LIVERPOOL, England – Liverpool has been considered the center of gravity for the Catholic Church in England since waves of Irish immigrants hit the city in the 19th century.
The immigrant history of the city – and the role Liverpool plays today in welcoming newcomers – was the focus of one of the ‘parallel program’ events sponsored by the Archdiocese of Liverpool during the Sep. 7-9 Adoremus National Eucharistic Congress for England and Wales.
It took place at St. Anthony of Egypt Church, which is a historic Irish immigrant parish.
In recent years, Liverpool and other cities in the north of England have been favored locations for settling asylum seekers as they wait for the cases to proceed.
Oyewole Ajagbe, the senior case worker for Asylum Link Merseyside and a speaker at the event, told Crux the reasons for this are economic: “They send them here because it is cheaper.”
Ajagbe said the problem is that other resources are not sent and that asylum seekers are not provided with legal aid to help process their claims. This puts burdens on organizations such as Asylum Link, which become overwhelmed by applicants for refugee status.
“That’s very serious for someone who has a lot of hope of getting asylum but has been let down because of the justice system, because there is not enough resources to deal with it,” he said.
The United Kingdom has over the past few years become less welcoming for immigrants. The free movement of people within the European Union was one of the main reasons given to pollsters for the approval of Brexit in a June 23, 2016, referendum. The government has raised the qualifications and increased the fees necessary for British citizens to bring in spouses and other family members. As for asylum seekers, the government has instituted a policy of strict scrutiny which makes it more difficult for those seeking refugee status to prove their claims.
The Conservative government has also instituted a policy of creating a “hostile environment” for people in the country illegally, which often means legal immigrants get caught in the wake.
This was highlighted during the Windrush scandal earlier this year, when thousand of immigrants from the former-British West Indies suddenly were asked to prove their legal status, which had been granted in the early 1970s. The documents necessary to prove their status had actually been destroyed by the government in a records clear-out years earlier.
Asylum seekers in the UK face particular hardships. Britain is the only European country that has no time limit on detaining asylum seekers, and several NGOs assert that asylum claims are assessed looking for reasons to refuse the application, as opposed to making a neutral assessment.
“It’s not pretty,” Ajagbe said.
Britain is a favorite destination of asylum seekers, since it offers a more flexible job market and is usually better at integrating newcomers than other European countries.
“People think they can just come to the country and seek asylum because they heard news on the BBC or CNN, but when the reality comes some of them don’t even know what are the conditions which are submitted by the United Nations before you can actually seek asylum in the UK. When they are denied, then they face the reality,” he added.
Speakers at the workshop said the current climate is not part of the authentic heritage of the country.
“We’re a Christian country. We should welcome the stranger,” said Nadine Daniel, the national refugee welcome coordinator for the Church of England.
“Do I see anything changing in the Home Office? Yes, but they have to be so careful. Yes, they know that indefinite detention is not the way forward. Yes, they are looking at other methods so that people aren’t detained. Yes, they are looking to avoid Windrush happening again. But it’s like trying to turn a huge supertanker around in the middle of the River Mersey when you have about six inches of free space on either side. It happens very, very slowly,” she told Crux.
(The River Mersey is the main artery of Liverpool and the surrounding area, which is called Merseyside.)
She said it was “shameful” that local authorities such as Sunderland – located in the Northeast of the country – have asked Britain’s Home Office, which oversees immigration matters, to stop sending them asylum seekers.
“The populist alt-right and alt-left have left a very squeezed and scared middle,” Daniel said.
She also worried about the other immigrants affected by the recent changes in the UK.
“I know of families where spouses have been separated, children have been separated, elderly parents have been separated, who have lived in this country for years,” she said. “If you can go into any hospital in this city, 25 percent of the staff are either European or non-European non-UK staff.”
Participants at the workshop were also told about the two-year Share the Journey campaign, which was launched by Caritas Internationalis in September 2017 with the goal of encouraging a “culture of encounter” and bolstering efforts to warmly welcome immigrants and refugees.
CAFOD – the international Catholic aid agency of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales and a Caritas affiliate – has been asking people to walk for Share the Journey, to reflect on the lives of refugees around the world.
“[We are] adding up the miles that people walk, hoping to get around the world, and actually we’ve already gone around the world four times, so it’s done very well,” said Justine Silcock, CAFOD Liverpool’s Education Volunteer Coordinator.
CAFOD provided short biographies of selected refugees from different countries such as South Sudan, Myanmar, and Venezuela to help people identify with what happens to people when they are forced to leave their homes.
“It’s a chance to walk and reflect on five refugees, and we reflect on what happened to them. We start with a prayer and end with a prayer and then add up the miles you have walked in that process,” Silcock told Crux.
The CAFOD volunteer also led participants through the organization’s On the Move simulation, where people try to get a feel for what it is like to suddenly be forced to flee violence or natural disasters.
The 50-minute program groups people into ‘refugee families’ and each simulates the hazardous journey escaping a conflict zone.
Each family encounters the problems routine for refugees, from what to pack to not speaking the language in transit countries to dealing with injuries and forced separation from loved ones. The simulation is followed by a discussion.
The goal of the entire daylong workshop was to re-instill the welcoming values for which the UK was once well-known.
“We have lost sight of what our duty as a Christian country is,” said Daniel.