Tuesday, 15 December 2009


A new payment card – known as Azure – given by the Home Office to people seeking sanctuary in London failed a Which?-style consumer test run by an alliance of faith, citizen and refugee groups on Monday.

A twenty-five minute wait, participating stores declining the card and incorrect balance information were just some of the problems encountered on a ‘Shop for Justice’ organised by London Citizens as part of the CITIZENS for Sanctuary campaign. The card was launched without trial in late November and was rolled out to London on the 7th December, as an alternative to cash.

An Assumptionist Priest from Bethnal Green and a Catholic nun from Ealing were among the community leaders who took part in the ‘Shop for Justice’. They shared the experience with a person who has to live on the Azure card and provide for their family without cash, and tested the new card’s effectiveness.

Citizens around the country – who, as taxpayers, will pay for the new scheme – are alarmed that the card has not been properly piloted and has been introduced with minimal parliamentary scrutiny. The problems with the card worried Gillian Howarth, who lives in Westbourne Park. “We waited for 24 minutes in Tesco to try and buy some food with the card. It was outrageous – and in the end the card didn’t work. The staff hadn’t been informed about the system, so we had to call the head office. Even if the card did work, there wasn’t even any halal food available!”

Tom O’Brien, from Our Lady of the Assumption in Bethnal Green, explained some of the other difficulties: “We are concerned that the Azure card will condemn a very vulnerable group of people to a cashless existence, denying them access to public transport, haircuts and other essentials such a phone card to keep in touch with their families abroad.”

Even store mangers were sceptical about the card. Nisar, from a Tesco in West London explained, “I’m worried about security. Anyone could take the card and just swipe it to pay. Are we meant to ask for I.D.? We haven’t been told anything about the card”.

The UK Border Agency argues that the cards reduce the stigma of the previous voucher system. Yet in every Boots, Asda, Tesco and Peacocks the monitors visited an I.D. or a signature was demanded and in two shops they had to explain their status as people seeking sanctuary in the UK. “It makes me feel very ashamed”, said Alain, who fled persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo and sought sanctuary in the UK. “I have to explain why I am carrying the card and sometimes I have to put back a full trolley of shopping when it doesn’t work. When I then have to walk one hour to the next nearest shop I feel very bad.”

Other issues such as travelling to the shops, saving and the price of products in supermarkets concerned the citizen monitoring teams.

The Azure card is now used for people seeking sanctuary in London who qualify for ‘Section 4’ support. Section 4 support is given to people who the Home Office recognise cannot currently return to their country of origin. The Azure card is a plastic payment card which can be used to buy items in a limited range of supermarkets. Azure users are topped up with £35 per week but will not be able to access cash, receive change, or use the card outside of the limited number of participating stores.

London is the third of nine cities across the UK where CITIZENS for Sanctuary teams have organized a ‘Shop for Justice’. They have written to the Home Secretary requesting a meeting to share the findings of their research and ensure that nobody is denied access to cash.

Friday, 4 December 2009


The patron saint of children and the imprisoned - and the inspiration for the modern day Father Christmas - St Nicholas of Myra, was turned away at the gate of the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire today when he tried to deliver gifts to the children locked up inside.

Jolly Old St Nick brought with him £300 worth of gifts donated by several London churches for the estimated 35 children currently detained. Dressed in a red robe, long white beard, and a bishop’s mitre and crook, and accompanied by Rev’d Professor Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey, they hoped to spread some St Nicholastide cheer among the children of migrants detained for administrative purposes at Yarl’s Wood.

The atmosphere became rather less jolly when the Home Office authorities who run Yarl’s Wood refused permission for St Nicholas to enter the Centre to distribute the gifts to the children. Despite the authorities having agreed to accept the gifts, St Nicholas was met at the gates by a group of unidentified security guards who barred his entry and ordered him to leave the area. They later called the police as St Nicholas blessed the gifts. The gifts were loaded into an unmarked van by staff who refused to provide a name, number or receipt for the gifts. St Nicholas asked one "guard" his name and the man said "write down 'Father Christmas'".

You can watch videos of the event here and here.

St Nick said, "If this is how visitors are treated, I just shudder to imagine what else transpires inside Yarl's Wood." While police questioned the St Nicholas team, taxis and delivery lorries made their way in and out of the place with many smiling and stopping to greet the Saint and his companions.

In the afternoon, when St Nicholas returned to make a pre-arranged and approved social visit to two families currently detained, they were informed at the gates that their visit had been cancelled. They were handed letters from Dawn Elaine, the Contracts Manager at Yarl’s Wood, informing them that permission had been revoked because of “concerns about your conduct” when the gifts had been deposited that morning.

The action was organised by the St Nicholas Society and CITIZENS for Sanctuary. The St Nicholas Society exists to increase interest, learning, and appreciation of the tradition of St Nicholas, whose festival falls on December 6th. St Nicholas has previously brought joy to children across the world, including in the USA and Palestine. CITIZENS for Sanctuary is a campaign by CITIZENS UK to implement the recommendations of the Independent Asylum Commission – one of which was to end the detention of children.

CITIZENS for Sanctuary has formed a coalition of 13 national faith organisations representing 7 million people to promote a Sanctuary Pledge at the 2010 General Election. Prospective Parliamentary Candidates across the country will be asked to back the Sanctuary Pledge, which includes a commitment to end the detention of children and families for immigration purposes.

St Nicholas said:
“St Nick has never been turned away from anywhere before. So I was extremely disappointed not be able to hand deliver the gifts to the children detained at Yarl’s Wood today. I hope the kids realize that they will be firmly in my prayers on St Nicholas Day when I preach at the Royal Naval College chapel in Greenwich.”

Canon Professor Nicholas Sagovsky said:
“This was about bringing a moment of joy to kids locked up in a deplorable situation. I can’t help but contrast the smiles and wonderment on the faces of the children that St Nicholas visited at a local primary school this afternoon, with the sad fate of those kids who will be locked up in Yarl’s Wood over Christmas. People of goodwill must make sure that their prospective MPs sign the Sanctuary Pledge at the next election so that next St Nicholas’s Day there will no longer be innocent children detained here at Yarl’s Wood.”

Tuesday, 1 December 2009


An alliance of faith, refugee and citizen groups is celebrating today after an outdoor coffee morning near Charles Cross Police Station in Plymouth resulted in a commitment by the UK Border Agency’s Chief of Operations in the South West, Mr Phillip Smith, to come to Plymouth and discuss the human impact of the increased use of weekly reporting for people seeking sanctuary at Charles Cross.

A group of over 100 people from Plymouth CITIZENS for Sanctuary gathered outside the police station and served coffee and mince pies before launching the ‘Friends of Charles Cross Reporting Centre’ – a group committed to the well-being of the staff and users. The ‘Friends’ welcomed staff and service users alike, and sang carols, including a humorous adaptation of ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’. In a rousing chorus they sang:

‘Give a welcome each day, oh UKBA,
And a smile for all the people,
Who seek sanctuary.”
Ali, who fled persecution in Sudan and now has to report at Charles Cross every week, shared his testimony and explained how the combination of the reporting requirements and cashlessness made Plymouth feel like a prison to him.

Mr Adam Duffin, the local UK Border Agency Inspector, drew the raffle.

The meeting with Phillip Smith has been fixed for 7th December. Leaders from Plymouth CITIZENS for Sanctuary are preparing a dossier of evidence detailing the stories of those who have to report regularly, and how this has interfered with their jobs and ability to learn English.

Rev’d Tim Smith, Vicar of St Jude’s Church and a leader from Plymouth CITIZENS for Sanctuary, said:
“Our coffee morning has been a great success. We are pleased that Phillip Smith from the UK Border Agency has now agreed to meet with us, here in Plymouth. We want to make sure that people’s reporting requirements at Charles Cross are reasonable. Our research shows that reporting to the police station once a week is causing problems for people who seek sanctuary in Plymouth. We look forward to working with Mr Smith to find a just solution.”
Listen to the interview on BBC Radio Devon here.