Church of Sanctuary: In international law there is no ‘illegal’ or ‘bogus’ asylum seeker

The ancient concept of sanctuary, founded on the principle that holy places should be places of safety for all, can be a light in the darkness for refugees

In churches across Ireland and Britain yesterday, Sanctuary Sunday was marked in prayerful solidarity with all those around the world who are forced to flee for their safety and rely on the generosity of strangers to safeguard their future. This year, a major focus has been, understandably, on the devastating displacement of millions of people that stems from the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

The very generous public response to the plight of refugees from Ukraine has challenged governments across Europe to face the reality of the dehumanising impact of our current asylum policies and systems. Underlying the very welcome introduction of emergency measures for our Ukrainian neighbours was an implicit assumption that the conditions and restrictions applied to other refugees were not good enough for fellow Europeans.

Churches, alongside other civic leaders, have been highlighting the need for generosity and solidarity towards all refugees, regardless of country of origin. The criterion for determining refugee status is fleeing danger and seeking safety, not the means of travel or routes taken, not ethnicity, not the colour of skin, not nationality. All refugees have to be treated equally.

Arguably, for the first time since the second World War, European countries have gained a first-hand insight into what countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have been experiencing in recent years as a result of conflict in neighbouring countries. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 90 per cent of the world’s refugees come from countries in or close to war and conflict, and almost 90 per cent of all refugees live in countries neighbouring their country of origin.

While people will understandably turn to their nearest neighbours in times of crisis, the concept of sanctuary is global. In international law there is no “illegal” or “bogus” asylum seeker. Anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, and to remain there until authorities have assessed their claim. It is to be hoped that learning from these tragic events in Ukraine will strengthen Europe’s leadership in the global response to refugees.

With the UK leaving the EU, and diverging from EU policies on migration and asylum, there is an urgent need for dialogue in these islands about our shared responsibilities for the protection of those who seek asylum at our shared borders. Churches, drawing on their pastoral experience in supporting those who have come here from other countries, have an important contribution to make in drawing attention to the values that should shape and inform our policies in these areas.

In recent months concern has been expressed that the new legislation on nationality and borders introduced by the UK government will restrict the ability of those from other EU countries to access the essential freedoms of the Common Travel Area and cross borders for work, services and other needs. As we seek to address these very valid concerns, we need to acknowledge, at the same time, that people seeking asylum were excluded from access to these freedoms — deemed essential for everyone else — long before this.

Regardless of the prevailing political policies and systems, churches can make significant contributions to the lives of those seeking asylum by becoming a Church of Sanctuary. The ancient concept of sanctuary, founded on the principle that holy places should be places of safety for all, can be a light of illumination in the darkness for people at their most vulnerable.

In our welcome to refugees we can help restore to people that sense of their human dignity which can be undermined by processes that treat them as though they had no rights and ignore their most basic human needs. At the same time, in the encounter with those who find themselves dependent on our generosity, we can be enriched in our own lives and in our faith.

Being a Church of Sanctuary is a joyful experience. It is about celebrating the contribution people from other cultures and traditions make to our communities, just as people around the world celebrate the contribution of Irish people and Irish culture every St Patrick’s Day. It is about helping people to overcome the fear of the other that can be a barrier to encounter.

Isolation can leave us vulnerable to misinformation, and to the scapegoating of those who have least, rather than those who accumulate vast wealth and assets, for the problems of poverty and homelessness. At the heart of the Sanctuary movement, which is being taken up by churches, cities, universities and other institutions across Ireland, is the conviction that by standing in solidarity with refugees we can help create a more just and compassionate society for everyone.

Inderjit Singh Bhogal is a theologian and Methodist Minister. He is working with Churches Together in Britain and Ireland to promote the idea of the Church of Sanctuary

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