Some thoughts on the asylum system

As regular followers of this blog will know, we have a significant number of asylum seekers in our congregation. Some are church members, others interested observers. Most are from Iran though one or two have made their way to us from Afghanistan and Africa. We also have dealings with asylum seekers who are not in any way part of the church but who come to our English Classes or engage with some other outreach.

I am often asked to attend asylum tribunal hearings for those whose cases rest in some measure on their Christian faith. It is a joy to be able to go and witness to the faithfulness of God in the lives of those who are true believers in Christ. It is also extremely hard to say no to those whom we feel are very sincere and no doubt think themselves saved but who are, nonetheless, not yet true believers in Christ.

Having been involved in a number of cases – writing letters, attending court and offering various bits of help to those seeking asylum – in no particular order, here are a few thoughts on the asylum system.

The system appears ad hoc

I have only been involved in asylum cases for the last 3 and a half years. My predecessor was involved throughout most of his pastorship. Neither of us have yet figured out any logic to the decision-making process.

All of us have witnessed asylum claims simply waved through in a matter of weeks while others have waited years even for an initial interview regarding their case. One case which seems full of merit might be rejected while another which, to our mind at least, seems less meritorious is granted. That’s not to say either should or shouldn’t have been accepted, just to say that we have seen credible cases accepted and rejected and more dubious cases accepted and rejected too. Much seems to depend on the particular judge on the right day.

The system seems unjust

One of our Iranian members, who has been waiting around 7 years for a decision on his case, has just this week received a positive ruling. We have been praying throughout this time for him and praise God for this decision. The wait is not only significant because it is 7 years away from his wife and children but he was also prohibited from working during this time. Benefits are prescribed for all asylum seekers and amount to far less than that available on jobseekers allowance. It seems unbearably unfair to leave people hanging for such a long period whilst refusing them the right to work and failing to give them the level of benefit we deem the minimum necessary for our own people.

Also, in more than a few cases, we have seen claims rejected only for the government to refuse deportation. The case is rejected because the Home Office deny the appellant will face danger back in their home country yet they will not deport back to places such as Iran and Afghanistan because it is, in their own words, ‘too dangerous’. This is clearly a less than equitable outcome.

The expectations are unreasonable

It is always hard to say no to those seeking your help. Inevitably, the Home Office will ask the question, ‘do you think the appellant is a genuine believer?’ If the answer to that question is ‘no’, it would do more harm than good to appear in their case.

The issue we face is not simply one of being asked about ‘true belief’. We will also be asked whether we have refused to attend court. The inference behind the question is clear enough: do you just claim anyone is a believer or do you ever say ‘no’. The issue is not moot because the more we attend court for those whose claims are based on scant evidence of Christianity, we undermine the efficacy of our testimony for those whose claims are based on fulsome evidence of saving faith. Even were we inclined to simply help everyone regardless, we either prejudice the case of those with little evidence of belief by not giving evidence or prejudice the case of those who are real believers by supporting those we aren’t yet convinced know and love Jesus Christ personally.

The problem, of course, is that the Iranian government don’t really care whether somebody is a genuine believer or not. They like to impose prison (or death) on those who even show an interest in any non-Islamic religion. Oftentimes, there are people I am quite sure are genuine in their sincerity who are not yet – so far as we can tell – believers. Asked by a court if they are true believers, the answer must be a detrimental ‘no’. But being a true convert who fully grasps the nature of faith in Christ is not the basis upon which your home country will necessarily persecute you. One cannot help but think proof that one is a ‘true believer’ is too high a bar. In many of the cases we see, that one no longer subscribes to Islam should be sufficient.

Some do use the church

Whilst many people coming to the church are sincere in their belief – they are either genuine seekers or already true believers – inevitably, there are those who seek to manipulate the church. Some are particularly transparent in their efforts to adopt Evangelical jargon in a bid to curry favour. As I have said to courts on several occassions, considering what I would consider quite a low bar in terms of doctrinal understanding and credible testimony (these are things we would expect young children to know and understand), it is absolutely staggering just how few people manage to meet it.

The ultimate proof one was seeking to use the church comes when asylum is granted and they quickly leave (and don’t attend anywhere else). This has only happened once to me. Whilst others have subsequent left our church after receiving asylum, usually for work or family reasons, they have gone on to worship in other churches with a recommendation from us and remain in fellowship with them. Most of those who have sought to use the church in this way have failed to demonstrate any credible basis for us to be able to claim in court that they are true believers. One instinctively feels such deception would be very hard to spot given the nature of faith and belief; typically, it is quite transparent.

Those who are genuine in their belief will not drift away from the church even if we do not feel we can attend court for them. They will accept that we do not yet sense they have come to know Christ personally and will put themselves in a position to learn more so that they might respond to him. There have been cases where we have said ‘no’ to somebody requesting a court appearance because we are unclear of their standing in Christ that we have been able to say ‘yes’ to later on because they seem to have come to know him at a later stage.

Those who are genuine will demonstrate real trust in Christ

Those who genuinely trust in Christ will demonstrate that trust throughout their case. They will seek to honour him and his commandments even where doing so might, on face value, seem detrimental to their case. They will be honest about not knowing the things they don’t know and will rely on God’s provision for them. Their faith will have a clear outworking even during the course of their case.