the friend online
27 March 2009

Migrants, asylum seekers, refugees:
Migration is a process in which need, greed and the leadings of faith have all played a part. Faith drove the Pilgrim Fathers and Quakers to America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and greed led to the cruelty and forced migration of millions of African slaves. Pogroms and persecution drove Poles and Russians across the Atlantic in the nineteenth century. Poverty and starvation were at the roots of both Scottish and Irish migrations during and after the potato famines between 1846 and 1860. Indigenous reaction against migrants is almost as old as migration itself. Over the last 200 years the respectable working class aversion to the ‘undeserving poor’ has been a recurring theme of reactionary politics.
One in thirty-five of the world’s population are migrants. In the first five years of the twenty first century twenty five million have been added to their number. In an increasingly interdependent world, migration is fed by violent conflicts, climate change, poverty and persecution. It is a part of a complex global process of interconnectedness beyond the control of any individual state. Poverty impels migrants from Africa to Europe but remittances sent back to Africa may be more significant than total flows of aid.

Recent migration has been fuelled by a combination of economic boom and widening inequality between north and south. For many, claiming asylum has been the only legal route of entering the country. Now in the worst slump since the second world war, migrants, without permanent residency, are among the most vulnerable people in the UK. When the British National Party (BNP) turns to blaming not economic failure but the presence of migrants for poverty, disease and social fragmentation, there is an awful echo of the 1930s. The election of BNP councillors in Burnley and Blackburn has been followed by fifty-six further councillors across the country. In elections to the European Parliament in the North West in 2004 the BNP polled 6.38 per cent of the vote. Eight per cent would have given them a seat. This should be a wake-up call for government and opposition alike to put aside party political differences and unite in agreeing the kind of fair, responsive and rational system for migration that the Independent Asylum Commission has already set out in relation to asylum.

It is in this context that the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill demonstrates both lack of policy coherence and absence of moral imagination. Firstly, the Bill seeks to limit the scope of judicial review relating to immigration and nationality law. This means that the most sensitive and politically contentious legal cases would no longer be heard by High Court judges but instead by adjudicators of the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal. This is especially worrying given the current narrowness of grounds for legal appeal to the Court of Appeal. Secondly the relationship between citizenship and permanent residency has been insufficiently thought through and is still unclear. In a multi-cultural society where any EU citizen has a right to work should someone who meets the rigorous standards of the Refugee Convention then be expected to show a higher standard of linguistic competence and knowledge of UK life to remain? The language of earning a right to stay in the UK sits uncomfortably with the spirit of the Refugee Convention. Thirdly, by requiring periods of ‘continuous employment’ in proposals for acquiring citizenship, it prejudices those caring for young children, the disabled and the ill. It would make migrants more vulnerable to exploitation by employers, whom they dare not risk leaving for fear of jeopardising their immigration status. The Bill is currently in the House of Lords (report 25-3-09 and 1-4-09) before going to the Commons after the Easter recess.

In the present economic depression refused asylum seekers are a particularly vulnerable group. Many are at the end of their process and depend on £35 per week vouchers for support. While recent proposals to provide this by way of cash cards are a significant improvement they do not address the problem of destitution that is at the crux of the problem. The criteria for granting applicants asylum are far more rigorous than those that would permit their removal. The result is perhaps 50,000 migrants living in the poverty and uncertainty of economic and legal limbo.

Parliament’s cross-party Joint Committee on Human Rights made a compelling case in its 2006/2007 report: ‘the policy of enforced destitution must cease. The system of asylum seeker support is a confusing mess. We have seen no justification for providing varying standards of support and recommend the introduction of a coherent, unified, simplified and accessible system of support for asylum seekers, from arrival until voluntary departure or compulsory removal from the UK.’

In response to the current situation Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW) has recently joined the ‘Still Human Still Here’ coalition of thirty organisations committed to ending destitution as an instrument of policy. (see The campaign advocates solutions that are fair, reasonable and economic. By proposing an end to the parallel economy of a voucher system and its expensive assessment of entitlement, it could even save money. Granting all asylum seekers the right to work if their cases have not been heard within the Home Office target of six months would give an incentive for prompt resolution of cases and enable those still unresolved to contribute to the exchequer. Restoring entitlement to hospital health care would mean that hospital doctors are no longer compelled to substitute political for clinical judgment and ensure that casualty wards do not become a last resort clinic for asylum seekers.

As John Woolman reminds us, long-standing usage can dull our sensitivity to injustice. The continuing detention of asylum seekers who have neither been tried nor convicted of a criminal offence remains a national scandal. The many Local Meetings which are supporting asylum seekers will be aware of the tragic cycle of destitution, detention and deportation that faces them. While there may be a case for temporary detention, at the end of process, at a recent speech given at the Convention on Modern Liberty, Thomas Bingham, lord justice, spoke of one detainee who had been incarcerated for over eight years.

Churches and faith communities have played a significant role in supporting both the Refugee Convention of 1951 and a standard of common humanity for all living in this country. Perhaps we now need to make the case that the best long-term way of addressing the dilemmas of asylum seeking and poverty-driven migration is to work towards easing the global injustice and inequality that are its roots. If the government is responsive to the voice of the churches it is not too late to build a consensus for a system that is proud of the protection that it offers and includes openness to migrants and asylum seekers as a feature of British ‘international’ citizenship. But if political parties cannot come together on such an important issue and instead compete for a racist vote, we face a disturbing prospect of British National Party candidates being returned to the European Parliament in the elections in June.

Michael is parliamentary liaison secretary for Britain Yearly Meeting.

Write to your MP and raise your concern about the tens of thousands of refused asylum seekers who are being left without any support at all or having to survive on vouchers worth just £35 a week. Stress that providing cash support under section 95 (worth seventy per cent of income support) to all asylum seekers from arrival until they leave or are given status in the UK would ensure that destitution plays no part in the asylum process and would also deliver substantial financial savings to the Home Office.

Ask your MP whether they would be willing to support this policy and also that they raise your concerns regarding the inhumanity and inefficiency of the current system with the home secretary. To find out who your MP is and to write to them, visit Try to make your letter individual by writing in your own words or using additional information from the resource section of – MPs pay much more attention to individual letters as opposed to campaign actions that are just copied and pasted.

Combating extremism: see Methodist extremist website
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Still human
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Michael Bartlet


This week's .pdf
In this week's online edition... rss edition

‘Illegal’ databases: concerns raised
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Irish Quakers ask: why violence?
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News round-up

Prisons: our growth industry
a prison chaplain
An abundance of treasurers
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Gift Aid and the 1% fund
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Migrants, asylum seekers, refugees:
Michael Bartlet
Still human still here
Jez Smith
Only sky?
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A theology for our time: whose inner light?
Ernest Hall
Robin's gift
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