Welcoming the stranger: a Christian response to refugees

By Steve Atherton
January 8, 2017

Pope Francis' appeal for solidarity with refugees is as challenging now as it was when we first heard it: “Faced with the tragedy of thousands of refugees fleeing from death from war or hunger, heading for the hope of a new life, the Gospel is calling us and asking us to be 'neighbours' to the littlest ones, the most abandoned ones. To give them real hope. Not just to say, ‘Be strong, be patient...!

"Christian hope fights with the tenacity of someone aiming for a definite goal. I am appealing to the parishes, religious communities, monasteries and shrines of the whole of Europe to show how real the Gospel is by welcoming a family of refugees ... Every parish, every religious community, every monastery and every sanctuary in Europe ought to host a family...”

At archdiocesan level here in Liverpool, our first response was to produce the booklet A guide: Refugees, Asylum Seekers & Migrants. Welcoming the Stranger which aimed for clarity over the language and terminology being used and to tell stories of refugees. Thanks to close cooperation with colleagues and friends in the Anglican diocese, it was beautifully produced with photographs and infographics. About 1,000 copies remain of the 20,000 copies printed. It can be downloaded here The booklet has proved very useful and has spread across the country.

Our context is that the North West has for years been the UK’s main ‘dispersal area’ destination for Asylum Seekers and, seeking to be practical, we have held meetings across the diocese with existing groups and with others who are responding to the increase in number of areas as the initial areas are declared full, having reached the statutory 0.2 per cent of the indigenous population. We have done this in groups based on local authority boundaries rather than on our deaneries and have joined Local Authority (LA) planning groups where possible. We have supported local initiatives as they have arisen. Throughout all this we have worked ecumenically.

When the UK Government announced the Syrian Resettlement Programme (SRP) to accept 20,000 Syrians over four years, LAs were asked to organise the process. Many of us were sceptical of the government’s motivation since it ment more expense for the LAs at the same time as massive cuts to budgets. Understandably,  LAs are reluctant to take on more responsibility without adequate extra resources and are holding out for guarantees. We feel the need to respond to the situation but have no wish to be part of any ideologically driven attack on local democracy. Our response to this dilemma is to promote the Community Sponsorship Scheme to run alongside the main SRP as a Year of Mercy Legacy project. We organise on a deanery level and are expecting to work with Green Pastures, a housing organisation run by the Evangelical Shoreline Church in Southport.We have begun to plan for this and hope to make progress.

Just before Christmas, I met a small group of volunteers at a church near Wigan who don’t want to be identified and  definitely don’t want any praise. They would be embarrassed to be called the face of Christ but I am certain that is what they are. Their story is of how they responded to a situation that presented itself to them.

Resolutely throughout the last year, this anonymous group have cared for asylum seekers who are temporarily lodged in a hotel close to the motorway near their parish. The hotel is one of those places beloved of the tabloid press where asylum seekers are reportedly housed in luxury apartments with all the benefits of hotel living, from where they are reported as  emerging to be a threat to local people. The reality, of course, is very different. It suits SERCO to house their clients near the motorway network while they are in transit, waiting to be dispersed to somewhere in the region. It suits the hotel company to have a steady stream of paying guests who will never complain about anything. The accommodation is cheap, with no facilities other than a bed, a sink and a toilet. The food is basic. The asylum seekers are supposed to be there for a few days and certainly not for more than three weeks. One man who was there for three months was given fish fingers and chips every day.

The group from the parish visit the hotel and meet the new arrivals. Theirs may well be the first friendly faces the asylum seekers have seen in the UK. Everyone is welcomed and greeted with a smile and practical help. People are offered toiletries and warm clothes suitable for our climate. Young mothers are offered baby clothes and, whenever possible, buggies for their children. A basic English class is offered every Wednesday afternoon and the parish makes its internet available so that people can contact their families back home. SERCO now contact the parish volunteers when there are emotional problems that they – the professionals – can’t deal with. One of the volunteers has even been a ‘birth companion’ to two women asylum  seekers. All this work is done with no funds other than that which the parish and the volunteers provide out of their own resources.

At the other end of the Asylum Seeker/Refugee journey, a group of people in Liverpool are preparing to set up a night shelter for those who have disappeared into the murky world of destitute ‘failed’ asylum seekers. Estimates of the numbers in this group vary . It is  thought that up to a hundred new ‘refused’ asylum seekers stay in Liverpool every year rather than return to a place that they think is dangerous. Whatever anyone thinks about the legalities of their decision, these vulnerable people are in danger and the local community has a problem on their streets. The proposed shelter is a limited attempt to keep some of these people safe and at the same time bring them back into the system so that they either get leave to remain or are helped to return home.

I began with inspiration from the Pope and will end with some words of Dom Christian Chergé on why we are compelled to try to be part of the solution rather than the problem : “I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world.” (A Theology of Hope )

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© Steve Atherton is the Justice and Peace field worker for the archdiocese of Liverpool and  sees adult faith formation as part of his role.

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