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A hostile environment for converts

by
13 December 2019

Asylum-seekers’ freedom of religion should be respected, says David Forbes

PA

THE General Election that took place yesterday has occupied most of the headlines this week. But, for those of us who specialise in asylum, Tuesday was a more significant day: Human Rights Day.

Mercifully, whatever the final outcome of the election and of Brexit, the UK is not planning to leave the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, to give it its full title; nor is it planning to leave the Court of Human Rights (although that had been the aim of our last Prime Minister, Theresa May, who, as Home Secretary, instituted “a really hostile environment for immigration”).

But we need to ask whether we are doing enough to protect the human rights of people such as my client Yasmine, a Bangladeshi asylum-seeker, who has chosen to convert from Islam to Christianity. The recent Foreign Office-commissioned report by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, argued, rightly, that more should be done to protect Christian minorities in other countries (News, 12 July). But what about the rights of Asians in this country, who are normally assumed to be of a non-Christian faith, to embrace Christianity? We must stand up for their freedom of religion, too.

 

YASMINE was abandoned and divorced by her Bangladeshi husband, who had settled in the UK and who brought her over from Dacca in 2005. She eventually encountered Christ in the chapel of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Having achieved release, she was baptised and confirmed in the Church of England. But, before this, she had failed the Home Office’s own version of the catechism, and, to this day, she is classed by them as a Muslim, regardless of the Church’s view of the matter.

At the time when she suffered at the hands of her errant husband, coercive control had not yet been recognised as domestic abuse. As someone suffering domestic abuse, she would have been granted “Freedom from torture” and would have gained settlement in this country.

This would have allowed her to enact her freedom of religion, and, as a Christian convert, she would have been protected from having to return to a country in which conversion from Islam to Christianity is not tolerated. But, as an overstayer and an asylum-seeker, her human rights have been suspended by the authorities. They freely declare that she is a false convert, whatever the Church might say to the contrary.

I have had this happen about a couple of dozen times with other clients, which suggests that the Home Office has a policy of trying to countermand the Church’s assessment of the genuineness of a convert’s faith. Indeed, earlier this year, it was reported that the Home Office had rejected an asylum application on the basis of clumsy biblical exegesis (News, 21 March, Comment, 12 July).

Yasmine next went on to form a relationship with a Pakistani Christian, Rahman, who was also an asylum-seeker. The fruit of that relationship is their child, Osman, today a fresh-faced three-year-old, but with no father. How can this be? Well, Rahman is a Christian-born Pakistani. He does not, says the Home Office, require any protection of his human rights, because he does not face individually targeted persecution.

Furthermore, the Home Office says, he does not need protection of his right to a family life because he has not proved that he was physically cohabiting with his partner in this country (both were assigned to single-sex accommodation 50 miles apart), or that he is a primary carer of his son (Osman was housed with Yasmine).

The favoured British position on family life formed between asylum-seekers is that they can be offered “family life lite” outside this country. Communication via a Skype link or other electronic means is sufficient, our Government says, to satisfy the requirements of the European Convention.

 

TODAY, Yasmine faces the permanent threat of removal, with Osman, to Bangladesh; separation from Rahman; and exposure to the view at home that to be expelled she would have had to do something reprehensible. It should not be beyond the Church to stand up to the Government on this human-rights issue, whatever that Government may look like after the election.

We and our church leaders should oppose and seek to change the policy of overruling Churches’ assessments of Christian converts, thus denying them freedom of religion and protection of their family and private life. We should also insist that the rights of the child and our Children’s Act be applied to the benefit of children such as Osman in their new Christian families. Asylum-seekers, like the rest of us, have human rights.

 

David Forbes is a legal adviser at Lifeline Options, a community-interest company that advises immigrants and asylum-seekers.

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