The call came at the annual conference of the Churches’ Refugee Network conference, which provides a collective and ecumenical voice on issues of asylum and immigration.
One of the key-note speakers at the event in Sheffield on Saturday was Ruth Grove-White, policy director of advocacy NGO Migrants’ Rights Network. She said that fast tracks for those who can pay means that ability to pay has now become ‘our governing standard’, and called for a more level playing-field ‘not tilted towards the privileged and the brightest and best’. She added that greater humanity towards the most vulnerable would stop the UK system of indefinite detention being the harshest in Europe.
She challenged politicians to turn the debate towards economic and cultural hope for an inclusive future, and resist ‘exploiting media-fed fears of immigration’. Childline has already reported increased school bullying about immigration status in the wake of media and government publicity.
Many of these concerns were picked up in a Position Statement approved by the conference.
As well as affirming ‘the biblical Christian and Jewish traditions of the importance of welcoming strangers’, the statement warned that the Immigration Bill would create damaging divisions within national life, and drew attention to specific concerns about detention, destitution, cuts in access to justice, and the cruelty and inequity of family migration rules.
Christians from churches from across the country attended the event, which was titled ‘Under the Radar: what Room for Refugees?’. Among them were asylum seekers from countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Cameroon and Zimbabwe: some had gained leave to remain in the UK, others had waited up to ten years for a Home Office decision.
The conference was addressed by a former vice-president of Methodist Conference and now Deputy Chair of the BMA GP committee, Dr Richard Vautrey. In a hard-hitting key-note address he warned that charging for surgery visits held unplanned outcomes for the NHS. The NHS depends on refugees and migrant workers, many of whom later carry their skills and experience back to their original country. Surgery staff have neither the time nor the knowledge to assess the validity of a variety of immigration documents.
In a theological commentary on the addresses, the Revd Fleur Houston of the United Reformed Church said that Christianity called for all people to be treated the same, not singling out the privileged. She said it was not enough to welcome the stranger; we should also be ready to receive from them. Our society is wounded by stories of injustice, disconfirmation and abuse, she continued, underlining the point that statistics used by Government ‘often intentionally mislead’.
The conference was enlivened at intervals by the Choir of Christ Abiding Ministries International, from Sheffield’s Hope of Glory Church, and welcomed and fed by Sheffield’s City of Sanctuary team. There were also workshops in which people shared experiences of destitution, housing, health, legal matters and campaigning.