By Barbara Kentish, Lead Commission Member for Migrants and Refugees
Being Human in the Asylum System
Westminster Justice and Peace welcomes with true Easter joy and relief the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) report on welcoming refugees, Being Human in the Asylum System. Those who work for asylum justice, refugee rights and related issues, and indeed any people of good will, were devastated at the end of March to read of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s regressive proposals to change the current system, which so infamously lacks compassion or justice.
JRS have issued a ringing mandate to inspire us to new efforts of resistance to this inhumanity.
The report provides an excellent overview of current policy and practice, the relevant principles of Catholic Social Teaching, as well as harrowing and shocking stories of refugees’ own experience. Much more crucially, it outlines the vision and policies needed for a humane approach to tackling asylum, which brings a ray of light and hope, just as many feel crushed and despairing in the face of the new Government proposals.
Those already involved in welcome and outreach are all too aware of the many human rights abuses experienced by those seeking asylum in the UK and the New Plan for Immigration, announced with fanfare on March 24th by the Home Secretary, had us wringing our hands in despair.
As the JRS report summarises, current government praxis employs policies including the fostering of a culture of disbelief towards migrants’ stories, the impersonal and unaccountable dealings with cases, which frequently change hands and sometimes disappear, the notorious indefinite detention system, destitution, and of course the hostile environment policy, most recently evidenced in the use of insanitary and crowded disused barracks for housing newly arrived asylum seekers.
Charity workers and volunteers constantly strive to remember the idealism of the 1951 Convention on Refugees, and the European Convention on Human Rights, to both of which the UK is a signatory. Catholics are encouraged by Pope Francis’s clear and frequent statements on the imperative to welcome refugees as brothers and sisters. The New Plan for Immigration takes into account neither our international nor humanitarian obligations. Instead its aims are defensive, with ‘fairness’, efficacy, deterrence of so-called illegal entry, and removal of those here ‘illegally’.
The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales responded quickly to these narrow and harsh plans. On March 30th, Bishop Paul McAleenan, Lead Bishop for Migrants and Refugees, who has spoken out many times on the inhuman treatment of migrants on the French UK borders, issued a statement calling for a just approach to asylum that has ‘people and families at its centre’ and recognises the ‘diverse and complex factors that shape the journeys of refugees.’ Echoing Pope Francis’ call for us to welcome, promote, protect, and integrate refugees, Bishop Paul stated: ‘The assistance that we provide to our sisters and brothers fleeing war, poverty, or persecution is a fundamental test of our society.’
Fast-forward to mid-April, and the JRS report which was in preparation some time before the Government’s announcement, is a welcome arrival. The authors, led by Dr Sophie Cartwright, JRS UK Senior Policy Officer, and including Dr Anna Rowlands, Professor of Catholic Social Thought & Practice at Durham University, state:
‘This report is not just a reactive publication, responding to new rapidly shifting proposals, but has been produced to aid a richer, longer term discussion of what a good asylum system might look like, and we hope will encourage the reader to inhabit a longer frame of vision.’
And there is no better organisation to formulate this new vision, since the Jesuit Refugee Service has worked with asylum seekers for many years. The authors state:
‘This report takes experiences of people seeking asylum in the UK over the past 20+ years, building recommendations for what an asylum process which puts protection of refugees at the centre and promotes human dignity could look like.’
The 16 crystal-clear recommendations include, ‘A focus on protection, respect for human dignity, and rejection of the culture of refusal and disbelief, must be reflected in ministerial planning, caseworker training and Home Office policy documents across different areas of the asylum system,’ and goes on to call for the end of detention, especially indefinite detention, for the right of asylum seekers to work, for dignified living conditions during the wait for claims to be heard, for in-country appeals to be heard, and for the hostile environment policy to be abandoned. In short, for abuses to end and for asylum seekers to be accorded dignity, compassion and justice.
One could only have wished for a word or two about the need for safe and legal routes to the UK, so that many do not feel obliged to use dangerous transport. But that is certainly implied in this vision.
Westminster Justice and Peace highly commends this short and hard-hitting report, bursting with the lived experience of asylum seekers, and pulling no punches as to what needs to happen. The Government consultation on its new Sovereign Borders Bill ends on May 6th and if we do not ask for these recommendations to be considered and adopted we will certainly have an even more cruel asylum regime than that which is currently in place.
We recommend reading the report and contacting any legislators who will listen.