Former UK government minister now leads efforts to help asylum seekers

Former UK government minister now leads efforts to help asylum seekers

Sarah Teather with JRS UK staff and volunteers at the weekly Day Centre for destitute refugees in London. (Credit: JRS UK/Courtesy to Crux.)

From 2003 until 2015, Sarah Teather was a member of the UK Parliament, representing a London constituency. Now she runs the Jesuit Refugee Service UK.

LEICESTER, United Kingdom – From 2003 until 2015, Sarah Teather was a member of the UK Parliament, representing a London constituency.

A member of the Liberal Democrats – the UK’s traditional third party – Teather served for a time as the Minister of State for Children and Families when Britain had a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in the early 2010’s.

She was also chairperson of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, which helped prepare her for her present role as director of the Jesuit Refugee Service UK, a position she has held since December 2015.

“As a young MP doing constituency surgeries, I met with people who struggled with a broken asylum and immigration system – people without immigration status who had lived in destitution for many years, like many of those we serve in the day center at JRS UK. So this really was an issue that started from particular human experiences for me,” Teather told Crux.

She spoke to Crux about asylum issues in the UK, the effect of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy that seeks to make life difficult for undocumented immigrants, as well as the underreported reality of human tracking in the country.

What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

Crux: Before taking over as JRS UK director, you served as an MP, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, and a government minister. Can you tell us how your experience in politics prepared you for your current role?

Teather: As a young MP doing constituency surgeries, I met with people who struggled with a broken asylum and immigration system – people without immigration status who had lived in destitution for many years, like many of those we serve in the day centre at JRS UK. So this really was an issue that started from particular human experiences for me. More widely, you develop a high degree of resilience in front-line politics, and I’ve found that has come in handy for running a small organization.

What are the most pressing challenges for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK today?

Government policy really makes it hard for people seeking sanctuary in the UK, both by unfairly preventing them from gaining the legal recognition they need, and by making life very difficult for them whilst they seek that recognition.

People who seek sanctuary in the UK have often suffered deep trauma, had their lives torn apart, lost family and friends, and are in desperate need of a safe haven and chance to rebuild their lives. Sadly, one of the greatest challenges they face is accessing the protection they require once in the UK. A culture of disbelief pervades the asylum determination system, so people are faced with a mammoth burden of proof when trying to relay traumatic events they have fled.

A related challenge is the hostile environment, and the hardship faced during what can be a long struggle through the asylum process. Asylum seekers are nearly always banned from working. This consigns them to poverty and deprives them of the opportunity to contribute and use their skills. Those refused asylum have all support cut off, and are subjected to hostile environment measures which criminalize, for them, daily activities like driving and make it difficult to access essential services like healthcare. They may also be indefinitely detained in prison-like conditions.

Has Brexit affected the situation for refugees in the country?

It is too early to tell how Brexit might impact policy and legislation relating to refugees. But a divisive and polarized political discourse is bad for everyone.

JRS UK has often highlighted the issue of human trafficking in the UK. Many people think this isn’t a huge problem in the “developed world.” What is the reality of the situation?

Our experience of accompanying victims of trafficking tells us that too often they are trapped in a system that prioritizes immigration control over identifying and supporting victims, and that hostile environment measures themselves leave people vulnerable to exploitation.

We did not plan to focus on trafficking, but began to frequently encounter victims of trafficking held in immigration detention. In particular, our detention outreach team regularly supports victims of trafficking in Heathrow IRC (26 Vietnamese men between March 2018 and June 2019). We found a really disturbing pattern in which extremely vulnerable people have been forced to work in cannabis farms, wrongly convicted for this, and transferred to detention following prison sentences. And we know it’s not just this group of victims who end up in detention. Colleagues from other charities who work with detained women frequently support women subjected to sexual exploitation, and then transferred to detention following police raids on brothels. We share a concern that these instances are just the tip of the iceberg.

Working with people made destitute by the asylum system, we also observe that destitution creates vulnerability to exploitation – people are obliged to accept a roof over their head on whatever terms are available – while the hostile environment makes it difficult to seek help. Surveys conducted in our day center revealed that a third of respondents felt physically unsafe around those they lived with; many also expressed fear of law enforcement, due to their immigration status.

Recently, you held a workshop on JRS’s mission of ‘accompaniment.’ Can you tell us what that means?

As a Jesuit work, our mission of accompaniment is rooted in Jesuit teaching and Ignatian spirituality. Walking humbly alongside forced migrants lies at the heart of our mission and it’s an essential ingredient of our service to and advocacy for refugees. It’s based on the belief that encounter, mutual relationship and community are fundamental to human flourishing; the solid foundation upon which to support and assist, in practical ways, those who seek refuge in the UK.

For example, our work with those held in Immigration Detention centers allows volunteers and staff to ‘be with’ many who struggle with isolation from the “outside world,” not knowing how long their detention will last and living with the fear of forced removal, through one to one pastoral meetings. Our mission of accompaniment also helps people view their life from a spiritual perspective, one that is rarely referred to in the midst of interviews, filling in forms and adapting to customs of a new culture.

You have been director for four years now: What do you think you have accomplished, and what are your hopes for the future?

Thanks to the generosity of supporters we have been able to raise money to provide more support for refugees who attend our Day Center. We now provide an immigration legal advice service, which is embedded in the holistic support we provide through accompaniment. We also run a small hosting scheme for those who are homeless and have significantly expanded the range of activities we run.

We spend a lot of time thinking together about how to create space for friendships and human interactions to develop. Those we support experience such hostility at the hands of the system. Creating space for people to be creative, to express themselves and give and receive care to others are part of promoting healing.

We are also mindful of our role as a Catholic organization – we carry out our mission on behalf of the Church and have a role to play in supporting the Church by raising awareness of the situation facing asylum seekers. We have published two research-based reports. The faith-based reportFor our welfare and not for our harm, by Catholic theologian, Dr. Anna Rowlands, came out of a collaboration with her over several years. It analyses barriers to justice and dignity faced by destitute people seeking asylum and people who’ve experienced detention from their own perspectives. ‘Out in the Cold’, is a report which highlights the harrowing reality for many destitute refugees who survive by moving between a series of precarious living arrangements, with the anxiety of knowing they could be terminated at any moment.

Pope Francis reminds us that stories such as these are a sign of the times we must pay attention to and reflect on. My hope for the future is that the stories of those we accompany might awaken some sense of moral responsibility, bringing an end to the culture of disbelief, the hostile environment policy and open the way for a more humane response from all levels of society.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome


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