Asylum seekers bring great gospel opportunities; the gospel must move us to care about their plight

Yesterday, the Guardian carried a story about the long wait for many asylum seekers in the UK system. You can read it here. Notably, the article comments:

Seventeen people received decisions from the Home Office last year on claims they had submitted more than 15 years ago, four of whom had waited more than 20 years for a decision. The worst case was a delay of 26 years and one month after the person initially applied for asylum.

As I have said before, anybody who has spent any time working with asylum seekers in the UK will not find this remotely surprising.

What many people do not know is that, alongside the ridiculous length of time they are made to wait even to hear an initial decision in many cases, is that asylum seekers are given a support allowance of around half the amount given to those on jobseekers allowance. Asylum seekers are given rooms in shared houses that are typically substandard and are classed as ‘hard to let’ properties, for which read so bad that they are rejected by the homeless and those at the very bottom of council house waiting lists.

Given such living conditions, and being forced to live in limbo for so long – often estranged from their families – it is hardly surprising that many suffer from depression or worse. That is usually on top of any mental health issues they face if they have been tortured in their home country and the relative trauma of escaping by the most hair-raising means, sometimes nearly dying en route.

Our church is replete with such stories. We have people with us who have waited nearly 10 years for decisions in their case, who haven’t seen their families the entire time and were unable to contact them back home for fear of the authorities monitoring any calls. I was chatting with one of our members the other day who suffers from frequent psychotic episodes in which he hears voices, a direct result of torture he received in his home country. Many of our members are made to wait for years on end with no decision forthcoming and, when they eventually receive it, often have to go through a similarly lengthy appeals process. Given that nearly 50% of all asylum applications are overturned on appeal, and from certain countries that figures is closer to 70 or 80%, that is an incredibly long time to then be frustrated by another lengthy process.

Asylum seekers, in the meantime, are typically given no right to work. Many want to work but are forbidden whilst they await a decision. More than a few have commented how unfair this is given the length of time it takes to make a decision. Some have, not unreasonably, suggested that they should not be permitted to work for 6 months (in line with the government’s own target for decision-making) and if no decision is forthcoming, should be granted the right to work. That, as far as I am concerned, is a reasonable position.

However, given the ingrained problems in the system – a system that simply doesn’t take account of the human cost of its decisions – I think we should offer periodic amnesties. Anybody who has been here seeking asylum for longer than a couple of years should be granted refugee status immediately to clear any backlog. It is something that should probably be granted periodically. It simply cannot be right to leave people in these positions for so long.

From a church point of view, the asylum system provides us with great opportunities to share the gospel with those from countries that it (humanly speaking) could never penetrate. One of my friends from a Muslim-majority country said to me that the Islamic regime at large in his country, though it is bad for the nation, was one of the best things that could have happened. As far as he was concerned, his people could see the reality of the religion they peddled and saw how barren it was. Many are open to the gospel when they arrive, not because they’ve heard it, but they’ve already rejected what they were previously forced to imbibe and are looking for something more compelling.

Welcoming asylum seekers means handling deep-seated needs. There are the physical issues of money to live on, buying food and the like, that the church are readily able to serve. There are the mental health issues that regularly come with them. There are issues of language and culture that have to be navigated. But, at the end of the day, here are people in need of a saviour coming into the church and asking how they can know him for themselves. We are foolish if we ignore such a gospel gift from the Lord. At the same time, when we engage them with the gospel, the gospel will surely also cause us to look on at their physical situation and be moved to do something about it.