Sanctuary in Parliament – working for a fairer immigration policy

Representing Hastings Community of Sanctuary Alex Kempton and I attended the annual Sanctuary in Parliament event earlier this month and met our MP Amber Rudd to discuss the day’s theme – Towards a Fairer Asylum System, writes Dr Felicity Laurence.

There were moving accounts from those within the asylum system, music from the Stories of Sanctuary choir, strong speeches from MPs from across the political spectrum who are coming together on these issues and of course our own conversations as delegates with the MPs who gave their time to come and meet with us.

Alex Kempton (right), Felicity Laurence (left) of Hastings Community of Sacntuary, Fatima (centre) of City of Sanctuary, at Sanctuary in Parliament 12th November 2018
Alex Kempton (right) and Felicity Laurence (left) of Hastings Community of Sacntuary, with Fatima (centre) City of Sanctuary Communications Officer.

Three important changes to the asylum system are now under discussion for the imminent new Immigration Bill, each with wide cross-party support. These three changes are key to producing a fairer asylum system that is better in line with our values as a society, they are:

  • The right to work for people who have asylum claims outstanding for more than six months;
  • Extension of refugee family reunion;
  • An end to indefinite immigration detention.

At the moment, our asylum system does not give permission for people to work to support themselves while their claim is being processed – except within a very narrow designated group of skills after 12 months – meaning that most people in this group simply cannot work and this can be the situation for many years.

Many of those people have skills which we desperately need in our country to fill positions currently unfilled, in hospitals and schools for example and in many other areas too.

Right now in Hastings, there are people with high technical qualifications in areas like dressmaking and business, or post-graduate degrees in education and in medical sciences, all of them want passionately to be able to work, to contribute to society, and pay their way and they never imagined being dependent upon state support, currently paid at a rate of just under £5.40 per day. 

Repeated polls show that more around 70 per cent of the public across the UK support the right to work for this group of people, and we are finding this view reflected in many conversations here in our own town.

City of Sanctuary in Parliament
Kate Green, Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston and Stuart McDonald SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East along with people who have been through the asylum process who spoke about their experiences at the event in parliament earlier this month.

Although the Home Office aims to process asylum claims within six months, in reality, the process can take many years before claims are finally decided. We have learned much more about the reasons why since the story of the Windrush people came to public awareness earlier this year.

The Home Office is gravely understaffed and in addition, the ‘Hostile Environment’ has become deeply entrenched with consequences we now know to be catastrophic for many people – something Ms Rudd explained to us that she had already started to try to address in practical ways while Home Secretary. We heard from a number of speakers on this topic; MPs from different political parties and sanctuary seekers themselves, and we were able to discuss with Ms Rudd and her representative the detailed issues that need carefully to be considered for this law to change.

Concerning the issues of indefinite detention, it was informative listening to people who had been detained – in one case a family and including a young woman who had lived in the UK since the age of 11, now at university, who was picked up unwarned, handcuffed with her parents – both professional people from a persecuted religious Christian community – and detained without explanation for 11 weeks, before being released, again without any explanation, back into the community.

More than 50 per cent who are detained, typically without reasons, any criminal charge or information about when they might be released or deported, are in fact released in this way.

The Government has already begun to address this injustice, announcing recently a planned 40 per cent reduction of the numbers in immigration detention. The current campaign focusses upon the need to limit detention to 28 days, as with all other categories of detention without charge in this country, and to remove completely the possibility of indefinite detention. This can extend to months, even years, with the longest time recorded being nine years.

The City of Sanctuary movement of over 100 cities, towns and villages from across the UK and Ireland, has been endorsed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, who have described it as ‘a vital backstop for refugees and asylum seekers’. 

Our central principle is reflected in the Hastings Borough Council (HBC) resolution passed nearly one year ago, unanimously and with full support from councillors of all parties. The resolution began: “This council is committed to welcoming asylum seekers and refugees to the Borough of Hastings, and including them in our activities. HBC recognises their potential contribution to our town and also recognises that a comprehensive, co-ordinated and forward-looking approach is needed if the welfare of people moving into the town, and community cohesion between new and existing communities, are to be supported effectively. 

This is an opportune time to stand up for a fair and humane asylum system considering the forthcoming Immigration Bill, expected in the coming months, which will bring unprecedented change to the UK immigration policy. Hastings Community of Sanctuary is asking our local MP to support these three changes – right to work, family reunion and an end to indefinite detention – as part of her own stated recognition that Home Office policy and practice should be humane and fair.

Hastings Community of Sanctuary encourages practical ways for ordinary citizens to demonstrate solidarity with and support for refugees in their own communities. It promotes a grassroots culture of welcome and safety for all, including people seeking sanctuary from war, violence and persecution.

Felicity LaurenceDr Felicity Laurence is Chair of Hastings Community of Sanctuary. As well as focussing on Policy work initiated by the wider City of Sanctuary movement, Dr Laurence is also part of the Buddy Project and works closely with the asylum and refugee community in Hastings.

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