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Jesuits: asylum system wastes refugees’ skills

28 June 2019


People, wearing thermal blankets, demonstrate outside San Gerlandon Church on the south Italian island of Lampedusa, last Friday, to protest against the disembarkation of 43 migrants who were on board Sea Watch 3

People, wearing thermal blankets, demonstrate outside San Gerlandon Church on the south Italian island of Lampedusa, last Friday, to protest against t...

THE UK asylum system is a “fundamental distortion of human dignity” that “wastes time, skill, capacity, and promise” for people who are seeking refugee status, a report from the Jesuit Refugee Service UK (JRS) has concluded.

The report, For our welfare and not for our harm, publishedyesterday, is based on interviews with 30 refugees over a year. It states: “Interviewees describe a system that wastes time, skill, capacity and promise. All of these factors militate against justice, love, and dignity for those seeking sanctuary.”

People seeking refugee status wanted instead “a system of protection that is humane, efficient, and flexible in its processes of case management, an end to immigration detention, proper opportunities for community integration, and participation”.

This included faith communities, in which refugees saw themselves as “leaders . . . not merely beneficiaries of well-meaning faith-based care and social action”. One participant said: “[Volunteering is] a way of making a way where there is no way. This is what God does. He is faithful and just, to make a way for everyone.”


The report states: “Faith traditions and identities are often crucial forms of resilience, identity, practice, and meaning-making. . . Refugees are not simply passive receivers of religious care or tradition, but interpreters, agents, and witnesses to the ongoing development of these communities and traditions.”

The report is part of a two-year collaboration between JRS and the author of the report, the Roman Catholic theologian Dr Anna Rowlands.

She explains in her foreword: “This report aims to name the concrete conditions that shape the lives of those who live in the tight space between hope and destitution. This tight space is a manufactured space; one created by the modern state in the interests of its border management systems, and much effort and very large amounts of capital is put into its maintenance.”

Dr Rowlands had not asked direct questions about faith, she says, yet “all but one interviewee raised faith and belief as a critical dimension of their daily lives as refugees.” Faith, and their experience of the asylum system, were intertwined.

Of the participants with a faith, about 70 per cent were Christian, and 30 per cent were Muslim. Most participants, however, understood faith “not simply as personal belief but as part of their identity as participants of cultures that are religious, political, and economic”. One Muslim respondent said: “Faith, for me, is the main thing. This is why I’ve been able to fight for 17 years.”

When Christian refugees were asked about the texts that were important to them, most turned to the Psalms, which they said helped to provide “a language for naming the realities of good and evil that had felt very real during the migration journey”.

One said that the teachings of St Paul had given him a “method of self-preservation” and “new life” while he was incarcerated. “The Home Office can’t capture the Spirit,” he said. The knowledge gained with reading the Bible, he said, “is more powerful. . . This keeps us calm.”

Those interviewed urged the UK to give asylum-seekers the right to work. “The impact of being unable to work — often for periods of several years as they struggled through cycles of asylum applications, appeals, and refusals — on physical, mental, intellectual, and spiritual well-being was immeasurable.”

For people who would struggle to work, financial support should be made available, the interviewees said. The quality of asylum case-determination and case-management should be improved; a time-limit set to end the use of immigration detention for administrative purposes; community integration should be supported; and hostile-environment policies ended.

The report states: “The Home Office determination system for asylum claims is notoriously arbitrary: countless investigations have pointed to a culture of disbelief towards applicants and the poor training of those making decisions. . . Refugees often spend a lot of time waiting around for appointments with agencies who then have little face-to-face time to offer, and process people in a brisk, mechanical, and dehumanising manner.”

The Director of JRS UK, Sarah Teather, said: “This report lays bare an asylum system which erodes human dignity and wastes lives. It demonstrates the urgent need to end the hostile-environment agenda and invest in a more humane approach, enabling people to work and participate in community. This requires deep, systemic transformation.”

New litany for victims of migrant crossings. A litany has been written to remember people who have died attempting perilous journeys across land and sea to seek asylum, the charity Seeking Sanctuary has said.

It has been produced as part of the initiative People Not Walls, made up of French and British civil society, faith groups, and NGOs which are supporting displaced people living a “perilous existence” in northern France (News, 21 June).

One of the responses reads: “We believe in human rights, in the solidarity of all people, in the power of non-violence. We believe in God, who is love and has given the earth to all people. We believe in Jesus Christ who came to heal us and free us from all forms of injustice and oppression.”

A spokesman for Seeking Sanctuary said: “The litany has been used on three occasions, and could be a useful resource for churches who hold services focusing on the plight of migrants.”

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