Campaigners gathered outside the Home Office in London yesterday for their monthly Prayer Vigil for “those who died trying to reach the UK, those who are still trying, and those who still have no safe haven.”
Organised by London Catholic Worker and Westminster Justice and Peace, there were prayers, hymns and the recitation of a list of names or descriptions of individuals who died in a single month attempting to reach Europe. While more and more people have been displaced by war, famine and climate change, harsh immigration rules make it impossible to apply for asylum in the UK – unless an individual is already in the country – forcing people to make the perilous channel crossing.
An excerpt from Archbishop Justin Welby’s Easter sermon was read out, in which he said:
Rev Chris Brice, Chair of London Churches Refugee Fund gave the following reflection:
“Meeting today in the shadow of the horrors of the war in Ukraine brings home all too starkly the burden of sin and evil under which our world labours, and has laboured, for millennia.
Our Judaeo-Christian story almost from its opening chapters, shows human beings, made in God’s loving and creative image, all too quickly falling into deceit, selfishness, resentment, murder, and disobedience to God’s Moral laws – seduced by the wiles of the “enemy” who is intent on destroying God’s beautiful new creation out of jealousy, bitter rage, and spite. From this follows all war and hatred, and the desire to exercise tyrannical power, that we see demonstrated so tragically today in Syria, in Ukraine, in Myanmar, in Yemen, in Eritrea, in Afghanistan, and even in the UK’s latest asylum legislation.
It was from such oppression, enslavement, and genocide that God called and rescued the children of Israel, enabling them to escape from the hell on earth that was the rule of the Pharaohs and to flee across the sea to a place of safety and security, flowing with milk and honey.
And still today this Exodus is enacted again and again as our persecuted, oppressed, and traumatised sisters and brothers flee in fear of their lives from war-torn countries across the world in search of safety. 28,000 of them last year crossed, not the Red Sea, but the English Channel, pursued by their nightmares of torture, death, rape, and imprisonment.
And it is these very people, when they arrive exhausted, alone, destitute, and distraught on the streets of London, with no means of support or shelter, that 100’s of “front line” refugee projects across London are there to help. To name just a few from the Projects supported by the London Churches Refugee Fund in 2020, are:
Action for Refugees in Lewisham. African Refugee Community. All People All Places, Article 1 Charitable Trust, Asylum from Rape, Barnet Refugee Service, C4WS Homeless Project, Citizens of the World Choir, Cotton Tree, Croydon Refugee Day Centre, Freedom from Torture, Hackney Migrant Centre, Happy Baby Community, Housing Justice, Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants, Jesuit Refugee Service, Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE), Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network, London Catholic Worker Refugee Shelter, London Jesus Centre, Migrants Organise, Migrateful, New North London Synagogue Destitute Asylum Seekers Drop-In, Notre Dame Refugee Centre, Refugee Council, Room to Heal, Samphire, Streatham Drop-In Centre, and West London Welcome.
All of them based here in London – not in Rwanda!
These, and scores of other refugee projects across London, and the people who support them, are lights shining in the darkness of war and suffering … and thanks to their work and generosity… the darkness will not overcome that light. Not even the current darkness of the asylum legislation being conceived in the building behind us.
To give just one example, amongst thousands, of someone whom one of these projects have helped in London, I now quote from a London Churches Refugee Fund Lent resource written by Trustee Robina Rafferty.
Consider Ms Z, aged 20, from Somalia, who was trafficked in the UK as an unaccompanied minor aged 16 and kept in isolation for many years in the UK. She was raped and forced into prostitution by her agents, and advised not to try to escape otherwise her family in Somalia would be in trouble. She was fearful, and suffering in silence, until one day she managed to run away. She made an application for UK asylum, but when that was refused, she lost her emergency accommodation and financial support in London. When she came to the African Refugee Community (ARC) in North London she was homeless, disoriented and suffering from severe depression. ARC supported her financially with food vouchers, transport costs, hygiene packs and phone cards using their London Churches Refugee Fund Grant. She also received advocacy, and is now in contact with a GP, mental health counsellor and a solicitor to help with her Fresh asylum application. She now feels happy when she comes to the ARC office to collect her hardship payment, and her mental, social, and physical well-being is improving gradually because of the support she receives here in the UK.
How would we cope if trafficked far away from our family and friends, our homeland? A teenager raped and forced into prostitution for years, ashamed, degraded, always afraid. No-one to turn to. Utter desperation. Even when she escaped from her captors, the UK authorities she turned to for protection let her down. But she has found support, kindness and comfort with people who respect her, treat her as a human being, responding to her needs here in London – not Rwanda.
Jesus always respected the dignity of every individual he met, however much they might be condemned or rejected by society. The lives of the woman caught in adultery, the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, are all transformed by their encounter with Jesus. And He never stopped to ask them if they got to Him through official government channels, or were smuggled into His presence on a boat that had crossed the Sea of Galilee, or in a donkey cart hidden under straw and sacking. Nor did He insist on sending them on a one-way ticket to Rwanda to have their credentials checked and verified before He would agree to help them. No – He recognised their desperate need, accepted them; doing all in His power to help, heal and restore them to full dignity as fellow citizens of God’s Kingdom here on earth
As a postscript, and in the light of this reflection, I would like to sow a seed today that I trust might bear fruit. It is the seed of the intention for Christians like us to pray about, and to compose, a short, accessible, Theological Declaration about the treatment of asylum seekers, here in the UK, comparable to the Barmen Declaration that the Confessing Churches of Germany composed in the face of Nazism and Hitler’s rise to power. A Declaration rooted in Prayer, in Scripture, and in Faith in the power of God’s Word. It would consist of a series of short sharp paragraphs each of which would highlight a relevant scripture verse pertinent to the asylum crisis we now face, and a short exposition as to how this should govern and guide our asylum legislation and the treatment of asylum-seekers.
For instance: Scripture forbids us to mistreat or oppress the aliens or foreigners because we were once foreigners, and “know the heart of an alien”. In Leviticus, we are reminded even more strongly, “the land is mine” says God, “for you are strangers and live as foreigners in this land with me.” It reminds us that we are ALL sharing GOD’S world. We are ALL here through God’s grace and mercy. Treating aliens as less worthy to be here ignores the fact that we have all been given a gift from God – we have not and could not have deserved it. It is through God’s grace alone that we have the privileges we have, and knowing that grace, we are called to share it.
To Cain’s question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” – the answer very clearly is YES – YOU ARE! And your sisters too! – for their blood cries out to God from the earth, and the sea..
In the end, the only way to understand and overcome the principalities and powers of wickedness in high places that we face is the power and the wisdom of GOD operating through the prayer, the actions, and the fasting of people like us. A truth that this gathering month by month so faithfully upholds & demonstrates.
For the battle is Spiritual as well as political. In the end, it is only susceptible to action rooted in a Judaeo Christian analysis of the depth and the perversity of the ungodly powers that seek to confound and destroy God’s good purposes. That’s why Jesus came to witness, to suffer, to die, and to rise again, precisely to overcome the wiles of the evil one and the powers of all forms of death: Including all spiritual – physical- and political- death dealing.