cases accommodation.
In most cases this is an incredible struggle for churches to do. It’s not a sustainable solution.” CAP is campaigning for a change in government policy so that asylum seekers are able to work.
“They are reliant on government benefit,” says Cooper. “The idea that asylum seekers get special treatment is just not true. They get less than any UK citizens get. They are put in shared accommodation, and often get moved around.”
A failed asylum seeker receives nothing. ‘Government policy is to use a carrot and stick approach of making rejected asylum seekers destitute while offering very basic support if applicants say they will “voluntarily” return to the place they fled,’ reads the CAP website.
Media and public perception
It is not just a poverty issue. ‘Asylum seeker’ is a loaded term, and in some circles is synonymous with ‘scrounger’. The truth, says Gareth Wallace, parliamentary officer for the Evangelical Alliance, is that no one comes to the UK for an easy ride. People have often fled countries where they face certain death or torture. “There’s a disconnect between what you read about in the papers and the reality,” says Wallace.
“Often these people are well-qualified doctors or similar and the best they can hope for here is to be a taxi driver. It’s not easy. Release International actually tells people not to come to the UK on a whim. It’s not an easy life for them. It’s like a prison, you’re caught in a legal limbo. They can’t work, get hardly any benefits and they just have to wait for decisions that can take months or years. The system can be so incompetent.” “The system is stacked against them,” agrees Niall Cooper. “The general culture of disbelief also pervades the decision system. Four out of five asylum seekers can’t establish a case. They are coming from countries like Zimbabwe, Sudan, Iraq, which we know are dangerous, often there is no proper rule of law. When people say, ‘I’m not prepared to go back,’ it’s not because they want to live the life of Riley, it’s because they genuinely fear for their lives. After all that, for them to be made destitute is just the final straw.”
Proving their case
Aside from poverty and discrimination, the immediate problem asylum seekers have is proving their case. “A lot of people’s story can be quite heartrending - they or their family have been victims of torture or violence,” says Cooper. “They’ve got to produce evidence which would effectively stand up in a tribunal. That’s not the first thing on your mind when you’re trying to flee the country.”
Other problems include not knowing where to go for advice, being shifted from lawyer to lawyer, and even not having the right translator during appeal proceedings.
“I was involved in a case which had to be adjourned three times because of bad translation,” says Stuart Windsor, national director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “A woman was asked what would happen to her should she return to her country, and she said, ‘They will slit my throat.’ The translator translated this as, ‘She will have problems’.”
Up and down the country, churches have been meeting the practical needs of asylum seekers, and there are stories of how people have become more interested in the spiritual side of church life and converted to Christianity. While on one hand this is a wonderful thing, it often poses a whole new set of complex issues and churches are often a bit lost as to how to deal with them.
Converting once they arrive in the UK ‘can complicate their application for asylum’, according to the Altogether for Asylum Justice report put together by the Evangelical Alliance. It can provide a reason for a fresh claim to be logged with the Borders and Immigration Authority. There can be ‘grave implications’ for asylum seekers who have converted to Christianity returning to countries like Iran, Afghanistan or Pakistan where converting from Islam is illegal.
If it can be proved that these people have a genuine faith, and that they would face death if they returned, then they will be granted permission to remain in the UK.
However, according to the Evangelical Alliance, the Home Office has not got either of these things completely right. One of the key things the Altogether report highlights is the Home Office’s apparent confusion between what is cultural and what is biblical Christianity, resulting in converts being asked often inappropriate questions to determine whether they are a Christian. Examples given included, ‘How do you cook a turkey for Christmas?’
“One Eritrean convert who I was dealing with was asked, ‘What is the first word of Mark’s gospel?’” says Stuart Windsor. “Even his pastor couldn’t answer that. The level of knowledge they expect new converts to have is often totally unrealistic.” CSW is calling for Home Officetraining in the basics of Christianity, which it hopes will result in a better understanding of the life change which a person goes through when they convert.
The role of churches
Samar’s future remains uncertain. She could be made to leave her safe location any day. The fact that her case has been so publicised has helped her in one way, generating a groundswell of support, but on the other hand she is now known in Iran, and in the words of one Iranian pastor, “will have problems” when she returns. What is certain, is how valuable the church support has been for her, and how hopeless she would be without it. “The church has done a brilliant job,” says Windsor. “They’ve made every difference for her. They’ve prayed, been involved, personally delivered a petition to Number 10. They’ve really done everything they can to fight for the safety of this family member.”
Gareth Wallace of the EA agrees churches everywhere have been vital to the wellbeing of people and even the success or failure of asylum claims.
“Churches have been absolutely critical. In some cases they are an emergency service.” He says that where churches have become involved on a local level, providing food for example, this has spurred them into campaigning for change on a national level, which is what is really needed.
Niall Cooper adds, “The Home Office is in denial of the problem. The latest immigration minister – Liam Byrne – is a Christian, but he has refused to discuss the issue [of poverty amongst asylum seekers] with us. Among the MPs, some are becoming more aware of the issue but it will take more campaigning for things to really change.”
At government level, the whole issue of asylum is a sensitive one, and being seen as being soft on immigration in any form is never going to be a votewinner. “It will take some courage on the part of the government,” insists Cooper. This, he adds, is why it becomes important that churches are involved, in order to advocate doing “what is right, rather than what is popular”.