20 March 2002

Steps needed to show Britain's commitment to asylum seekers and new citizens

Britain should demonstrate its commitment to supporting and protecting asylum seekers, refugees and to those granted citizenship, says a leading children's charity and Britain's largest free church.

Children's charity NCH together with the Methodist Church warn of the dangers of asylum seekers becoming institutionalised in proposed new accommodation centres - while the development of children living in such centres will suffer unless they can attend mainstream schools.

In a joint response on the Government's White Paper on immigration and asylum today, NCH and the Methodist Church say that, in the treatment of asylum seekers, there is a danger that planned accommodation centres could become "highly institutionalised. The provision of full-board may be welcomed by some, but will institutionalise others who may wish to be able to cook for themselves."

There is a strong call to place refugee accommodation centres near enough to centres of population to enable children to attend local schools. "We are particularly concerned about the proposal to provide education for children within the accommodation centres. Asylum seeking children are likely to benefit from a short period of induction, provided at an accommodation centre.

"Beyond this, their schooling should take place in mainstream schools, otherwise they will suffer from the institutionalised environment, and lack the development that school life provides for them. Local schools should be sufficiently centrally funded in order to provide adequately for them.

"We are also aware that many asylum seeking children are currently out of school for long periods because they do not have a school place. The answer to this problem is to reinforce the children's right and the obligations of the schools and Education Authorities, not to remove them from the school system altogether."

In their response to the White Paper, the Methodist Church and NCH are calling for a two-way pledge that allows people being granted UK citizenship to both make a commitment to their new country and receive an formal acknowledgement of the rights and responsibilities that citizenship brings. They say: "We believe that rites of passage are important in helping people consciously to confront the decisions they are making."

The White Paper proposes that new citizens make a pledge to commit themselves to uphold UK laws. But the NCH/Methodist response argues for UK authorities to demonstrate in turn the opportunities that are open to new citizens. "The proposed pledge is a 'one-way' rite: it states what you pledge to uphold, but does not indicate what is being pledged to you in return. We would propose that there is a response to the pledge, perhaps spoken by the person administering the ceremony, in the role of the representative of the state, along the lines of:

'I welcome you on behalf of the United Kingdom with the pledge of our protection and offer you the opportunity to participate fully in our society'."

The response, drawn up by a joint NCH-Methodist Church working party, also suggests the creation of alternative affirmations that recognise the multi-faith nature of UK society.

The detailed 13-page report welcomes the Government's efforts to move away from the scare-mongering and negative language that has characterised much public debate on immigration and asylum seekers in recent years. But, alongside changes to the UK's own immigration laws, the church makes a strong appeal for the Government to take a leading role in tackle global issues behind widespread refugee movements.

"We cannot lose sight of the fact that asylum will best be tackled, and potential refugees helped, by a global understanding of what causes population movement - poverty, war, famine, tyranny and despotic regimes - and the measures that Governments such as ours can take to prevent such movement. Therefore whilst working on issues such as asylum, the churches will still be committed to pressing for fair world trade, poverty reduction, debt cancellation, good governance and the recognition of the true impact of the arms trade.

The NCH-Methodist Church response comments on the range of proposals within the White Paper that aim to tackle the issues facing people seeking asylum in the UK. Among the proposals considered, NCH and the Methodist Church:

  • Welcome the concept of Induction Centres for refugees and asylum seekers;
  • Welcome the decision to phase out vouchers and replace them with cash payments;
  • Welcome proposals for free English courses, but call for travel subsidies to be included as well as courses taught by women and special help for the elderly and those with learning difficulties;
  • Question the use of police stations for reporting or servicing appeals determinations;
  • Say that consideration should be given to a system such as the American "Green Card" scheme to provide a general way in which people can have a hope of coming to work in the UK legally;
  • Question whether the proposed confidential Immigration Hotline would damage community relations.

On the last issue, NCH and the Methodist Church are particularly concerned about proposals to set up a new Immigration Hotline to allow people to tip off authorities about refugees and asylum seekers living and working illegally in the UK. "We are concerned that misuse of the Hotline by members of the public, through ignorance of an individual's circumstances or vindictiveness towards them, may lead to an increase in community tensions. It will result in unnecessary anxiety for falsely accused asylum seekers, already going through a stressful process. We would ask the Government to reconsider. A hotline could do more harm than good."

The response makes special mention of the needs of the church to invite ministers and students from other parts of the world to work and study in Britain. The Church finds it "deeply shameful" that ministers and oversees visitors, mainly black and Asian Christians, have had been refused visas for even short official visits. One Methodist theological college told the working group that of 19 overseas applicants that were offered places in 2001, eight were refused visas to study in the UK.

There is an appeal that churches with strong ethnic groups should not be prevented from worshipping in their own language, because of the requirement that ministers of religion from overseas be required to speak English. Many other congregations would also wish to have a minister from a Methodist Church in another part of the world, not as a last resort where there is an unfilled employment vacancy, but for the experience the minister is able to share with them.

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