Stop tolerating this inhumane treatment

02 April 2008

The new report on asylum challenges all Christians to act now against a flagrant injustice, argues Anthony Harvey

‘The findings should be required reading for all people of conscience’

WHEN Faith in the City reported on the acute deprivation in the big cities of England (which was virtually unknown to the rest of the country) in 1985, it caused a considerable stir, as well as some strident political objection. It laid bare what it called “a grave and fundamental injustice”.

The British have traditionally been regarded as committed to standards of fairness. If people are being treated in a way that is manifestly unjust, and if this is brought to the notice of the public, a tide of opinion will demand that the injustice be redressed. Indeed, the response that Faith in the City aroused galvanised the Church into unprecedented action, and had an appreciable influence on public policy.

The interim findings of the Independent Asylum Commission were published last week (News, 28 March). The report, Fit for Purpose Yet?, raises equally sharply the question whether there is not a similar case of injustice in our midst today. There is a difference: asylum — unlike the inner cities in the ’80s — has become a hot political issue. It is frequently a prominent news item, and is presented in the media with negative, sometimes vitriolic, comment.

Yet the realities of the system that asylum-seekers have to contend with, and the humiliations they may have to endure while pursuing their claims, are known only to those who are working among them or have encountered individual cases. Occasionally, an exceptional instance of apparently unjust or inhumane treatment reaches the headlines; but otherwise the depth of their predicament is something of which the majority of church members, as of the public at large, have little awareness.

It was to redress this deficit of public awareness, to draw attention to injustices, and to propose reforms to the system, that the Independent Asylum Commission was set up 18 months ago. The word “independent” is crucial. The sponsoring body is the Citizen Organizing Foundation, a charitable organisation with a reputation for impartial investigation and independent action.

Expenses have been met with the aid of other charities, and its members possess a formidable range of expertise and non-political authority. It has held a series of public hearings, and received a daunting mass of written evidence. It has completed “the largest inquiry on this issue ever undertaken”.

Its remit is to present a comprehensive picture of the day-to-day working of the system; to draw attention to the points where it bears hardest on asylum-seekers (and sometimes also on immigration officers assessing their claims); and to make recommendations.

The Commission’s hope is that, by a scrupulous assessment of the evidence (the co-chairs are both distinguished lawyers), it may assist the Government to develop fairer procedures. These need both to satisfy public concern that asylum-seekers with unfounded claims are being refused and promptly returned to their countries, and also to protect the claimants themselves from the consequences of ill-prepared judgments and inhumane treatment. Last week’s publication was the first stage. Further findings and recommendations will follow in the next few months.

The findings should be required reading for all people of conscience in this country. They make it indisputable that there is indeed a serious case of injustice in our midst today. “A culture of disbelief”, the report says, “persists among decision-makers . . . leading to perverse and unjust decisions.” The process “stacks the odds against asylum-seekers”, whose treatment “falls seriously below the standards to be expected of a humane and civilised society”.

In the fast-track process, asylum-seekers are being “set up to fail”. The enforced destitution of some refused asylum-seekers is “indefensible”. Such things are being inflicted on people who have come here to claim an internationally recognised right of asylum, and who have taken great risks and suffered great hardships to reach safety.

Most are destitute on arrival, and ask only for a fair hearing and an opportunity to support themselves by working for their keep. Instead, as this report reveals in harrowing detail, they may be aggressively questioned; presumed to be lying unless they can prove their credibility; have limited legal representation when they appeal; are denied all right to work; are often placed in detention while waiting for a decision; or are dispersed to regions where they may have no personal contacts and difficult access to lawyers.

If their final appeal fails, and if they do not immediately comply with directions to be removed (despite, for many, an acute fear of torture, or even death, if they return), they may be deprived of accommodation and any provision for health and food. They are denied some of the most fundamental of human rights.

Faith in the City can claim to have been a principled response to a flagrant injustice being tolerated in our society, and it was followed by the creation of the Church Urban Fund and many other church-sponsored initiatives. Similarly, this report challenges all men and women of faith and good will to show their active concern.

Ecumenical projects have already been working for some years to relieve the hardships of asylum-seekers, and to raise awareness; individuals have followed suit. But many more could do the same: befriending, hosting, offering surety for bail, and speaking out for these innocent sufferers in our midst. Asylum-seekers are enduring deprivations unworthy of any country that claims to be governed by the Christian values of justice and humanity.

The Revd Dr Anthony Harvey is a retired Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, and a former chairman of the Churches’ Refugee Network.

Fit for Purpose Yet? is downloadable at; or available free from IAC, 112 Cavell Street, London E1 2JA.

The Revd Dr Anthony Harvey is a retired Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, and a former chairman of the Churches’ Refugee Network.

Fit for Purpose Yet? is downloadable at; or available free from IAC, 112 Cavell Street, London E1 2JA.

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