Spotlight on asylum seekers
Dave Smith, the founder of a Christian organisation serving destitute asylum seekers, gives an insight into the UK's response to the refugee crisis
Since the Boaz Trust started in 2004 we have struggled to get media coverage for one of the greatest injustices in 21st century Britain – the enforced destitution of asylum seekers. There have been a few magazine articles, some local radio interviews and occasional mentions in mainstream media. That’s about it.
Then the refugee crisis hit the front pages. First came the deaths in the Mediterranean. Then 71 migrants suffocating in a sealed lorry. And finally, the straw that broke the public awareness camel’s back – the picture of a three-year-old Syrian child lying dead on a Greek beach. What 11 years of campaigning had failed to achieve was accomplished in two short weeks, and cemented by one photograph.
This led to a flood of emails and calls offering homes to Syrians, and to media thirst for a story. ‘Have you got any Syrians being hosted? Can we speak to them today?’ ‘Do you have any Syrian women between the ages of 25 and 39 for an article in our glossy magazine?’ ‘We’d like to interview someone who came illegally in the back of a lorry through Calais.’
It soon became evident that many people do not understand the realities either of the current refugee crisis or of running a small charity for vulnerable people on a tight budget. We don’t have a full-time media engagement officer, nor do we have a database of refugees and asylum seekers willing to be interviewed at the drop of a hat. Why not? Well, language, for a start. Many don’t have good English.
Then there is fear. Fear that being seen on TV will jeopardise their asylum case. Fear that a spy from their home country might see them and find out where they live. Or simply the fear of talking about what happened to them.
At the same time, hundreds of offers of help came flooding in. I coordinate NACCOM, the national network of agencies accommodating refused asylum seekers, so many of these offers came to me. I’m still trawling through them.
What 11 years of campaigning had failed to achieve was accomplished in two short weeks, and cemented by one photograph.
Public generosity has been truly overwhelming, if somewhat unexpected: among the stranger offers we received were holiday flats in Penzance, a caravan in Scarborough, a houseboat near Bradford, and a place on a therapeutic farm in the Highlands of Scotland.
The difficulty is how to match the expectation of those offering accommodation to the reality of the UK asylum system. Those who just want to host Syrians are likely to have a long wait, and may be ultimately disappointed.
Our government only pledged to take ‘up to’ 20,000 Syrians, over five years, direct from refugee camps, and only after a million people signed a petition. The scheme is the extension of an existing one which has so far resettled just 216 Syrians in 18 months, and relies on local authorities to find the placements. Councils have to sign up to the scheme, then find suitable accommodation, and there is no guarantee that they will consider using host families.
Unless there is a dramatic U-turn from David Cameron, none of those Syrians flooding into Northern Europe will be allowed into Britain.
The UK has opted out of sharing the burden, on the grounds that it will encourage more to come. As far as I know, no study has ever shown the existence of a ‘pull factor’, and the ‘push factors’ of war, human rights abuses and religious persecution are far greater.
It’s not just Syrians; in Eritrea, Evangelicals risk torture and imprisonment in containers in the desert just for meeting together, and compulsory military service can last until into their 40s. Between them, Syria and Eritrea make up well over half of those risking the Mediterranean crossing in rickety, overcrowded boats.
Do we have room in the UK for more asylum seekers? Here are a few facts:
The UK receives fewer asylum claims than many European countries – 25,000 last year compared to 110,000 in Germany and 59,000 in Sweden, for example. This year Germany is expecting 800,000 refugees. Our numbers have barely changed.
Lebanon has 1.4 million Syrian refugees – one in four of the total population. In the UK, refugees and asylum seekers make up one in every 400.
In the last five years we have granted refugee status to just 5,000 Syrians: they all made their own way here and claimed asylum. None was invited.So what will happen to all those offers? Will they go to waste? One possibility is that the generosity could be transferred to the estimated 50,000-plus asylum seekers in the UK whose claims have been rejected, and for various reasons have not been deported.
These are the people that the Boaz Trust and our partners in NACCOM have been housing and hosting for many years. Boaz accommodates about 72 refused asylum seekers and refugees in Manchester. With love, prayer and dedicated support, most are able to make a fresh asylum claim, and the majority go on to gain refugee status. The physical transformation at that point is astounding.
Years of worry drop away. More importantly, many have undergone a spiritual transformation as they discover that the source of that love and support is Jesus.
We are entreated to ‘go into all the world and make disciples’. Today the world is coming to us, and at Boaz we take seriously the call to love the stranger living among us ‘as you love yourself’ (Leviticus 19:34).
Dave Smith is the founder of the Boaz Trust, which exists to serve destitute asylum seekers. He is the author of The Book of Boaz, published by Instant Apostle, which tells the charity's story in more depth, and is available from Christian bookshops and online retailers, including from Amazon