Give them shelter

Christians are defying the law to help asylum-seekers

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In every major city, Christians of all deno minations - Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists and Quakers - are going to great lengths to support asylum-seekers threatened with deportation.

When asylum-seekers come to the end of the application process and have exhausted all appeals, their benefits are stopped, they lose their accommodation and they are told to accept a free flight home or face being forcibly removed.

But thousands stay, afraid or unwilling to return to their home countries. Faced with overwhelming numbers of destitute asylum-seekers in their parishes, churches have responded by creating an informal support network that stretches across Britain.

The role of the church as a force for social justice is not one that gets much attention these days and it is often perceived as out of touch with issues that concern modern Britain. But, under the radar of the public eye, churches and Christian groups are becoming increasingly involved in subversive activities over asylum, one of the most controversial issues in politics.

Some church groups have bought up houses in which refused asylum-seekers may live rent-free after they have been evicted. For example, in Manchester, the Boaz Trust, a Christian charity for asylum-seekers, has eight houses, some donated by church members, which are specifically used as long-term accommodation for those the Home Office has refused leave to stay in Britain.

In other towns, disused presbyteries and vicarages are housing those the government says have no right to be here. Some churches are simply opening up at night, letting people sleep on the floor of their church hall.

In Sheffield, hundreds of destitute asylum-seekers go once a week to the Methodist Victoria Hall in the centre of town, where volunteers swap their supermarket vouchers for cash, and hand out bus tickets and bags of food to get the asylum-seekers through the week. Similar drop-ins are being established in churches in every major city in the country.

Notre Dame de France Church in London's Leicester Square is a vital source of support for many Africans who have been refused asylum but still do not want to return to trouble spots in countries such as Congo or Ethiopia. Only yards from the hordes of tourists and ticket touts, the church offers a comforting chat with a priest and a meal. Many who go there are homeless, sleeping rough or on friends' floors.

Drop-in centres and "safe" houses add up to a subversive network, helping families to stay in Britain against the wishes of the government. The church networks are raising considerable sums for this work, often via the collection plate, passed from pew to pew during services. In Liverpool, the Catholic diocese currently gives the local asylum group Asylum Link every penny it receives from collections during Lent - some £25,000 a year.

Around the country hundreds of thousands of pounds are being raised to support people the government says have no right to refugee status. Giving alms and shelter to the needy is a central tenet of almost all organised religions, but questions are being raised as to whether the churches should be taking such a strong line over what is essentially a political issue.

The Home Office argues that all asylum cases are dealt with fairly and humanely, and that those who "play by the rules" will not become destitute. Those turned down have had a fair chance to prove they are in danger and now must leave, says the Home Office.

However, one senior Anglican bishop believes that, as more church members become involved in challenging the government's asylum policy, churches could find themselves on a collision course with the Home Office.

"Christians know there might come a time when they have to put the law of God above the civil laws of the society they live in," says John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.

The bishop believes that the procedures governing the treatment of asylum-seekers are inhumane, and says that Christians are prepared to challenge asylum policy head-on. It is fundamental to the Christian faith to speak out when it believes government policy is denying people basic human rights, he argues.

Just over the road from the Houses of Parliament, Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon of Westminster Abbey, takes a similar position. "We must be in a critical dialogue with public servants who operate in ways that need public criticism," he told us.

Anger at the asylum system is uniting high-ranking clergy, local lay preachers and ordinary churchgoers as well as denominations across the Christian spectrum, from Quakers and Catholics to Anglicans and Evangelicals.

As he drops off tins of soup and packets of spaghetti to one of the small terraced houses in Manchester in which four refused asylum-seekers are living, Dave Smith, who runs the Boaz Trust, describes the trust's determination to expand the operation and step up levels of support.

"We are linking up with groups in more and more cities across Britain, which all want to do similar things to what we're doing here. We want to get more houses on board so we can help more people - we are going to flood the nation with this."

The work of these church groups may already be starting to have an impact within government. The Home Office has said that it plans to launch a consultation on support for refused asylum-seekers shortly.

Harriet Grant and Rachel Stevenson's film on the work of churches supporting asylum-seekers can be seen on More4 News at 8pm on Friday 17 October

This article appears in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama