I know this sounds like a horribly defeatist post. No doubt some of the recent outpouring of grief for Afghanistan is the genuine response of a moment. But I fear that is all to which it will amount. In fact, and I know this sounds horribly cynical but it is what I genuinely suspect, much of the outpouring of grief emanates from those who know, full well, they will not actually have to do anything about it. They can shed their tears, express their regret at the situation, safe in the knowledge they are in no position to do anything about it and will not have to do anything to support those who do make it here.
Now, let me just be clear on how I view the situation before we go on. In my view, the Afghan war was a big mistake. I believe it was an foolish, if understandable, reaction to the 9/11 terror attack. It was a hypocritical response to it given that successive British governments had begged successive American presidents, since John Kennedy, to stop funding IRA terrorism on UK soil. These calls always fell on deaf ears until Bush pulled the plug following 9/11. This was less the principled stand they should have taken decades earlier, but a sudden discovery that foreign-backed terrorism taking place in your homeland is, actually, deeply unpleasant and something no civilised government engages in. Who knew?
Anyway, the Afghan War was Bush’s immediate response to those terror attack on their homeland. It was a grave miscalculation. The Blair government in Britain, seeking to cosy up to America in the misguided belief it would raise our standing in the world, assured the President of our unwavering support. The case for going in was questionable at best. In my view, we never should have gone anywhere near. Nevertheless, once we did go in, there was a moral imperative to stay until the place was relatively stable and secure. Whatever else we might want to say, that is clearly not the situation we have created. To leave people who were counting on us to their fate under the Taliban, and most egregiously of all, like Biden has done, attempt to cast it as some sort of civil war that the Afghan forces should fight before the West has anything to do with it is immoral sophistry. We most assuredly created the mess and now abandon the Afghans having created it. It is shameful. The least we can do under those circumstances is welcome refugees fleeing that situation that we caused and create safe routes for them to get here immediately.
That being the background to the situation as I see it, what about the church? There has certainly been an outpouring of grief. Many tell us they are praying for Afghanistan, which is certainly a good thing to be doing. Others go further and insist that we need to ‘do something’ for those who gain passage to the UK. It may seem positive that some are keen enough to take an interest this way. Unfortunately, these sorts of comments have been made before but rarely lead to any meaningful response from the church.
Why do I say that many have this outpouring of grief in the knowledge they won’t have to do anything? I think I can say this on two grounds. First, of the 343 councils in the UK, only 99 have signed up to the voluntary asylum seeker dispersal system. That means 29% (less than 1/3) of councils in the country have even agreed to accept asylum seekers. The vast majority of areas in the UK simply will not see any asylum seekers placed in their community from Afghanistan or anywhere else. Moreover, in answer to a parliamentary question on this very issue, in his capacity as minister of state for immigration, James Brokenshire stated (I have highlighted in bold the key statements):
The last Labour Government passed the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to alleviate the pressure on local authorities in London and the South East of England where most asylum seekers made their asylum claims.
The effect of the 1999 Act was to pass the support responsibility to the Home Office. Regional dispersal policy established by the then Home Secretary in 2000 provides that, as a general rule, asylum seekers should be accommodated in areas where there is a greater supply of suitable and cheaper accommodation.
Asylum seekers who need accommodation are housed across the UK according to an agreed ratio, based on various regional factors. The Home Office has voluntary agreements with 95 local authorities throughout the United Kingdom in accepting the dispersal of asylum seekers. As part of the regional dispersal policy established in 2000 an advisory cluster limit was set by the Home Office at 1 asylum seeker for every 200 of the settled population.
What this tells us – I understand the policy is unchanged, even though there are four more local councils now willing to receive asylum seekers – is that the overwhelming majority of the country will not see any asylum seekers and they will almost exclusively be placed in the poorest areas. This is relevant for the church inasmuch as the overwhelming majority of Conservative Evangelical churches are in wealthier, affluent communities. As such, the overwhelming majority of Evangelical churches will not see any asylum seekers anywhere near them.
Second, not only will most Conservative Evangelical churches see any asylum seekers placed near them, the overwhelming majority have shown no interest in the existing asylum seekers we already have in this country. Many – much like their outpouring of grief for Afghanistan right now – tell me how pleased they are that our church exists, which functions bi-lingually because of the significant number of Afghan and Iranian asylum seekers we see. But that delight that we are here rarely translates into any sort of meaningful support. They are glad someone is here reaching the asylum seekers they aren’t, but their gladness that someone is doing it never seems to lead to their doing anything themselves. The total lack of practical interest in the Afghan and Iranian asylum seekers we have here already makes it profoundly unlikely many churches will be doing much very differently just because Afghanistan is in the news. One struggles to believe, once the news moves on, the church at large won’t move on with it.
So, the question about which towns and cities to which asylum seekers will be dispersed can be easily ascertained. It is telling the question is only being asked now in relation to Afghanistan. This is information in the public domain that has been around for some time. It speaks to the fact that most of the church simply don’t look for it and are more than happy for it to pass them by. Now the question is being asked how can churches that will receive asylum seekers from Afghanistan help and support them. In truth, most will not receive any. And so our grief and sadness can be expressed publicly, openly – even calling upon the church to do something – knowing full well most of our churches will not be doing anything at all.
The question about ‘basic provisions is a more difficult one. If you claim asylum in the UK, you are entitled to NASS housing and support. That is, a room in a multiple occupancy house with several other asylum seekers (a ‘hard to let home’, for which read, rejected by people on out of work benefits or deemed uninhabitable in one of the cheapest areas of the country) and £30 a week for basic provisions (that is, less than half what we deem necessary for someone on out of work benefits). This usually takes time and many are frequently housed in temporary accommodation – often a room in a hotel set aside for asylum seekers (there is a particular one in Liverpool that is a standard precursor to a move to Oldham). It should be noted that is not a hotel with room service and whatnot, but a mere room with no access to cooking or laundry facilities, until a NASS home can be found. most of the towns to which folk might be dispersed tend to have food banks and English Class provisions set up already, as well as various agencies locally who can help. Theoretically, then, essential provisions are already provided.
As I have noted many times on this blog, the great irony here is that it tends to be churches in deprived places with the fewest financial means to address the various complex needs that present themselves who have the greatest number of issues to address. The best way that most churches – who will receive no asylum seekers – can help is to actively support churches in deprived communities who will be supporting many asylum seekers. They can support us in prayer and, significantly, financially.
Sadly, it is my experience that most affluent churches do not want to support us this way. And, when they do, they either want to put significant strings on how we utilise their support or they give small amounts that do not significantly help (or, sometimes, both). We have mentioned many times of the asylum seekers and refugees in our churches who have all sorts of needs and the ways in which we seek to support them. But the outpouring of grief from the church that we are currently seeing never seems to translate into substantial, ongoing support for the work of the church that is specifically meeting the needs of the people whom we claim to feel so deeply for. We seem to feel deeply for the Afghan people we see on the news, but know we won’t see any of them in our own church and don’t seem willing to support those that will.
We have seen many Afghan and Iranian asylum seekers come to faith and grow up in the Lord Jesus at Bethel Church. We have seen some of them appointed as officers in the church. We have served them with food, paid electric and gas bills, gone to court to act as witnesses, worked with agencies to resolve all manner of housing problems and dealt with local MPs on their behalf. Numerous of us have had asylum seekers staying in our homes with us as they are turfed out of properties or find themselves between homes, often falling between the many and varies cracks in the system. If you want to support asylum seekers in the UK, support those who are not only dealing with all these physical needs but meeting their spiritual needs too and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with them and seeing fruit for their labours. If you care about asylum seekers in the UK, meaningfully support the local churches working with them.
But history tells me that few are keen to do this. Few seem willing to support such ministry. Few are keen to fund it for the long term, which is what we desperately need. And so, forgive me if I sound deeply cynical, but I have heard the handwringing before and very little changes. Until there is a significant change in the willingness of churches in affluent communities to actively support churches, over the long-term, both with people and finances (substantially at that), most of this is nothing but noise.