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

Britain should demonstrate its commitment to supporting andprotecting asylum seekers, refugees and to those grantedcitizenship, says a leading children's charity and Britain'slargest free church.

Children's charity NCH together with the Methodist Church warnof the dangers of asylum seekers becoming institutionalised inproposed new accommodation centres - while the development ofchildren living in such centres will suffer unless they can attendmainstream schools.

In a joint response on the Government's White Paper onimmigration and asylum today, NCH and the Methodist Church saythat, in the treatment of asylum seekers, there is a danger thatplanned accommodation centres could become "highlyinstitutionalised. The provision of full-board may be welcomed bysome, but will institutionalise others who may wish to be able tocook for themselves."

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

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

"We are also aware that many asylum seeking children arecurrently out of school for long periods because they do not have aschool place. The answer to this problem is to reinforce thechildren's right and the obligations of the schools and EducationAuthorities, not to remove them from the school systemaltogether."

In their response to the White Paper, the Methodist Church andNCH are calling for a two-way pledge that allows people beinggranted UK citizenship to both make a commitment to their newcountry and receive an formal acknowledgement of the rights andresponsibilities that citizenship brings. They say: "We believethat rites of passage are important in helping people consciouslyto confront the decisions they are making."

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

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

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

The detailed 13-page report welcomes the Government's efforts tomove away from the scare-mongering and negative language that hascharacterised much public debate on immigration and asylum seekersin recent years. But, alongside changes to the UK's own immigrationlaws, the church makes a strong appeal for the Government to take aleading role in tackle global issues behind widespread refugeemovements.

"We cannot lose sight of the fact that asylum will best betackled, and potential refugees helped, by a global understandingof what causes population movement - poverty, war, famine, tyrannyand despotic regimes - and the measures that Governments such asours can take to prevent such movement. Therefore whilst working onissues such as asylum, the churches will still be committed topressing for fair world trade, poverty reduction, debtcancellation, good governance and the recognition of the trueimpact of the arms trade.

The NCH-Methodist Church response comments on the range ofproposals within the White Paper that aim to tackle the issuesfacing people seeking asylum in the UK. Among the proposalsconsidered, NCH and the Methodist Church:

  • Welcome the concept of Induction Centres for refugees andasylum seekers;
  • Welcome the decision to phase out vouchers and replace themwith cash payments;
  • Welcome proposals for free English courses, but call for travelsubsidies to be included as well as courses taught by women andspecial help for the elderly and those with learningdifficulties;
  • Question the use of police stations for reporting or servicingappeals determinations;
  • Say that consideration should be given to a system such as theAmerican "Green Card" scheme to provide a general way in whichpeople can have a hope of coming to work in the UK legally;
  • Question whether the proposed confidential Immigration Hotlinewould damage community relations.

On the last issue, NCH and the Methodist Church are particularlyconcerned about proposals to set up a new Immigration Hotline toallow people to tip off authorities about refugees and asylumseekers living and working illegally in the UK. "We are concernedthat misuse of the Hotline by members of the public, throughignorance of an individual's circumstances or vindictivenesstowards them, may lead to an increase in community tensions. Itwill result in unnecessary anxiety for falsely accused asylumseekers, already going through a stressful process. We would askthe Government to reconsider. A hotline could do more harm thangood."

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

There is an appeal that churches with strong ethnic groupsshould not be prevented from worshipping in their own language,because of the requirement that ministers of religion from overseasbe required to speak English. Many other congregations would alsowish to have a minister from a Methodist Church in another part ofthe world, not as a last resort where there is an unfilledemployment vacancy, but for the experience the minister is able toshare with them.