Address given at Meeting of the Welsh Refugee Council

This conference brings together people from a variety of organisations,
including many of the faith traditions represented in Wales. We are here
to look at a problem which challenges us all to look at some of the things
we would regard as fundamental to our understanding of the worth of human
life, whether or not we are motivated by faith. These are issues such
as respecting the dignity of our fellow human beings, the freedom to
hold or not hold religious belief, the right to decent housing, sufficient
food, safety, the rights of children to a secure and safe upbringing,
and, when in difficulty, access to fair and open legal support. Sometimes
however it is easier to argue for this security for those with whom we
live, and whose lives are familiar to us. We are still, thank God, horrified
when we hear of poverty, of suffering, of abuse, when it happens to those
who live within our borders. But sadly, somehow, we seem to be able to
distance ourselves from the needs of those who come from outside our
borders. Of course the issue is not helped at all when you read the hysterical
and frenzied headlines of the tabloid press on this issue.

If we have any concern at all for the fundamental principles of human
dignity and worth, then those principles must apply indiscriminately
to all people. Certainly, within the Christian tradition, and within
other faith traditions, the call to respect the worth of others is regarded
as fundamental and manifests itself not just in intellectual consent
but in an obligation to help those in need, particularly the stranger,
the refugee, the one who is homeless, in ways that are practical. As
Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote recently, “We
as believers have the unenviable job of trying to hear and interpret
the wounds of everyone involved and to ask for the justice of the Bible,
a situation in which each acts for the good of the other. This is what
the church is supposed to be and show, a place of justice.” A crucial
part of this is to be able to speak in behalf of those who are voiceless
or whose cries are ignored.

We have already heard the facts and figures. Let us just remind ourselves
again of them, once more realising as we do so that we are talking about
human individuals. 160 million people now live outside the country of
their birth. The Global refugee population is 12 million, but 25 million
people are displaced within their own countries, by persecution, violence,
armed conflict – unable or unwilling to seek asylum in another
state. Before 1990 for most western countries, asylum and immigration
issues were looked at separately, due to a relatively small number of
political dissidents from the Eastern Bloc and various repressive regimes.
In the 1990’s political change in Eastern Europe with the conflict
in the Balkans, and the political and ethnic upheavals in central Africa
and the ongoing crises in Sri Lanka and the Horn of Africa have led to
significant numbers seeking asylum.

In our own locality, as of 4 January 2004, there were 2505 asylum seekers
dispersed in Wales. In Cardiff there were 109 single males, 20 single
females, 345 people in families with a male as head, 285 people in families
with a females as head. Cardiff has 463 dependants.

But Cardiff also has a small but growing number of destitute asylum
seekers, they may be section 55 cases – people who did not claim
asylum at the port of entry or those who have had their applications
rejected, but who are not in a position to return to their countries
of origin. There is a growing number who have been made destitute following
refusals. The variations are endless, the problems are the same.

Last week a little baby girl was born into institutional destitution
in Cardiff. Her mother, a 26 year old from Zimbabwe has had her claim
for asylum refused. She was made destitute – so was the baby when she
was born last week. Currently, the UK does not return refused asylum
seekers to Zimbabwe. Consequently the mother, and baby, could go to a
hard case centre in England on basic provisions and £10 a week
or have the baby taken into care with the mother remaining destitute,
or try to live on hand outs provided by churches and voluntary agencies.
No one would argue that a country has no right to defend its borders
in ways that are ethical. However, most people would agree that defending
borders by reducing people to destitution, or by splitting families,
is immoral. There are people within our communities who need our support.
And yet that support is increasingly difficult to find and provide.

A brief review of recent legislation reveals that attempts by the Government
to come to terms with the asylum issue have been fraught with difficulties.
The current asylum bill is the third piece of legislation since 1996.
The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 sought to address the crisis in immigration – not
least the backlog in applications which in some cases stretched back
7 or 8 years. The welfare package based on a voucher system, and the
used of detention attempted to dissuade those whose status as asylum
seekers was viewed as questionable. However, the regime of benefits meant
that faith communities, along with other aid agencies, found they were
increasingly drawn into providing for asylum seekers through local initiatives.
The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 began the phasing out
of the voucher system, and looked at the issues of illegal entry and
working and people trafficking (the ongoing horrors of which have been
so prominent recently). Accommodation centres were provided – with
fears expressed that little opportunity was given for integration with
the local community. The 2003 Asylum and Immigration Bill covers similar
terrain with a special concern for removing those who have not been granted
asylum, the appeals process and the removal of benefits from those unable
to achieve positive decisions. Contrary to some reports it does not explicitly
contain proposals for taking the children of failed applicants into care
but by implication the welfare of children could make such action necessary
in extreme circumstances.

Currently, Wales has 1,522 dependants – most will be children. Working
on the basis that about half the applications for asylum will eventually
fail, Wales could see some 600-700 children falling under the Home Office’s
intentions. We could see a 15% rise in the number of children put into
care in Wales. More and more individuals will face deportation or disappear
on to the streets, or be split up as families. In other words by not
facing the issue the problems reappear in another guise.

All of us represent groups or individuals who are concerned and who
already trying to do something to ease the situation. Within the Christian
community we recognise our duty to help those who are homeless, voiceless,
driven from home, living in fear or uncertainty. In 2002 the Board of
Social Responsibility of the Church of England produced a leaflet ‘Refugees
and the Church’ and stated with regard to asylum seekers that ‘whatever
policies may from time to time be adopted in relation to economic migration,
the commitment to welcome those who flee their own countries to escape
persecution and oppression is not negotiable’. The report included
a number of ways in which churches, ecumenical agencies and faith groups
might respond.

  • Among the suggestions were
    • To pray for peace, work for peace and justice and seek to understand
      the causes of conflict and persecution in our world.
    • Find our what
      arrangements are in place in the area for the reception of asylum
      seekers.
    • Make the issue of asylum seekers part of the business of
      PCC or other guiding bodies in the parish.
    • Invite speakers to the services
      and meetings.
    • Consider setting up a local support group.
    • Help in teaching English
      to speakers of other languages, or about possible voluntary help needed
      in schools.
    • Set up a collection point for food, clothes or furniture
      for asylum seekers.
    • Write to your MP about the situation of asylum
      seekers and their hardships.
    • Write to newspapers or other media groups that persist in promoting
      a negative stereotype of asylum seekers and refugees.
    • Encourage the Government to pursue an ‘ethical foreign policy’ – with
      a particular concern for the places which people are forced to leave
      because of persecution or extreme poverty.

I would add four crucial points:

  • To pray for asylum seekers, for those who work in immigration
    and make decisions on asylum seekers, for the countries from which
    people are
    driven or in which they are displaced, for politicians and leaders
  • To listen to the first hand experience of asylum seekers, and to
    involve them in decisions on their futures.
  • To work to overcome the ignorance and fears that hinder effective,
    positive and lasting responses to the issue of asylum seekers. In part
    this will
    involve the Church, locally and nationally, lending its weight to the
    efforts of groups that are seeking to counter what was described recently
    in a Church Times article as ‘the xenophobic hysteria engendered
    by much media coverage of asylum issues’. One such group, Mediawatch4refugees,
    contacts its members when a prejudiced article or programme on asylum
    seekers appears, and providing relevant facts and addresses asks them
    to contact the appropriate editor.
  • And finally, in the midst of the
    uncertainty and sense of crisis, to begin to look at the positive
    aspects of welcoming strangers into our
    country, just one of which might be to recognise that asylum seekers
    often bring with them skills and motivation that Britain needs. Out
    of crises good can often come.

Already much is being done. Many parishes and organisations have projects
to provide food, shelter and clothing, in many cases keeping people alive.
The Church is committed to speaking out on this problem and is actively
engaged in lobbying here in Wales and in Westminster as well as seeking
to provide information, practical aid and support. Here in Cardiff the
Church is active amongst asylum seekers and committed to working with
other faith communities. Today gives us the opportunity to listen, to
talk and to see what more we can do. The problems are many, and undoubtedly
the situation is complex. But something has to happen. I thank you for
coming and for the contribution you will make.