Though much of the media focus on the issues of asylum seekers and refugees (as well as migration more generally) is filtered through a prism of fear and the instinct to exclude, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) - whose 8-10 April 2011 annual delegate conference I am attending - continues to work hard for fair reporting and justice.
At a well-attended NUJ fringe meeting today, we heard moving and disturbing stories from three journalists seeking asylum: Charles Atangana, Alieu Ceesay and James Fallah-Williams.
To give but one example, James Fallah-Williams - who has written in the Methodist Recorder, among other news sources - arrived in the UK in 1998 after fleeing Sierra Leone at the height of its civil war.
He has been living, studying and working in the UK with full legal rights since then. But, inevitably, his story becomes much more complex than that. He is a journalist and human rights activist, and has published a considerable number of articles exposing the corruption and injustice still characterising Sierra Leone's government. As a result of this courageous work, James has faced a number of threats which mean that, although he would like to return to a peaceful life in Sierra Leone, this is not currently an option.
In 2008, James' application for indefinite leave to remain was refused. He applied for asylum, and was moved to Leigh while his case was considered. He established a very successful community project there on a voluntary basis, and then received permission to work in November 2009. In April 2010 James began working for Manchester Refugee Support Network (MRSN). However, in October 2010, James’ permission to work was revoked by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) — eight days after one of his clients at MRSN won a test case through the Asylum Support Tribunal Court. The UKBA then gave James 28 days to leave the country, claiming that he has lived here illegally for 12 days — after 12 years’ legal residency.
James Fallah-Williams has gained the support of his community in Leigh, churches, and his MP in Leigh, Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham, as well as the NUJ.
The Supreme Court has accused the UKBA of having a secret policy (itself illegal) of being predisposed against liberty for those seeking asylum, said Margaret Woods of the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees (http://www.gctwr.co.uk/ ) - a group of people from all walks of life who have come together with the aim of campaigning to improve the quality of life of refugees arriving and settling in Glasgow and the West of Scotland.
UKBA claims that the detention of people seeking asylum is only done as a last resort. But in practice many people are being detained for long periods - and in some cases, effectively indefinitely, it seems. Ten of the 2,890 people detained solely under Immigration Act powers have been held for between three and five years. The NUJ and a number of other unions have policies against detention (which amounts to de facto imprisonment for people who have committed no crime.) The network working specifically on this issue is Barbed Wire Britain (http://www.barbedwirebritain.org/ ).
The other organisation involved in the NUJ delegate meeting was RAPAR (http://www.rapar.org.uk/ ), the leading organisation in Greater Manchester working with those in our communities who are most at risk of having their human rights denied.
Asylum seeker (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/taxonomy/term/307 ) and refugee justice is one of the areas where the churches in Britain have a highly commendable record of acting and speaking out.
See also the Ekklesia paper by the Rev Vaughan Jones: 'Migration: Why a broader view is needed' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/12034 ).
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He is a member of the National Union of Journalists, Edinburgh Freelance Branch.