How can we respond to Afghans and other people fleeing persecution?

Jeremy Thompson, Restore Manager shares with us;

If we believe we have a Biblical mandate from Jesus to welcome the stranger and we follow a God of justice who cares for the oppressed, how can we act on that today?

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen an outpouring of compassion for those fleeing the threat of persecution from the Taliban in Afghanistan. But does our compassion stretch to those on perilous journeys across the Mediterranean?  Or closer to home those crossing the Channel?  Those in the boats across the Channel may also be fleeing persecution, those in the boats may include Afghans fleeing the Taliban.  Don’t they need and deserve sanctuary, just like the Afghans who were fortunate enough to be evacuated in August?

People get labelled negatively and demonised by the media and politicians.  However, from God’s perspective they are all people created in the image of God. Under God’s law and international law, they all deserve justice and safety if they have been persecuted….. regardless of how they travel.  How long before the threat of persecution from the Taliban in Afghanistan slips from the media and Afghans become the latest scapegoats blamed for ‘taking our jobs”, “taking our houses” or “increasing waiting times for the NHS”?

Over a period of years, we’ve come to a point where most people accept that climate change is a global challenge. Responding to refugees is also a global challenge, requiring a global response.  With both issues, all nations need to contribute to the solution.  It’s very positive that as a nation we have offered protection in the UK to Afghan interpreters and also to some of those who were at risk from the Taliban because they stood up for human rights and democracy or come from ‘at risk’ groups including women and girls, minority ethnic groups, minority religions like Sikhs and Christians or LGBT communities.

There are 26.4million refugees and 4.1 million asylum seekers in the world (UN figures for the end of 2020).  In the 12 months up to June 2021, there were 31,115 new asylum claims in the UK (Germany, France, Spain, Greece and Italy all received more).

UN figures estimate that Lebanon hosts over 1 million refugees in a country the size of Devon and Cornwall, with a population of less than 7 million and a dire economic situation.  From 2015, the UK committed to take 20,000 Syrian refugees over 5 years on the first resettlement scheme. In the current year, before the Afghan crisis, the commitment was to take another 5,000 on the UK Resettlement Scheme.  Since then, we’ve relocated Afghan interpreters and their families (numbers not published yet). Through the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, an additional programme launched in August, we have committed to take a further 5,000 more Afghans in the first year and up to 20,000 over the next few years.  In Birmingham – a City of Sanctuary – we resettled 516 Syrians between 2015 and 2020, have committed to resettle 110 refugees (mainly Syrians) in the current financial year and 80 Afghans from the interpreters’ relocation scheme.  A pledge from Birmingham City Council is awaited for the new Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme.  At Restore, we support and celebrate that Birmingham is responding positively and we offer befriending and group social activities to refugees and asylum seekers on all schemes.

But despite what the media and some politicians would have us believe, the UK national and regional figures still show that we are not providing the bulk of the solution to the global refugee challenge. Countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Pakistan are taking millions.

We are extremely concerned about some of the provisions within the Nationality and Borders Bill which is currently going through Parliament.  Its impact on asylum seekers in particular, means the legislation has already been dubbed the Anti-Refugee Bill. The internationally accepted definition of a refugee for the past 70 years is someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution.  That is the criteria used by the Home Office to assess asylum applications. Yet this new Bill seeks to judge and criminalise people on how they travelled despite the UN Convention on refugees, of which the UK has been a signatory since 1951, indicating that people should not be penalised due to the route of travel taken.  The Government wants people to only travel on ‘safe and legal routes’.  We would love to see provision of a safe and legal route for everyone who needs protection from persecution.  However, currently the only safe and legal routes to the UK are for Afghans and Syrians.  There is no Government-created ‘safe and legal route’ is you come from Yemen, Iran or Eritrea.  Bearing in mind that at Restore we befriend refugees and asylum seekers from 23 countries, there are a lot of countries where there is no ‘safe and legal route’. This means the only option for the majority fleeing persecution is to use risky routes like boats across the Channel.  Under the new Bill, if you arrive by those routes you are likely to be housed in a reception centre (not yet built) rather than living in the community, you may be sent to another country to be processed (this was tried in Australia and resulted in greater mental health issues and did not significantly impact trafficking or the numbers arriving by boats), you may not be allowed to claim asylum, and if you are permitted to apply for asylum you may not be given refugee status but a new temporary status that gives no right to be reunited with other family members (spouse and dependent children under 18). This Bill would mean that people who, for the past 70 years, would previously have been offered refugee status in the UK will not get the opportunity of justice and protection in our country.

Is this the way we believe persecuted people, made in the image of God and loved by Him, should be treated?  At Restore, we believe that the Anti-Refugee Bill should be challenged, it should either be thrown out and redrafted or significantly amended to present a kinder, fairer approach to refugees.  Are we a lone voice?  Hopefully not, Restore is part of the Together with Refugees coalition of over 280 organisations  campaigning across the country for change.  Will you join us?

Still not convinced?  We’ll soon turn our thoughts to Christmas.  The nativity story ends with Mary and Joseph fleeing with Jesus to escape persecution.  They became refugees.  Did they travel on a ‘safe and legal route’?  If the Anti Refugee Bill had been around then, Jesus and his family would have been turned away, detained in a reception centre or sent to another country to be processed. Let’s remember that Jesus was a refugee and calls us to welcome the stranger.

Action we all can take. You could display an orange heart? It’s a bit of a bizarre request but the orange heart (the colour of the refugee flag and of a lifebelt) is a symbol of kindness, hope and support for refugees and people seeking sanctuary a.k.a. asylum seekers. There was a national Week of Action in October, that highlighted concerns about the Bill.  It was encouraging to see orange hearts popping up around Birmingham in churches, offices, schools and homes. Birmingham City of Sanctuary voluntary Committee put up posters in shops so the message was out on High Streets.  The hope is for orange hearts to be displayed on iconic buildings across the country on 6 December.  (Birmingham City of Sanctuary Committee did explore an orange heart outfit for the Bull statue and even had someone willing to make it, but then discovered the Bull charges £3,500 a day to wear an outfit and that was rather beyond our budget!)  An alternative ‘iconic’ site in Birmingham is now being explored.  Could you make an orange heart please to display on 6 December and show your support for refugees?  (Your heart could be cut out, painted, knitted, crocheted, made from Lego or flowers….)  Or could you print and display one of the Birmingham City of Sanctuary posters?

 

Please sign this petition https://www.refugee-action.org.uk/campaigns/stand-up-for-asylum/

Please write to your MP or to any contacts you may have in the Conservative Party and share your concerns about this Bill and the impact it will have on persecuted people needing sanctuary. Don’t be fobbed off with the party-line that this is all about ‘control of our borders’.  The key issue is do we want to protect people who have been persecuted. This is an issue of justice, which cuts to the heart of who we want to be as a nation.

As mentioned earlier, Birmingham is a City of Sanctuary.  So, Birmingham City Council is also actively supportive of refugees and asylum seekers.  Cllr John Cotton, Cabinet Member for Social Inclusion, Community Safety & Equalities, recently wrote to the Home Secretary expressing Birmingham’s concerns about the Nationality and Borders Bill.

But action isn’t just about the legislation, its about our response to individuals, to refugees and asylum seekers who are our neighbours in Birmingham. At Restore we run a befriending scheme, linking a volunteer with a refugee or asylum seeker to offer welcome, combat isolation and help with integration. We were delighted that over 60 people joined our October training course to find out more about refugee issues and that over 20 are planning to become befrienders. Many were motivated into action because of the ‘Afghan crisis’.

What’s the impact of befriending at an individual level? One asylum seeker wrote:Having someone to talk to, was a big problem to me until I met my befriender who came and took that burden away.  My befriender turned out to be the best friend I ever had in my life. She is very kind hearted, is always ready to listen to me and has helped me to regain my self-confidence by her kind support.”

There are many other refugee support organisations who we partner with locally and who would welcome your support including St Chad’s Sanctuary, BirCH (Birmingham Community Hosting), Welcome in Handsworth, Hope Projects, Stories of Hope and Home and Birmingham City of Sanctuary voluntary movement, plus larger ones like Refugee Action, Freedom from Torture, Brushstrokes, Asylum Matters, Refugee and Migrant Centre and the British Red Cross.

On behalf of refugees and asylum seekers who will seek sanctuary in the UK in the months and years ahead, thank you for taking action.

 

 

Useful Links

Together with Refugees website: https://togetherwithrefugees.org.uk/

Restore’s giving page https://www.restore-uk.org/get-involved/support-restore-financially/

Link to Councillor Cotton’s letter https://www.birmingham.gov.uk/blog/birmingham-blog/post/976/letter-to-the-home-secretary-on-the-governments-new-plan-for-immigration?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=Orlo

 

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