‘Defending the defenceless’: churches working on asylum issues

‘Defending the defenceless’: churches working on asylum issues


Written by: Bianca Brigitte Bonomi

Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) has produced a document entitled Asylum Principles: a Statement for Churches Working on Asylum Issues.

The group recognises the duty of churches to help those facing social alienation and hardship. Asylum seekers are seen by CTBI as occupying an especially weakened position, as they are being targeted and abused in the very places where they come to seek shelter.

The document begins by stating that the asylum legislation of the last ten years has been characterised by the ”deterrent’ factor’ and that ‘increasingly prohibitive border controls’ have led to ‘a denial of access to due process and the asylum procedure’. It argues that ‘restrictive public policy’, particularly in the UK, continues to threaten the safety and security of asylum seekers, with some claimants being ‘detained for prolonged periods of time in prisons or prison-like conditions, people made destitute….and people deported to unsafe regimes’ These processes, the CTBI states, ‘all increase the possibility of further trauma and personal destabilisation.’

In light of the changes in public policy on asylum over the past ten years, the organisation has produced the Statement of Principles, which is designed to ‘help Churches individually and collectively to formulate their responses to public policy and its impact upon people who seek asylum and refugees’ and to create a framework for the Churches’ Commission for Racial Justice (CCRJ) to carry forward its work.’

Respect and compassion

The document is founded on the belief that people are created equal and Christians are required to ‘respect the worth of every human being’. Christians also have a duty to ‘support those who are dehumanised by the asylum process’. There are a variety of reasons for people to escape from their homeland and the CTBI reasons that people fleeing abuse or persecution ‘do not normally have a choice’. Yet citizens in countries that have a duty to accept asylum seekers under the Geneva Convention, make a conscious choice in terms of the way that they treat these marginalised people and the document highlights that the ‘demonisation’ of individuals claiming asylum in Britain and Ireland is unacceptable.

‘What Christians would like to see’

The CTBI believes that asylum seekers have a right to adequate legal representation and the same freedoms from prejudice and discrimination as other people in society. The organisation also maintains that asylum claims must be considered promptly. The paper ends with a section entitled ‘Current issues – what Christians would like to see’, aimed at focusing attention on areas of asylum policy needing immediate attention. These include: the need for all ‘removals to be placed under public scrutiny with full access to independent legal review’; more integration of asylum seekers into the local community; deportations to the country of origin only following an independent risk assessment, for the government to address issues of asylum in a way that does not incite racial tensions; for institutional racism to be acknowledged and tackled and for the churches ‘to foster a wider debate focused on alternative ways of implementing and managing asylum policy, which would ensure operational independence and consistency.’

One of the CTBI core principles articulated in the document addresses the issue of nationality and citizenship: ‘As Christians, we fully accept our obligations as citizens of the countries in which we live but we also recognise that our lives are a pilgrimage in which we have no abiding city and that our ‘true citizenship’ is in heaven. We therefore do not attribute absolute value to the rights and privileges of nationality and citizenship. We recognise that these, like other worldly goods, are given to us not solely for our personal enjoyment but for sharing with others when they are in need.’ The principle suggests that like the displaced and geographically mobile asylum seekers, our lives, though physically fixed in one country, in fact represent a spiritual journey, a ‘pilgrimage’ which we must endure in order to reach our ‘true’ home in heaven. In this context, nationality and citizenship is exposed, not as a tangible and exclusive badge, but as a ‘worldly good’, which must be shared. Christianity is not spatially bound – it is a universal code of belief. The tenets that this religion upholds, including ‘compassion and justice’, must therefore transcend geographical boundaries and political barriers and the CTBI makes the Sophoclean suggestion, though it is careful not to elucidate this fully, that one must prioritise duty to the divine over earthly concerns.

Related links

Download a copy of Asylum Principles: Statement for Churches Working on Asylum Issues (pdf file, 209kb)

Churches Together In Britain and Ireland

Churches Commission for Racial Justice

Asylum Principles: a Statement for Churches Working on Asylum Issues, (price £3, ISBN 085169 345 8) is available from CTBI Publications or download a PDF above.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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