Why churches can’t “game” the asylum system

Yesterday, the following headline appeared in The Telegraph newspaper:

As a pastor who has been involved in a number of asylum cases, I think there are a number of things to say here.

First and foremost, it should be noted that churches do not decide asylum cases. It is the Home Office who decide asylum cases. Churches do not determine whether anybody is accepted with refugee status.

It is important to note, the only thing a church can speak into is whether they believe an asylum seeker is a genuine Christian convert. This is only of relevance if the asylum seeker is basing their case for asylum on the fear of being returned to a country in which it is dangerous to be a practising Christian. If a church leader is at an asylum tribunal, it is only in the capacity as an ‘expert witness’ in whether this person – so far as they are able to say – is a genuine believer.

The asylum tribunal system – indeed, the entire British legal system – is set up on adversarial grounds. The church leader can only answer the questions that are put to them. They cannot simply say whatever occurs to them. It is, therefore, a matter of answering the questions put to them by the asylum seeker’s lawyer and then by the Home Office representative. As such, the church leader cannot ‘game’ the system as they are merely answering questions as they are put.

Further, any asylum tribunal which a church leader attends is an appeal. That is, the asylum seeker’s application, following their initial Home Office interview, has been rejected by the Home Office themselves. The church leader appears at a court hearing in which the original Home Office decision is being appealed. Any church leader appearing on behalf of an asylum seeker is, then, challenging the prior Home Office decision. This is not ‘gaming’ anything, but is a known challenge to the existing decision which the judge will have in his possession and the reasons for the original rejection.

As such, any church leader appearing at a tribunal appeal will have to produce evidence as to why, in their ‘expert opinion’, this asylum seeker is a genuine believer and the Home Office is wrong. Positively, this means providing clear evidence and grounds for believing this person is genuine. Merely saying, in our opinion, that they are is not good enough. A baptism and admission to membership, without robust membership process that can be described to a court, are also generally not deemed acceptable.

Courts typically believe that churches are both naïve, and want to accept people as believers without much evidence beyond their say so, as well as having ulterior motives in wanting to increase their membership numbers. Unless a church can provide good evidence that they have robust processes, and reject people in their application for baptism and membership as a result, as well as showing that they also willingly remove people from membership as and when appropriate, these assumptions about the church will not be overturned.

It is undeniably true that some look to the church as a means of bolstering their asylum claims. And it must also be acknowledged that there are churches that will baptise and welcome into membership asylum seekers based on very little evidence indeed. If an asylum seeker is merely looking for a baptism certificate (something our church does not provide) and wants the church to affirm them as genuine, there are plenty of places that will do this. As noted above, such processes will be deemed inadequate as evidence in court. Churches with much more robust processes, however, are far more likely to reject applications and take much longer over admitting people to membership. Those who are looking to bolster their application typically do not hang around and endure the process.

Churches with robust processes will apply their process equally to asylum seekers and non-asylum seekers alike. If, as many are arguing, churches should have a different process for asylum seekers, we end up with a two-tier system in the church. For many, that will essentially become a system that disqualifies some based on little more than their race or nationality. It is hard, if that is where we are being pushed, not to view that as inherently and unbiblically discriminatory.

Others are arguing that the church should not help asylum seekers because of this latest atrocity. The fact is, churches have been at the forefront of helping the most vulnerable for the last 2000 and they are unlikely to stop now, and rightly so! It also bears saying that vanishingly few asylum seekers go on to commit acts of terror; to insist that the church should withhold help to asylum seekers on the grounds that someone, somewhere might is ludicrous. It is tantamount to arguing that because some people in the Middle East commit terrorism, we should not ever help anyone from the Middle East. By the same logic, some people commit terrorism so perhaps we should just stop helping people altogether? The argument is ridiculous.

By contrast, if we were to accept the logic of this, we are condemning many genuine converts to being returned to countries in which they will certainly die for their faith because of the actions of one man. Whether Emad Al Swealmeen appeared to be a genuine Christian convert or not – whether the church in which that was accepted had robust processes or not – I am in no position to say. But there are churches with very robust processes, and a great many genuine believers seeking asylum in the UK, who will be condemned to certain death if we allow the rogue actions of one asylum seekers to tarnish the whole.

In Al Swealmeen’s case, it is worth noting that he did not get his asylum claim granted. This tells us at least one of two things.

First, it may well mean the church (or believers) who affirmed his faith as genuine did not have credible processes for determining this and it was, subsequently, rejected by the courts in appeal. Given that Al Sweelmeen reportedly did not go to church for four years, yet continued to be called a ‘genuine Christian’, suggests this. In a church with rigorous membership process, such non-attendance would lead to church discipline, and pastoral concern, ending in removal from church membership within months if no credible grounds (such as ill health or infirmity) was not forthcoming. Nevertheless, the church did not, therefore, “game the system” because their processes were (potentially) found out by the system.

Second, it certainly means whatever help he received from the church (or believers) did not, ultimately, do anything to “game the system” because his application was rejected. The support offered did nothing to alter the outcome of his case. To suggest, then, that churches “game the system” based on this case is clearly to speak against the outcome in which he was entirely unsuccessful.

It is our experience that when any asylum seeker claiming to be a Christian does anything to warrant removal from membership of the church, or behaves in such a way that we cannot affirm their claim to be Christian and thus we do not baptise them and welcome them into membership, the people who feel it most keenly are those genuine believers who have often received their asylum already. They know what that means. Every person who does such things chips away at whatever trust there is among the believers and makes it much harder for those who are genuine to prove their case. Such actions do exactly the same, on a wider scale, when they are reported in the news. These things have real ramifications for those who are genuine.

The church should not apologise for wanting to help the most vulnerable in our society. The church should not apologise for refusing to have a two-tiered system of membership for asylum seekers and everyone else. The church should not apologise for offering help and support to people, whether society believes they deserve it or not. That is the teaching of Jesus after all. None of us deserve his salvation; but it is offered to all who will accept it without partiality. The church are called to follow the teaching of Jesus.

Perhaps most concerning of all, some wish to make the Home Office the de facto arbiter of who belongs to Christ. As I have said before, it is the Home Office who (rightly) determine asylum claims. However, it is given to the church, by Jesus Christ, to determine who belongs to his kingdom. By refusing to admit to membership asylum seekers until such time as they have received their right to remain, the church is ceding its God-given authority (cf. Matthew 18:15-20) to the Home Office and, in practice, giving them the keys to the kingdom. This cannot be right.

Nevertheless, whilst the Home Office (entirely rightly and reasonably) expect churches to have robust membership process, the Bible is clear that any church taking the responsibilities given to them by Jesus seriously will also want to do this. Robust membership processes do not exist for the sake of proving to the courts that asylum seekers are genuine; they exist to protect the church from admitting to membership those who do not (so far as we can ever judge) belong to Christ. We shouldn’t want to give up this serious responsibility to the lesser standards of the Home Office and we shouldn’t be blasé about this responsibility given to us by Christ. Robust processes matter; not so much for asylum claims as for the church. But without them, not only is your church in serious danger, but so are any asylum seekers your church thinks to help.