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Let’s recover the noble tradition of sanctuary

by
24 May 2024

As the Government pursues a ‘hostile environment’ for asylum-seekers, radical action is called for, argues David Haslam

THE concept of “sanctuary” is gaining attention, partly because a rising number of cities, towns, schools, and churches are adopting the title, but also because of the increasing threat of detention and deportation of asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

The tradition of sanctuary runs deep in English church history. Under King Ethelburg’s rule, sanctuary was available in a wide range of churches. Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Durham Cathedral still have their sanctuary knockers. The concept has biblical roots: Joshua designated six “cities of sanctuary” as the Hebrews settled in the “promised land” (Joshua 20.1-9).

In the 1980s, in southern US states, migrant workers who lived and worked there were being summarily arrested and removed. Some churches successfully offered them sanctuary, as a moral imperative. Then, forcible removals began in the UK, including individuals and families who had been here for many years. They had become “overstayers”, and sanctuary was offered for people facing summary removal. These included self-supporting families with children born, brought up, and at school in the UK.

In the 1990s, more than a dozen churches, and some mosques and temples, participated in sanctuary campaigns; almost all were successful in persuading the authorities to rethink the removal of asylum-seekers. The situation gained urgent attention through threatened suicides and, in at least two removals, deaths.

The idea re-emerged in the noughties, initially through the former Methodist President, the Revd Dr Inderjit Bhogal, encouraging his home city of Sheffield to become a “city of sanctuary” in 2007. It has been followed by dozens more, embracing commitment to a narrative of welcome, hospitality, and dignity for the stranger.


THE Government’s primary approach, meanwhile, is still one of creating a “hostile environment” for refugees and migrants. This has distressed many in the Churches and beyond, particularly because most asylum-seekers do qualify as refugees under international law. The numbers arriving in Germany, Austria, Italy, and France are disproportionately greater. The UK Government has grown increasingly desperate, however, to reduce those coming in small boats, while refusing to offer alternative safe routes from dangerous environments.

The situation has become more fraught with the passage of the Rwanda Bill, which designates Rwanda as a “safe country”, even though the Supreme Court ruled that it was not (News, 17 November 2023). The Bill’s passage through the Lords created almost unprecedented opposition, especially over its clear abrogation of international law (News, 26 April). The Bishops of Chelmsford, Manchester, Southwell & Nottingham, and Worcester were among peers who supported an amendment to avoid circumvention of international law. The Government pressed ahead, however. It seems that international law can be set aside if the “politics” demand it.

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act has already led to forcible detentions — even of people from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eritrea, to which asylum-seekers could not possibly be returned safely. Local support groups are reporting severe mental stress and even potential suicides, as happened with one asylum-seeker on the Bibby Stockholm barge.

Many church leaders have spoken out strongly on the issue. Last year, for example, the Methodist President and Vice-President said: “The Government’s plans to offshore asylum seekers in Rwanda gives yet another insight into its hostile, uncompassionate and ineffective response to asylum seekers and refugees. People are . . . made in the image of God. Sending some of the most vulnerable people in the world thousands of miles away to be imprisoned does not respect this dignity.”


SANCTUARY, for civil purposes, was abolished in 1723, but the concept has remained in the public consciousness, as it offers the chance to “think again” when justice becomes compromised. It has no legal basis: its defence is entirely moral and theological. There was clearly surveillance on churches offering sanctuary during the 1990s, and the church communities were in touch with the local press and MPs to say that there would be peaceful resistance if the police or immigration authorities tried to break in. They never did.

The community campaigns worked alongside lawyers acting for those under threat. The lawyers were often sceptical, and then surprised when these community-based campaigns succeeded. Church members asked whether they were breaking the law by “aiding and abetting”, but legal advice suggested that, as long as no direct resistance was offered, this would not be the case.

A number of churches and at least one cathedral (Chester) have declared themselves places of sanctuary. It is surely time for many more to join them. They may then have to decide, if they become aware of people who are facing deportation, whether they are willing to say to the authorities, “If you want to detain these people, you will have to violate our churches to do so.”

Churches can offer either “building sanctuary”, with people actually in their building, or “community sanctuary”, in which those threatened can stay partly in the building, but also with supporters for short periods, their whereabouts being unavailable.

When laws are made that are opposed by substantial numbers, is this not a time for civil disobedience by the Churches? They could act together to urge a rethink of a policy that sets the UK outside international law — at a time when it is under threat in many places.


The Revd David Haslam is a former Secretary of the Churches Commission for Racial Justice and Vice-Chair of Evesham Vale Welcomes Refugees.

The Church of Sanctuary Conference will be held in Birmingham on 8 June. More information at: ctbi.org.uk

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