The Conference of Religious has added its voice to concerns expressed by Cardinal Nichols about the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK.
Speaking after a visit to the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), the Cardinal described the UK government's treatment of asylum seekers as "a shame on our country". After spending time listening to their stories he said, "If you're here for 10 years and you can't have a residence, you can't study, you can't work, you have no income, it’s as if you are being told you are a 'non-person', and it’s that darkness that we have listened to.”
His criticism echoes comments made by a number of Major Superiors at the recent annual general meeting of the Conference of Religious. Divided into groups to discuss the challenges religious are being called upon to tackle, the plight of asylum seekers was raised as a key concern, particularly by those who are regular visitors to detention centres. One Sister who is a skilled linguist thanks to years spent on overseas mission, described the “hostile environment” and “disbelief” about conditions, saying it “would break your heart.” Working with women who are the victims of violence, she says that after arriving in the UK they are traumatised again: “It’s very terrible that we as a country are doing this. I realise the UK can’t be the social worker of the whole world, but there must be a better way.”
“For these people, it seems like the system is out to not believe you ; it’s like you are guilty until proved innocent.” She assists women in basic care needs like writing notes on their behalf if they need to communicate with a doctor or lawyer. Arguing the case to give asylum seekers the right to work, she says both sides would benefit: “For many this process goes on for years and years. It’s such a loss of human potential. People say they want to contribute and pay taxes. The government would benefit as it would know exactly who and where these people are.”
Recalling the conversation at the Conference of Religious annual general meeting she said: “We all felt very passionately about this. In a prison, if you’ve committed a crime, you have a sentence. But these people don’t know how long they will be in there for or whether they’ll be sent back. It’s hugely stressful and some of them suffer illnesses due to the sheer stress.”
Sr Marie McDonald, of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, echoed those concerns: “The way asylum seekers and refugees are being treated is cruelly inhumane and a disgrace to U.K. The detention centres closely resemble prisons. Among other injustices they are not allowed to take on paid employment, rent accommodation, access free health care. As a result they are forced to depend on family or friends for shelter and many are sleeping rough. Landlords and employers risk being fined/imprisoned if they rent or employ an asylum seeker. The process to be given the right to remain here can last for years... Even when it is granted the Home Office can and does appeal against it which prolongs the agony even longer. These people have had to flee their countries and all that was familiar to them. They have spent months on horrific journeys across deserts and seas and finally when they reach here they discover that everything has been organised to make their life a living hell.”
On Thursday, after his meeting with refugees, Cardinal Vincent reflected : "I think being in this Jesuit Refugee [Service] Centre, is like just having a tiny light that allows you to see into the deep darkness of people's lives who are here in this kind of twilight world, and what we've heard this afternoon is how deep that darkness is. And in a way how deliberately that darkness is created, in a deeply mistaken sense that treating people this badly will prevent others seeking sanctuary in this country." In a podcast, he added: "I heard heart-rending, terrible stories of the way some people have been treated … we seem to have a system in place that obviously has to deal with some very difficult cases, some hard cases, but it seems to deal with all cases in a very hard manner. And it can't be right, it cannot be right, that a person is left in this limbo, this no-man's land, for 10 or more years in a country as sophisticated and as affluent as ours."