UK immigration agency lets slip its human side

Traditional Christian concern for foreigners on the move -- "Every migrant enjoys inalienable fundamental rights which must be respected in all cases", says the key Vatican document -- is heightened at Christmas, when minds turn to a displaced family 2,000 years ago that was also in search of shelter and safety.

All minds? No, not all. The British immigration authority, now called the UK Borders Agency (UKBA), has sent what a Guardian columnist calls "the least festive Christmas card I've seen this year". Simon Hoggart writes: "It's in the shape of a green and red fir tree, surrounded by snowflakes, made up entirely of the agency's mission statement: 'tougher regimes … enforcing tough new penalties on those who employ illegal immigrants … facial recognition gates installed in UK terminals … deporting a record number of foreign national prisoners.' It ends 'Season's greetings and a happy 2010'."


Happy Christmas to you, too.

The inhuman face which the UKBA wants Britain to present to the world, in striking contrast to the views of most British people, was revealed recently when London Citizens, an alliance of mostly faith congregations in London which has among its many campaigns a call for a more humane asylum system, decided to draw attention to the hundreds of children locked up each year in detention centers.

Citizens for Sanctuary arranged for two eminent Anglican clergymen to visit a migrants' detention center to give $500 worth of Christmas presents donated by churches to the children locked up there. They were refused --  as reported in The Observer and the Telegraph. The video here is of the canon theologian of Westminster Abbey, Nicholas Sagovsky, and Canon Jim Rosenthal, the Anglican Communion's American communications director (dressed as St Nicholas), being turned away by the security staff.

Happy Christmas to you, too.

It comes as a surprise to many people to learn that as many as 2,000 children each year spend months at a time in the UK's immigrant detention centers, their crime that of being born to people refused asylum or awaiting deportation. Their cause has been taken up by the Children's Society, among many others, who are calling for an end to this cruel practice. A recent report damns one of the biggest centers, at Gatwick airport, for conditions it says are "unacceptable". 

Is Christian concern for the humanity and rights of migrants condemned always to clash with the modern state's macho posturing on immigration controls -- especially when these deliberately dehumanize migrants as part of a conscious policy of deterrence? You could be forgiven for thinking so, and for getting angry and depressed.

But this morning I attended an unusual Christmas carols outside an immigration processing center half an hour south of London, the notorious Lunar House reception center in Croydon The story behind those carols suggests you can humanize immigration laws and systems -- but only if you are prepared to organize.

Today's carols were arranged by South London Citizens, a non-partisan broad-based peoples' organization, made up of churches and charities and trade union branches, whose lead organiser, Bernadette Farrell, is a well-known composer of some of the modern Catholic Church's mostly highly regarded hymns.

In 2004 Bernadette learned from a Catholic parish priest of the plight of one of his parishioners, a Sri Lankan woman named Mary Apragas, who had been caught in a nightmare of bureaucratic high-handedness and chaos after Lunar House lost her visa. Her priest had tried to retrieve it on her behalf, and was shocked by what he had encountered. He turned to Bernadette, who organised meetings at which everyone had a revealing story about Lunar House's dysfunctions. 

South London Citizens began an unusual campaign -- to persuade the Home Office to reform Lunar House to make it a more humane and dignified environment. The enquiry led to a major report, which then led to a national citizens' enquiry into the the way Britain receives those seeking sanctuary, which in turn has led to the Citizens for Sanctuary campaign.

Along the way, local churches and schools created a "Friends of Lunar House" scheme which still operates. Volunteers serve tea and coffee and give warm advice to migrants arriving often hungry and thirsty after days on the road or being moved across country in secured vans.

Today's carols celebrated the opening of a new Welcome Center, the final outstanding recommendation of the original Lunar House enquiry. The new £800m center allows people to wait in a heated, seated, dignified environment.

But that's just the outside. Inside it's more dignified too -- in a hundred different ways. In a major symbolic move, the UKBA has agreed to replace the discredited and obnoxious word "asylum" with the word "protection". A big notice at Lunar House now invites "applications for protection". It's as big a symbolic shift as the removal of the railings where people were once penned in.

UKBA personnel joined in the carols today. They told South London Citizens that without its pressure, they could never have persuaded their masters to agree to the changes.

Guess what? The staff of the UKBA, it turns out, want to treat people like human beings too -- and to be treated thay way themselves. They just needed a chance -- in the form of an outside agency, a well-organised group of churchgoers, to hold up a mirror and demand they act.

That's why this morning two of the UKBA's most senior staff  stood with the family of Mary Apragas, who died last year, to unveil a plaque in her honour.

It has been carved by Tom Waugh, grandson of the Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh, and says simply: MARY APRAGAS, 2004. VOICE OF COURAGE.

So I guess that really is now, Happy Christmas to you, too.

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milo boo
8 years 12 months ago
This Christmas, as it does every year, the UK Border Agency is holding children against their will in conditions proven to damage their health and sanity, with help from commercial contractors Serco and G4S (shares a ‘solid buy for these uncertain times’ London Daily Telegraph)
These children and babies have committed no crime. Their parents have only exercised their legal right to claim asylum.
The government pursues its punitive policy of dawn raids and detention even though, as UK Border Agency’s  Dave Wood let slip in evidence to a parliamentary committee lately, ‘absconding is not our biggest issue. It does happen but it is not terribly easy for a family unit to abscond.’
Seven friends working pro-bono on the END CHILD DETENTION NOW campaign urge UK citizens and residents who mind about this to sign the on-line petition at number10, calling upon the government to stop the forcible arrest of these children and their parents.
There's a petition just for UK doctors at gopetition:
US Church People are invited to write urging Prime Minister Gordon Brown to stop this the arrest and detention of asylum-seeking children and their parents: 10 Downing Street, London, SW1A 2AA.
There’s more about our campaign at
Thank you! – Clare Sambrook


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