Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Seeking Refuge

I spent a day this week with a young asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and his friends. Jonathan is a gentle, unassuming and quiet 22-year-old, with a broad smile, who loves football, never really knew his father, and was brought up by a friend of his parents in Kinshasa. When he was a student, despite the fact that he and his friends were paying fees, the government defaulted on paying his university lecturers, and so lessons stopped. Jonathan joined a series of political demonstrations against the government, was caught taking a picture of the police and was duly arrested. He was bundled into a car, taken to an isolated spot, tied up and beaten. He still has nightmares recalling his torture at the hands of government agents. To cut a long story short, he eventually managed to get a visa to leave to the UK, as he had relatives here, hoping that things would die down a little before he would return home in due course.

Phone calls with friends back in the DRC warned him not to come home, or he would almost certainly be arrested and killed. And so, he began the process of applying for asylum. Three years later, after several stays in detention centres, which effectively felt like prisons, being repeatedly threatened with repatriation, which he is convinced would mean further torture and probably execution, he is still waiting for a definitive answer to his case.

The life of an asylum seeker is pretty grim. While applying for asylum, they are unable to work, so drift from drop-in centres to free English lessons run by charities, trying to spend time but not money. They are caught in a cycle where they have little to do, not much to spend and accommodation is always precarious. They are caught between wanting to apply for asylum with the prize of getting leave to remain, and yet the risk of appearing before the courts and the decision going against them, and then having to be deported to the dangers of their home countries. So, they often lie low, perhaps tempted to take poorly paid jobs, all the while knowing it is illegal. One woman I met from Burkino Faso had taken such a job, and when she was found out to be an illegal immigrant, was sent to Holloway Prison. The other difficulty is the presumption of guilt. In interviews by the officials, they report a constant feeling of not being believed or trusted, with the assumption that they are telling lies to gain entry to the country, a level of suspicion that adds to their feelings of despair.

For people often fleeing failed states, poverty-stricken nations, or war-ravaged countries, the UK seems at first like a haven of peace and security. Yet sadly this is not the experience of many of those who seek asylum here. Of course, the courts have to do their job and do due diligence on refugees, but surely we can do better at making our default pose a welcome rather than a rejection for those who have already experienced so much rejection already? There are some exceptions. When I asked the group ‘what has helped you most since coming here?” they all said ‘The church”. I saw some remarkable examples of saintly people giving time and energy to welcome the stranger, and in doing so, firmly believed they were welcoming Jesus. As Jesus himself once said “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ To welcome the stranger is to do something close to the heart of God who welcomes us into his presence through Christ. It is a profoundly Christian act.

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