You’re alone. No-one to turn to. Most of the people who you come into contact with don’t speak your language. You’re confused. You shiver, because your clothes, the only possessions you have, don’t keep you warm in the cold climate. You’ve been forced to leave your homeland because you fear for your life, but the images and pain remain and haunt your sleep. You have been parted from your family with no word of their safety. You have £5.39 per day to live on, but your government payment card isn’t working, so you have nothing. You are not allowed to work, you have no say in where you live, and you could be sent back to your homeland where an uncertain fate awaits you. Your life and your prospects are grim. You are caught in limbo between hope and despair.
Could you live like this? Possibly for years? If your answer is no - and who could? – it might seem an impossibility that people who have had this experience and been granted the right to live, work and remain in the UK have gone on to forged new lives, become essential members of our communities, and contributed to the diverse culture and prosperity of our country.
For thousands of asylum seekers the journey to a life in the UK is arduous and has many different routes. The Home Office provides a level of support, however the asylum system is difficult to navigate, so a helping hand to find safety in the companionship of community is something the SVP has been offering for many years.
The SVP has been actively involved in supporting people in need for nearly two centuries, and today that work is needed more than ever as the government prepares to sign into law its New Plan For Immigration (NPFI), which has been heavily criticised by groups across the political and religious spectrum.
SVP members Christopher and Prue Maxwell-Stewart, both 85, have been helping asylum seekers in their region around Hastings and St Leonards in East Sussex for over 20 years. The couple have seen the attitude towards refugees and asylum seekers in the seaside town has changed over the past two decades. Christopher, a retired civil engineer, says: “Our involvement started in 2000 when Hastings became an official asylum seeker dispersal area. Initially it was predominantly single men who were sent here, but that has changed and now we see families and women who have been trafficked.”
Prue continues: “The local council has generally been very positive about asylum seekers – our local borough Community Officer was a Tutsi refugee from the Ruanda genocide. Asylum seekers have also become respected members of our community – a member of our parish council is a Yoruba from Nigeria, who qualified as a financial consultant and provides invaluable financial services. There are many asylum seekers who now play an absolutely crucial role in our parish.”
Christopher adds: “I was brought up in this town from the age of nine or 10, and I think the town is so much more vibrant today because we welcome asylum seekers.
“Hastings and St Leonards was once a wealthy upper middle-class area but over the past 25 years it has been dying on its feet because the income no longer exists, leading to a period of poverty - the town was very run down. Housing was cheap, so people migrated down here because they had problems and they wanted to be beside the sea. I believe the influx of asylum seekers has reinvigorated the area.”
Unsurprisingly, the key to a successful outcome for asylum seekers seems to be the creation of a support network. Christopher comments: “I’m a French speaker which has proved invaluable for people who have no English, and we have built up a small network of useful people who know how to get things done, but the great thing about the SVP is that it’s a worldwide network, so if someone moves on from our care, we can put them in touch with the SVP in that area.”
He continues: “We are there as a Conference answering to need when it arises without judgement. We’re never quite sure what the need is going to be, and the phone can ring at any time, but with our network, we can usually cater for most things.”
The compassion of strangers is an integral part of the support offered to asylum seekers by non-governmental organisations. Individuals who have no knowledge of the people they support other than that they are in desperate need.
Prue adds: “In the early days of St Leonards and Hastings being made an official asylum seeker dispersal area there were three suicides at the hotel used to house asylum seekers.”
However, providence is never far away when determined people like SVP members align practical support with compassionate resolution. Christopher takes up the story: “Many asylum seekers arrive in the UK with nothing but what they are stood up in, which is usually includes a t-shirt and inappropriate shoes, so our initial involvement was getting them properly clothed.
“On one occasion we had no idea how we were going to achieve this, but as Prue and I discussed where we could lay our hands on some warm winter clothing, a charity in the Battle area (six miles from Hastings) rang and told us they had 100 packs of winter clothing, including hats, scarves and gloves which were surplus to requirement, and could we make use of them. Talk about the answer to a prayer. It was quite amazing.”
Christopher and Prue's Conference has helped countless people escape life-threatening situations to find safety and that most vital element to life, home. Christopher explains: “We worked hard to reunite an Eritrean family. We managed to get the mother and her three sons out through South Sudan after they escaped from a UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) camp which was being raided by gangs who were intent on selling the boys back to the Eritrean authorities. They escaped to Khartoum where the SVP in the city looked after them. Eventually we got them visas and reunited them with the father of the family who was seeking asylum in the UK. He had been destitute for some time. We found a flat for them, but they had no furniture. Then out of the blue we had a phone call from a lady in Battle who was leaving her house. She asked if we could come over and clear the house out, which we did, and miraculously we then had the furniture for this family. Just like that!
“Time and time again, in a very informal way, we manage to secure a future for a family who just want to be safe and play a part in the community.”
Who is a person seeking asylum or asylum seeker?
An asylum seeker is someone who has arrived in a country and claimed asylum. Until they receive a decision on their claim by the country’s government, they remain an asylum seeker. In the UK this means they have very different rights and entitlements as a refugee or as a British citizen. For example, people seeking asylum are not allowed to work, and are provided with very limited financial support to live. They receive cash support set at £5.39 a day for food, clothing and other basic necessities.
Who is a refugee?
Article 1 of the UN Refugee Convention (to which the UK is a signatory) defines a refugee as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.
A refugee is a person who has claimed asylum in a country (not their country of birth) and whose claim has been accepted. This means that ‘refugee’ is a legal status. Refugees have very different entitlements from asylum seekers. For example, they have the right to work, and if unable to work they are allowed to claim social security support.
Who is a migrant?
There is no internationally accepted legal definition for a migrant. ‘Migrant’ is not a legal status as ‘refugee’ is for example. Like most non-governmental organisations and agencies, the SVP understands migrants to be people who have moved from their country of origin to a different country. This is different from Internally Displaced People.
People migrate for many different reasons. Some may leave their country because of work, to join their family, or to study. Some move because of lack of opportunities, unemployment, natural disasters, violence and many other reasons.
Many people who are migrants don’t necessarily fit the definition of refugee (as defined in the UN Refugee Convention) but may nevertheless be at risk if they went back to their country of origin. It’s important to remember that just because a migrant may not be fleeing war or persecution, they should still be entitled to their human rights, regardless of their reason for migrating.
Christopher and Prue’s experiences are echoed across the country. In the Pendle area of East Lancashire SVP member Paul Gauntlett is driven by his passion to support others who have fled dangerous circumstances.
The UK government committed to a resettlement target of 20,000 Syrian refugees through the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme by 2020. The local authority in Paul’s area could not cope with supporting and welcoming this number of refugees and so “local agitators” as Paul describes them, got together and formed a support group called Pendle New Neighbours.
Paul has become the link between those existing at the fringes of the town of Nelson and the SVP. Paul says: “As a Christian organisation, we have a moral responsibility to help and care for refugees and asylum seekers. Jesus after all sought refuge in Egypt with his family.”
Run down houses in the Pendle area, which has some of the poorest housing in the country, are bought by SERCO, which holds the Asylum Accommodation and Support Services Contract. The houses, which are refurbished for refugees to live in, are “easily identifiable to organisations because of certain characteristics”, according to Paul.
SERCO does not divulge information about where refugees and asylum seekers live, which is problematic for Paul and individuals who want to offer help. However, Paul and other SVP members try to find where these vulnerable people are living and very often simply knock on the door asking those living there if they are refugees or asylum seekers and if they could use some help. They work with the residents giving practical support.
Paul is keen to stress that preconceived ideas about asylum seekers are entirely false. The range of backgrounds is vast, but the need for support, often at a basic level, is common.
Paul explains: “We recently helped a family who had fled Turkey. The mother used to work as a theatre nurse, the father was a chief police officer, and the children, a 15-year-old girl and 12-year-old boy, both speak brilliant English.
“The parents are currently undertaking weekly ESOL lessons online, but their immigration process has been very slow. The father was advised to separate himself from his family so his wife and children could apply for refugee status and he would be able to join them later on that basis.
“The father is not legally allowed to work, and he is concerned about his children’s physical health. A local swimming club provided a discounted rate for lessons, but this is still far beyond the £37 a week the father receives as an asylum seeker.
“The family only want stability and the opportunity to become active members of their community. It’s such a waste of their talents.”
Ending the human tragedy
According to UNHCR figures, in the year ending September 2020 the UK received 31,752 asylum applications. For the majority of those seeking asylum the future looks bleak. Months and years of waiting for a decision on their future, and often with the threat of detention and removal back to a country in which their life was under threat.
Mike Woulfe, SVP District President and a member of St Peter and Paul’s SVP Conference in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, points out that it not illegal to seek asylum.
Mike says: “Many asylum seekers are survivors of crimes, torture and trauma. Indefinite detention adds further stress and suffering, impacting on their mental and physical health. The Catholic Church advocates the implementation of just and rapid procedures to determine each person’s claim for protection.
“The Catholic Church teaches that the most vulnerable people are not simply those who are in a needy situation to whom we kindly offer an act of solidarity but are members of our family with whom we have a duty to share the resources we have. Solidarity towards refugees is inscribed in the common membership to the human family.”
Following the Home Secretary’s proposal for a New Plan For Immigration, the SVP published an open statement criticising proposals to create an asylum system “in which the way people enter the UK will impact how their asylum claim is processed and the status they might receive.”
Many people who are forced to flee their homes in desperate circumstances simply have no choice but to cross borders informally to reach a safe haven; to penalise them for this is to abandon the very principle of international protection.
The open statement went on to say: “Moves to criminalise and penalise undocumented entry to the UK set out in the NPFI mean it will effectively be impossible for most people to claim asylum in the UK because safe and legal routes for claiming asylum in the UK are extremely limited, and could never feasibly be made available to all who need them. We cannot ignore their plight and reduce it to a statistical act of bureaucracy.”
The open statement was signed by over 100 faith leaders and faith groups, demonstrating an empathy with those seeking safety in the UK and a palpable will to embrace asylum seekers as an important part of the future of the country.
Christopher Maxwell-Stewart sums it up perfectly when he says: “We’re an island, and we’re all descended from people from somewhere else. Welcoming people from somewhere else is essential for reinvigorating society.”