LEICESTER, United Kingdom – England’s sole cardinal said on Sunday the British government’s treatment of asylum seekers was “a shame on our country.”
Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster visited the Jesuit Refugee Services UK on Thursday for their weekly Day Center for destitute asylum seekers and refugees, and spoke about his experience on BBC Radio 4’s weekly religious affairs program, Sunday.
“If you’ve been here for 10 years and you can’t have a residence, you can’t study, you can’t work, you have no income, it’s as if you are being told you are a ‘non-person’, and it’s that darkness that we have listened to this afternoon. I can think of no other words than to say it is a shame on our country,” he said.
Nichols had the opportunity to meet with several individuals at the center, who say they are victims of the current government’s “hostile environment” policy.
In 2010, the ruling Conservative party pledged to cut immigration to the UK to “the tens of thousands,” a target many experts saw as impractical.
Since that time, the government has made it more difficult for all sorts of immigrants to come to the country, including spouses of British citizens, students, and academic appointments.
They have also tightened up on the procedures for asylum seekers to prove their refugee status.
“Being in this [Jesuit Refugee Service] center, it’s like having a tiny light that allows you to see into the deep darkness of people’s lives. They are here in this kind of ‘twilight world’, and what we’ve heard this afternoon is how deep that darkness is, and, in a way, how deliberately that darkness is created,” Nichols told the BBC.
“It seems that there is a deeply mistaken sense that treating people this badly will prevent others seeking sanctuary in this country,” the cardinal continued.
The Jesuit Refugee Service UK has been drawing attention to the effects of the government policy, which were highlighted during this spring’s Windrush scandal, when thousands of immigrants from Britain’s former colonies suddenly found themselves unable to get housing or jobs and threatened with deportation because they lacked proof of their entry into the country decades earlier – proof which was later discovered to have been destroyed by the government in a records clear-out.
In response, the government promised to be “more compassionate” towards immigrants.
However, JRS says there has been little change when it comes to asylum seekers.
The UK is the only European country that has no time limit on detaining asylum seekers, and JRS has argued asylum claims are assessed looking for reasons to refuse the application, as opposed to making a neutral assessment.
“The suffering caused by the hostile environment is deliberate and purposeful; these policies are directed to make the lives of those struggling to gain recognition of their refugee status as crushingly difficult as possible. This deliberate and cruel imposition of hardship is not an acceptable way to treat any human being, let alone those seeking sanctuary,” said Sarah Teather, the Director of JRS UK.
“The asylum seekers we support through our Day Center have often struggled with destitution and homelessness for many years. Resilient people are made vulnerable by the system itself,” she added.
Teather served as a member of the UK Parliament from 2003-2015 and was Minister of State for Children and Families from 2010-2012.
During her time in government Teather led the negotiations to stop the detention of children in the immigration system, and later chaired a parliamentary group focused on support for refugees, including the issue of detention.
Teather said the government needs to “stick to its word and provide the substantive change in culture needed within our immigration system,” adding that it is “time to end the hostile environment agenda altogether.”