How to support those who will receive asylum seekers

In response to my earlier blog on supporting Afghan asylum seekers, a friend asked me to write up a proposal that could be shared with others about supporting churches serving asylum seekers. Below is what I wrote up for him.

Many Christians are currently wondering what they can do to help with the almost certain influx of Afghans to the UK. Many of these folks will be open to the gospel of Jesus Christ, having faced the sharp end of Taliban rule and already reject Islam on that ground. The pictures on the news have led to an outpouring of grief and concern. Many are making noises regarding welcome but will not live in areas that will receive any asylum seekers nor know how best to help those places where they will go.

The truth is that the majority of asylum seekers from Afghanistan will end up in the poorest areas of the UK. In 2021, of the 343 local authorities 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 his capacity as immigration minister in 2015, James Brokenshire answered a parliamentary question regarding the dispersal of asylum seekers this way (key section in bold):

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 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 of the poorest councils in the UK. This is relevant for the church inasmuch as the 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. It is churches in the most deprived places, typically with the least resources to address the issues presented, that will shoulder this responsibility.

Most of these asylum seekers are open to the gospel. Oldham Bethel Church welcomes many Iranian and Afghan asylum seekers already (the church functions bi-lingually, in English and Farsi, due to the number). Many Iranians and Afghans are fleeing their respective regimes and enter the UK with an existing rejection of the Islamic rule they have encountered. They are typically open and receptive to a gospel that is demonstrably different to what they have left behind. Many are keen to jump into the boat.

At Bethel Church, we engage with Iranian and Afghan asylum seekers in a number of different ways. We translate as much as possible, welcoming them fully into the life of the church. Further, we run weekly English Classes, community football and provide weekly food distribution. These deal with practical needs of learning language, the frequent issues of poor mental health that attend most asylum seekers and the need to feed themselves and their families on the meagre support they receive. We also work with asylum seekers, linking them up to different agencies who will support them. We are frequently involved in asylum tribunal hearings, supporting those who have fled. We provide material support for those who need it, working with agencies on their behalf. Many of us – due to the various cracks in the system – have had asylum seekers living in our homes for months at a time.

Through all these things we have seen our asylum seeking friends become brothers and sisters. We have seen dozens of them put their faith in Christ. One man had to flee Iran having had an affair, which carries the death penalty. Having escaped the country to Turkey, and then on to the UK, he applied for asylum in the UK. He was placed into a National Asylum Seeker Service (NASS) house where one of our asylum seeking members had been placed some month earlier. This lad invited him to church. My friend had no interest in the church but reluctantly came as he was bored, had nothing to do and had been promised some food as part of the service. He was so moved by what he saw at the church – the welcome he received and the happy people singing songs about Jesus – that he came again and again. He began reading the Bible with some members of the church and eventually came to trust in Christ himself. Over time he grew up in Christ and is now serving as a deacon in the church.

Another man was a publisher who published a book that was considered to be against Mohammad. The police came to his offices to arrest everyone who worked there. He received a tip-off from his co-workers and fled the country. On his arrival in the UK, he claimed asylum. However, Samir was waiting over 10 years for a decision in his case. Depression kicked in and he attempted to take his own life. Rather than leave him alone in his NASS house, he came to live in the pastor’s house for several months. Throughout his case, the church was speaking with his solicitor and helping to gather evidence in his case. As in many other cases, a number of members of the church – along with the pastor – attended his asylum tribunal hearing to act as witnesses to the Christian faith that had developed in him during his time at Bethel Church. He has now received his right to remain. He retrained as a barber during his time with us and now runs his own Barber’s shop in Manchester.

These stories are not isolated examples. Variations of them can be repeated dozens of times. We have been involved in cases that involve people facing deportation, even having one Afghan man – who had been living with various members at different times – literally on the plane before our intervention with our local MP had him removed as the plane was about to take off.

Oldham is consistently in the top 10 areas of the country that receive the largest number of asylum seekers in the UK. At Oldham Bethel Church, we currently have c. 25 asylum seekers regularly attending church services and meetings. However, we have an even larger reach through our regular English Classes, Community Football project and weekly food distribution. Beyond this, over the last seven years, Bethel Church has had meaningful contract with over 100 asylum seekers. The overwhelming majority of these are with us for a time and then move on, blessing other churches around the country. This is inevitable given the transitional nature of asylum seeker life. They are simply placed in areas they have not chosen to live and can be moved at a moment’s notice anywhere else by NASS.

The reality is, however, that we are a church in a deprived community. The majority of our members are either asylum seekers with very little or those on benefits and low incomes. We have very few members in full-time regular work of any sort. This means we are not a self-sustaining church and rely on external partners who will support us over the long-term to maintain our ministry. Further to this, it is notable that it is often churches in deprived communities that face the deepest material needs around them but routinely have the least resources with which to address them. We have seen dozens of asylum seekers and those on low incomes saved and discipled, but they cannot and will not ever sustain a church financially.

Our main concern is to keep a church sustained over the long term that is reaching one of the most deprived parts of one of the most deprived towns in England. Our work is seeing real fruit and is making in roads with both asylum seekers from Iran and Afghanistan. We are reliant on long term partners to help us sustain this ministry and are seeking long term partnership with other churches to that end. We would be so grateful for your partnership in the gospel. Thank you for considering our request.

It is difficult to give an exact budget for what we need because much of the costs because there are a variety of different needs and situations. However, if we were to receive funds, they would be predominantly towards the following:

  1. Costs of supporting the pastor. Much of the gospel work among asylum seekers in undertaken by the pastor. All letters, involvement with solicitors, witness statements and attendance at asylum tribunals is done by the pastor of the church. This has to be the case because judges want to hear from church leaders. A significant cost to our church is supporting our pastor, which we are unable to sustain. Further to these things, the pastor is heavily involved in teaching and discipling asylum seekers.
  2. Costs of supporting workers. Much of the gospel input to our asylum seekers – particularly 1-2-1 ministry – is undertaken by our gospel worker. Some of the costs for the church centre on appointing workers who are able to teach and disciple asylum seekers. This has to be done on a smaller ratio because of the time taken up with translation. There are also costs associated with getting translated materials.
  3. There are associated costs of resources. We would need Bible’s in Pashto and Dari for Afghan folks to read in their own language. We would need to access resources in their own language. If we were to access translation services, we would most likely need to fund this using external translators which would incur costs.
  4. There are costs of running various ministries that will serve the needs of asylum seekers. There are the costs of running English Classes – which will only rise as we increase capacity to welcome more – the community football, which has mental health benefits that are important for those who are largely isolated and on their own, requires funding. The provision of meals and food also require support.
  5. There are also generic, ad hoc issues that frequently arise. Most do not need basic provisions as this is provided by NASS. However, when they receive refugee status, they are moved onto a new system but there is always a lag of several months. They usually become homeless and many end up in the homes of Bethel Church members. They also need food, clothing and a mobile phone/internet access in order to apply for the bank accounts and income support required in order to secure their own housing. This can often mean the church having to support people during this time lag.

It is difficult to put precise numbers on these costs but they are ongoing ones that we always face. Any money we receive would be used for these things.