A Very British Nativity – raising questions about welcome, accommodation and work

“It’s time to give the asylum seekers of today the dignity they deserve.”

That’s the final line in A Very British Nativity video that has been produced by The Joint Public Issues Team and released during advent. The reimagined Nativity uses humour to remind audiences that life for asylum seekers in the UK is anything but amusing. Less than three minutes long, the video is perfect to be included in church services in the run up to Christmas. (Details of how to access an offline version are on their website.)

If Mary and Joseph came to the UK seeking refuge this Christmas, what sort of welcome would they receive? As a family seeking refuge, would they receive a hospitable welcome under the UK’s current asylum system?

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33-34 (NIV)

Mary and Joseph’s country of origin would be a factor in the type of welcome they would receive. Public sympathy is greater for those who seek refuge from the well publicised conflict in Syria. But crises in Eritrea, the Central African Republic, Nigeria and South Sudan to name just a few are more invisible.

UNHCR Global Trends 2015 displaced vs France1 in 113 people in the world find themselves a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum according to the UNHCR. That’s over 65 million people.

Government-backed resettlement schemes only cover a tiny subset – 20,000 over 5 years in the case of the UK – of the more than 24 million refugees and asylum seekers who have left their home country. The briefing paper that accompanies the video asks whether we think differently about people who have not been selected for resettlement programmes?

Are we in danger of promoting the idea that there are “deserving” refugees and “undeserving” asylum seekers?

The briefing paper also highlights the low quality accommodation that is given to asylum seekers.

At Christmas, we often sing about ‘the little Lord Jesus’ who ‘laid down his sweet hear’ in a stable. The Greek word used in scripture – kataluma – means guest chamber of lodging place.

The UK Government has created what it describes as a “hostile environment” to deter those with no permission to be in the UK. But in practice it also extends to many others who have good and legitimate reasons to be in the UK. So far in 2016, 45% of appeals made by asylum seekers were allowed, indicating that the system currently in place is struggling to adequately assess the needs of asylum seekers.

After the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Pubishment of Offenders Act (2012), legal aid funding was no available for family reunion claims. Accommodation is provided on a “no-choice” basis outside London and the South of England. Refusal of accommodation can result in support being withdrawn and asylum-seekers being left destitute. Yet Parliamentary inquiries have drawn attention to the “poor standards of accommodation” and The Joint Public Issues Team recall the experience of a family in Dudley who slept on the floor before being given a mattress (but no bed frame) and whose service provider G4S have ignored their reports of a problem with rats.

a-very-british-nativity-mary-and-joAsylum seekers are not allowed to work in the UK while they await a decision on their asylum claim (unless they have waited 12 months for an initial decision on their asylum claim in which case they are permitted to take up jobs on the official UK shortage occupation list.

Surviving on just £36.95 per week, less than £6 per day, is degrading and affects the physical and emotional wellbeing of these individuals. The longer people are unable to work, the more difficult it is for successful asylum seekers to reintegrate should their claim be successful.

It’s a fundamental human right: Article 23 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 says “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against employment”. And many other EU countries with similar employment rates to the UK give asylum seekers permission to work within a much shorter time frame: immediately in Sweden; after three months in Germany and Austria; after six months in Belgium, Cyprus, Italy, Netherlands and Poland.

In its conclusion, the JPIT briefing paper notes that the “lack of decency affects us all”.

There has understandably been growing public concern about the impact that mass movement has had upon community and livelihoods. Unfortunately, the polical response to this concern has been to take a far more hard-line approach to asylum and immigration, to consolidate the ‘hostile environment’ which already provided a wide ranging set of obstacles and challenges for those hoping to make the UK their permanent home …

As things currently stand, it appears the UK asylum system punishes individuals who have a legal right to have their claims heard by due process and to be supported in a humane way whilst this takes place.

Ultimately, the way we treat asylum seekers affects all of us. It undermines the UK’s standing internationally and devalues the human rights which we rely on.

Their rights are our rights, and as Churches we can do far more to ensure these rights are recognised and upheld.