Churches, voluntary organisations and the local council in Sheffield have come together to declare the city a place of welcome for asylum seekers and refugees. They aim to improve policy coordination and to challenge public misperceptions.
“The intention is to send out a positive message”, declared Methodist minister the Rev Dr Inderjit Bhogal on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme this morning. Dr Bhogal is a former Methodist president, director of the Urban Theology Unit in Sheffield, and consultant to the international development agency Christian Aid.
He explained that the idea was to consolidate cooperation between the dozens of agencies in the city working for and with people seeking to relocate away from oppression and mistreatment, and who arrive in Sheffield.
The purpose of the joint declaration is also to challenge unfair stereotypes about asylum seekers and unfounded fear of them.
Tabloid newspapers and lobby groups such as Migration Watch have painted an alarming portrait of migration, calling for increasingly draconian restrictions.
Campaigners for justice for those feeing persecution, harm and threat say that public and political perceptions of asylum have been fed by prejudice and misinformation, which fringe political groups try to stoke.
An asylum seeker is someone who has arrived in the UK and made an application for asylum to the UK authorities and is waiting for a decision on whether this will be granted.
Those whose decisions are rejected are often described as ‘failed’, and labelled in terms which suggest fraudulent purpose. But those who work with asylum applicants say that the authorities are under pressure to ignore the rules of proper evidence because of the pressure to ‘get tough’ and provide statistical evidence to back this.
Asylum seekers do not have the right to work while their cases are being assessed. They can apply for permission to work from the Home Office but this is not an entitlement. The Home Office funds accommodation and cash support for asylum seekers with little or no money, Sheffield City Council points out in a fact sheet.
Since 2004 people from Liberia in West Africa and from Burma in south-east Asia have come to live in the city under the Gateway programme. They are not asylum seekers, as they are granted refugee status on arrival in the UK. They can seek work, claim benefits and have most of the rights as the rest of the resident population.
Asylum seekers make up just 0.3 per cent of the local population in Sheffield. Most now come from the following five countries - Iraq, Eritrea, Iran, the Democratic republic of Congo and Zimbabwe (April 2007 figures). Nationally the major home countries of asylum seekers are Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iran.
The Council points out: “Most asylum seekers do not come [to Britain] – they stay in the first safe country they reach or are internally displaced within their own country. The vast majority of refugees can be found in the developing world, accounting for 72% of the world’s estimated 12 million refugees between 1992 and 2001. Research shows that most asylum seekers who do come to the UK have little choice in the matter – they are dependent on whoever arranges their escape. For those who do have a choice, the main reasons are: some knowledge of English, having relatives or friends living in the country and a belief that the UK is a safe, tolerant and democratic society.”
The ‘city of welcome’ initiative is intended to create a culture of fairness, and to combat false ideas – the incorrect belief among some people that asylum seekers receive council tax money, get free TVs and mobile phones, and jump housing queues, all of which are untrue.
A number of municipal areas in Britain now seek to have positive, coordinated policies on asylum. The churches are among those who have lobbied and worked for fair treatment, participating in a range of schemes.