Thursday, 25 May 2006

Church of England Attacks Government Policy On Asylum Seekers

An interfaith commission set up by the Church of England has attacked the country's draconian system of 'asylum.'

The commissioners criticised the way the threat of destitution was being used as a way of deterring refugees from seeking asylum and condemned the enforced poverty suffered by unsuccessful asylum seekers.

The Church of England's Commission on Urban Life and Faith noted that asylum policy in Britain was being driven by "popular xenophobia" and was being sustained by a large section of the press "on a political terrain influenced by fanaticism."

As a result asylum seekers were being needlessly forced into a life of fear, extreme poverty and destitution and are being made more vulnerable to attacks and exploitation even from the very people, institutions and structures that are supposed to be protecting them.

According to media reports, in May 2006, a senior Home Office immigration officer was suspended after allegations that he offered to help an 18-year-old Zimbabwean rape victim obtain asylum in the U.K. if she had sex with him. Earlier this year three other Home Office immigration officers from Lunar House admitted having sex with visa applicants in exchange for helping facilitate their applications. One of the men was dismissed, the second resigned and the third was disciplined internally.

"We live in one of the most economically unequal countries in Europe and not only has the 'trickle down' promise of market forces failed to deliver but a draconian asylum system consigns a small section of the population to unacceptable destitution," the Commission on Urban Life and Faith said.

The commissioners, who included Muslim and Jewish representatives and members of all the main Christian churches, spent two years gathering evidence from all over the United Kingdom. They found that "endemic antipathy and racism" among many young people left them vulnerable to exploitation by religious and political extremists.

In "Faithful Cities: A call for celebration, vision and justice," a report published on May 22, the Commission urged the British government to lead rather than follow public opinion on immigration, refugees and asylum policy.

"Specifically, asylum seekers should be allowed to sustain themselves and contribute to society through paid work," the commissioners said.

At present, people fleeing persecution are not allowed to work during the first year of their application for political asylum. They can apply for permission to work after those 12 months but even then permission to work is not always granted.

Those who, in the mean time, have had their applications for refuge turned down are strictly prohibited from working.

The Asylum and Immigration Act of 2004 removes any welfare benefits and housing help from families of asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected and who have "failed to take reasonable steps" to leave Britain. The Act sanctions the removal of housing support from failed asylum seekers unless they agree to leave Britain. If parents refuse to sign forms to say they will leave the country, they are made homeless and their children taken into care.

"It is unacceptable to use destitution as a tool of coercion when dealing with 'refused' asylum seekers," the Commission on Urban Life and Faith said.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, endorse the Commission's report.

Bishop Bernard Longley, an Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Westminster and member of the Catholic Bishops' Conference Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship, also expressed his support for "Faithful Cities."

"The report examines how urban regeneration projects have failed to improve the lives of many people who live in British cities. For example, although the re-building of cities has brought new opportunities and prosperity, it has also resulted in fear, racial tension and the tendency to treat neighbours as strangers," Bishop Longley said.

Commenting on the report, musician and civil rights activist, Sheila Mosley told of how one asylum seeker she is in contact with was discovered working without permission.

"The police confiscated the four hundred pounds (£400) wages that was in his bank account that he had earned and paid tax on," she said.

"There are prisoners in Strangeways whose only crime was to work their way out of destitution rather than have to rob people because of destitution," she added.

Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council welcomed the commission's report, describing it as "acutely observed and timely" and "a wake-up call to politicians to give a lead to public opinion."

"If they [the politicians] fail to do so, the losers, as 'Faithful Cities' points out, are those asylum seekers living in extreme hardship or forced into destitution in order to 'encourage' them to leave the UK," Sherlock said.

"What's needed is moral leadership, helping to inform everyone about our obligations to those who have fled persecution and sought sanctuary in the UK."

She emphasised that the commission had rightly described using destitution as a tool of coercion when dealing with refused asylum as 'unacceptable.'

"These are vulnerable people and to 'encourage' them to leave the U.K. by the prospect of starvation is inhumane and unnecessary," Maeve Sherlock said.

This article was first published on OhmyNews International.

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