Monday, 28 December 2009

Government is exploiting weak asylum-seekers, says Archbishop of York

Source: The Times

By Ruth Gledhill and Richard Ford

The Archbishop of York has criticised policy on asylum-seekers, warning that cuts in financial support will leave many of them destitute this Christmas.

In an article in today’s Times, John Sentamu accuses the Government of exploiting the weak by making it more difficult for asylum-seekers to make a repeat claim to stay in Britain.

He also condemns the reduction in benefits given to single asylum-seekers to £5 a day. He said that this “meagre” sum was the same amount he received when he arrived in Britain in 1974 after fleeing from Idi Amin’s Uganda.

The Government reduced the benefit for single asylum-seekers over 25 from £42.16 a week to £35.15 in October, bringing it in line with the amount given to under-25s. The allowance will be credited to a card rather than given in cash, restricting where and when it can be spent.

“It won’t be possible to carry money over from one week to the next, or even buy clothes in charity shops,” Dr Sentamu said. “These new arrangements will make it even more difficult for people already struggling to find enough to pay for food and other essentials. There must be a better way.”

New rules mean that people who claimed asylum before March 2007 and have been refused can no longer make second asylum applications by post. They must apply in person in Liverpool or at reporting centres. The Government says that the intention is to deter people from making repeated claims, but Dr Sentamu said that it imposed an unnecessary burden on some people.

Phil Woolas, the Immigration Minister, said yesterday that asylum-seekers typically lived in UK Border Agency accommodation and so had no housing costs or water, gas or electricity bills. “In view of the difficult economic climate, support rates were reviewed this year to ensure that essential living needs of asylum-seekers could be met within budgetary constraints,” he said.

Sir Andrew Green, of MigrationWatch, said: “The Archbishop is surely right to call for compassion and there may be areas where this is needed, but the queues of asylum-seekers at Calais suggest that we are already regarded as a favoured destination.”


No room at the inn? We can still be hospitable

Source: The Times

By John Sentamu

There is a grace said in Yorkshire after dinner that could well be spoken in homes up and down the land this Christmas:

“Thank you Lord for what we’ve had/ It could ha’ been better, but times is bad.”

We are in a time of recession, and for many homes in Britain this means hard times now and hard times to come. There is one group of vulnerable people who possibly do not get as much sympathetic coverage as others, and I hope that, with me, you will spare a thought for them this Christmas.

Asylum seekers who find themselves destitute and struggling to survive with little or no means of support are our society’s “living ghosts”.

Parallels can be drawn between those seeking sanctuary today, who often have to endure successive trials and indignities, and Mary and Joseph. They were displaced within their country for the Roman census, only to then become refugees with their newborn son, Jesus, seeking protection in Egypt from Herod’s tyranny. In each case we see displaced people struggling to relate to complex obstacles and bureaucracies.

In the run-up to an election, political parties compete with each other to show who can be toughest on immigration. The destitution experienced by some asylum seekers will easily be overlooked. “No room at the inn” will be all too real for those awaiting removal at the UK Border Agency’s detention centres, including families with young children. I am thankful that in 1974, when I fled Idi Amin’s terror in Uganda, there was room in this country’s inn for my wife Margaret and I.

But I have a lot of time for the innkeeper. He was under tremendous pressure. Bethlehem was heaving with people, and it wasn’t his fault that there were no rooms left. What he did was generous and compassionate within the bounds of what was possible.

According to Luke, the Roman census required everyone to travel to their town of birth, and Joseph, as head of his family, had to bring his heavily pregnant wife with him, despite the inconvenience, to the city of David. Rules were rules, and someone in Mary’s condition was not exempt from this edict.

It has been my privilege to be engaged recently in discussions at the Home Office between the Still Human Still Here coalition and staff from the UK Border Agency. I have to say that those from the agency whom I have met, have been, in many ways, remarkably like the innkeeper of Bethlehem. They have been working under pressure. They have had a problem with numbers: too many people, too many applicants, and a limited capacity. Nonetheless, they declare themselves determined to act with compassion and genuinely to seek the protection of the vulnerable. For that I thank God. It is all too easy, under pressure, to put up the barriers and think only of ourselves, our own stresses and strains, and to forget the stranger at the gates.

Lately, however, I am disappointed to have to say that there have been two very discouraging developments.

Back in October, new arrangements were announced for asylum seekers whose first applications were made before March 5, 2007, and have since been refused. These individuals now have to travel in person to the UKBA office in Liverpool if they wish to make a further submission. There is no funding available to cover their travel costs, and in many cases the bill is picked up by local churches and other charities.

While this may not pose particular problems for healthy single people, there are others for whom this is an unnecessary burden. They may not have to travel to Liverpool by donkey, but the demand must seem as unreasonable as that which forced Joseph to bundle the heavily pregnant Mary so unceremoniously from one end of the country to the other.

Surely there must be scope for a little compassion here? Could not special arrangements be made for those who are, like Mary, visibly pregnant? Or for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children? Or, indeed, families with young children? Or for those who, for one reason or another, are not able-bodied? In the name of God, why not? It is argued that this will deter those who do not have serious protection needs from making further submissions, but I seriously doubt it will. If a person wants to stay in the UK, he or she will push his or her case as far as possible, and will not be deterred. But the strong should not exploit the desperation of the weak.

My second serious concern is both with the quantity and the manner of financial support now being offered to these very vulnerable people. Before October, single asylum seekers over the age of 25 were receiving benefits of £42.16 a week:

30 per cent less than a single person over the age of 25 resident in the UK. But in October this was cut to £35.15 a week, leaving asylum seekers only £5 a day to live on. That was the same amount of money I received from Ridley Hall theological college when I arrived here to study in 1974. The cost of living then was low.

Unlike other UK residents, asylum seekers are not permitted to work. Previously, payments were made in vouchers that people could exchange for cash at local voluntary groups, which were often run by churches. The UKBA is now bringing in a scheme that credits this meagre allowance to a card that will restrict where and when it can be spent.

It won’t be possible to carry money over from one week to the next, or even buy clothing in charity shops. Those living far from the shops cannot use their cards on the buses, so they have to walk. These new arrangements will make it even more difficult for people already struggling to find enough to pay for food and other essentials. There must be a better way.

The Christmas Gospel clearly spells out for us the message of peace and goodwill to men and women everywhere. At York Minster tomorrow, I shall be celebrating this message with two or three thousand others.

More than 2,000 years on, people are still on the move, pushed from pillar to post, facing destitution and uncertainty. Let us show, like the innkeeper, compassion and hospitality this Christmas.

John Sentamu is Archbishop of York


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