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.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Friends of Northumbria House?

By Carina Crawford-Rolt

"What needs to change?” was the question on our lips as Tyne & Wear CITIZENS for Sanctuary carried out their first action outside Northumbria House, the UKBA reporting centre for the North East.

An alliance of faith, citizen and refugee groups gathered together today to collect evidence from those who are forced to report to Immigration Authorities, whilst offering a friendly face and free cup of tea. Northumbria House situated in North Shields, is currently the only reporting centre for Tyne and Wear which forces some people seeking sanctuary, to travel an average of 11 miles round trip.

Because of where it is situated some reportees had an extra half an hour added to their journey, because they had not been told that they could get from South Shields to North Shields using the ferry service across the Tyne.

The team of leaders identified the issue of reporting following a meeting in late September where several people seeking sanctuary shared their testimonies and experiences of reporting at Northumbria House. Today the team spoke to 50 reportees and listened to their experiences.

One mentioned that: “It is impossible to change your allocated time. You are given a four minute slot in which you have to report in. This makes it difficult to carry on with a normal life. I am attempting to attend a local college, but my timetable is interrupted with my weekly appointment at the reporting centre. Today I am sick, and I had an appointment at the hospital. When I rang the UKBA to see if I could change the time of my reporting, I was told very rudely that I could not, and if I did not attend they would put me in prison.”

Another reportee was too scared to stop and talk to us, not because we were intimidating, but because he believed that the staff were watching him and would target him next week. Overall, the team were overwhelmed by the willingness of those seeking sanctuary to engage in the action. Many people stopped and talked for about 10 minutes and some were keen to get involved in the future, perhaps even becoming part of the negotiation team for the North East.

During the action it was clear what was needed, and just as though it had been pre-organised, the minister from the church across the road informed us that she had been thinking about doing something about the people who passed her church to report each day.

Could a “Friends of Northumbria House” service be on the cards?

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Nottingham Public Support Call for ‘Local Reporting for Local People’

Over 150 Nottingham residents turned out to ‘report’ to a mock immigration reporting centre set up in the Market Square on Saturday to call on the regional head of the UK Border Agency, Gail Adams, to meet to discuss reporting arrangements for local people seeking sanctuary.

The action was organised by Nottingham CITIZENS for Sanctuary, an alliance of faith, refugee and citizen groups, and asked Gail Adams to establish a reporting centre in the city so that the disabled, destitute and women with children would not have to make the regular 32-mile round trip to Loughborough to report to the UK Border Agency.

The call was backed by community leaders who reported to the mock reporting centre including the Dean of Nottingham Cathedral, Father Michael Brown, and by Nottingham South MP Alan Simpson.

Nottingham CITIZENS for Sanctuary sent letters to over 60 citizens from the Nottingham area, ‘ordering’ them to report at set times at the mock reporting centre in the Market Square. In the event, double that number responded to the call, with over 150 people overwhelming the mock reporting centre in a two hour period.

When local people arrived to report they were treated exactly as people who have come to the UK seeking sanctuary from persecution are treated by the UK Border Agency: they were asked to present their documents, wait in a queue in the freezing cold, undergo a security search and then sign at the desk. In reality, an estimated 2,000 people who live in Nottingham, having fled persecution abroad, are regularly forced to make the 32-mile round trip to Loughborough every time the UK Border Agency requires them to report.

The organisers of the action are collecting evidence on the difficulties faced by vulnerable people who have to make the journey. Most people in this situation are prevented from working and many of them receive no support from the government – and yet they are still expected to report to get to Loughborough without their travel costs being reimbursed. The research shows that some local people seeking sanctuary are begging and others are spending half of their total monthly food budget on transport, in order to comply with the law. The members of the alliance are also angry that local Nottingham residents are having to provide lifts or cash to vulnerable people because the UK Border Agency is not providing travel reimbursements.

During the mock reporting session, leaders of Nottingham CITIZENS for Sanctuary called for people seeking sanctuary to be able to report in Nottingham instead of travelling to Loughborough. The Regional Director of the UK Border Agency, Ms Gail Adams, has responded to their request for a meeting to rectify the situation, but no firm date has yet been offered.

Karen Rooms, Vicar of St Ann with Emmanuel Church, St Ann's, and a leader from Nottingham CITIZENS for Sanctuary, said:
“It is ridiculous that in a civilised country like ours we ask people who have just escaped from persecution and are now often living in destitution to make a 32-mile round trip to another county at their own expense when it would be much easier for them to report here in Nottingham. We want those who live in Nottingham to be able to report in Nottingham and we look forward to working with Gail Adams, the UK Border Agency’s Regional Director, to find a solution.”

Nottingham South MP, Alan Simpson, said:
“Today is one of those rare occasions when I have to be in London rather than Nottingham at the weekend - I realise were I to be faced with the sort of reporting restrictions imposed on those seeking sanctuary in the UK, no degree of urgency would suffice to allow you to skip or move your reporting appointment. Only criminals out on licence face similar restrictions. But people seeking sanctuary are victims not criminals. This is not simply about justice; it is a measure of our common humanity.”

Preacher Prince Muguza, who fled Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe and has to report to Loughborough weekly said:
“When I fled the Mugabe dictatorship I thought I would find sanctuary in the UK. I have been living in Nottingham for 3 years and have contributed a lot to the community. I am happy to report to the UK Border Agency, but why can’t I do that in Nottingham rather than spend hours travelling to Loughborough?”

Konnie Lloyd, who co-ordinates Nottingham CITIZENS for Sanctuary, said:
“Imagine having to travel all the way to Loughborough when you have no car and no cash. The UK Border Agency is turning a blind eye to the consequences for very vulnerable people – like the women and children who I sometimes have to give a lift so they can report in Loughborough. Gail Adams, the local head of the Border Agency, is the woman who can sort this mess out. Gail has shown a willingness to meet with us to discuss this, but we need more than willingness. This is a serious issue that has serious consequences, as our forthcoming report will show, so we need a firm date for Gail to meet us in Nottingham before Christmas.”

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Power developed, relationships secured, and public support for sanctuary beginning to be rebuilt in the West Midlands

By Jonny Scott

Before boarding the train back to London from Birmingham I was asked by a lady with a clipboard if I could spare a moment to let her know how my day in Birmingham had been. She was from the tourism board. I don’t think she was expecting me to launch into a moment-by-moment evaluation of today’s very successful action!

I am pleased to report that our CITIZENS for Sanctuary team in the West Midlands has secured negotiations with both the Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF), and Ofsted, to ensure that no child in their region leaves education without a strong understanding of the UK’s long and proud tradition of providing sanctuary to people fleeing persecution.

This is one of the key recommendations in the Independent Asylum Commission’s Saving Sanctuary report. We know that this is vital to rebuilding public support for sanctuary - and the DCSF and Ofsted see it as the logical next step for their community cohesion agenda.

The whole issue of education was central to our CITIZENS for Sanctuary Action Team from the start, and all credit must go to Clare Daley of the migration partnership for masterminding the action along with the Children’s Society. Our strategy team met several times over the last months to consider how to get our targets there, how to build our power – and how to rebuild public support for sanctuary whilst executing our action.

Elly Tobin of the College for International Citizenship hosted the session, which was focusing on Community Cohesion in Education, and brilliantly chaired the panel session, where our leaders made their ask. It is a testament to the planning that went in that everything went so smoothly, and now we must plan the negotiations so as to ensure we achieve our aims.

Power developed, relationships secured, and public support for sanctuary beginning to be rebuilt in the West Midlands.

We were really grateful to all the schools and colleges that were there (children and teachers) to help put the pressure on, and see the result of all their hard work. And to all those who took away copies of ‘10 Ways for CITIZENS to Save Sanctuary’, I hope you enjoy the read – but don’t forget I’ll be chasing you up to know which actions you tried, and how they went!

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

CITIZENS Lay the Ground to Save Sanctuary in Northern Ireland

Today a team of leaders from local faith, refugee and citizen organisations travelled to Stormont to present a number of recommendations for restoring public support for sanctuary to senior civil servants at the Northern Ireland Assembly. The meeting paves the way for a future negotiation with Junior Ministers at the Assembly to discuss implementation of the Independent Asylum Commission’s recommendations.

The team consisted of representatives of the Law Centre (Northern Ireland), Refugee Action Group, Embrace (an interchurch initiative to support migrant communities), staff from CITIZENS for Sanctuary and two people who have first-hand experience of the asylum system in Northern Ireland. They were received at Stormont, the historic home of the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, by officials who advise the Ministers with responsibility for community cohesion.

The team had a clear agenda – to raise a series of recommendations from the Independent Asylum Commission that could be discussed at a meeting with Ministers expected in the New Year. Justin, who fled persecution in Ivory Coast, shared his testimony about his experience of living in Belfast and the isolation he has felt in a city with few minority ethnic communities and the highest levels of hate crime in the UK. This was followed by a presentation on the Independent Asylum Commission’s Public Attitudes Research Project, before Boobakar, who escaped to Belfast from Guinea Conakry, explained to the spellbound civil servants about how his experiences in the past year had made him feel unwelcome.

Margaret McNulty, Information Officer at Embrace, then offered her perspective as a local resident and churchgoer who had spent many years working with migrant communities in Northern Ireland. Liz Griffith of the Law Centre (Northern Ireland) then pointed out the importance of access to ESOL classes and higher education for people seeking sanctuary.

The team’s presentation ended with a series of eight proposed recommendations to set before the Minister, ranging from using the language of ‘sanctuary’ rather than ‘asylum’ when communicating with the public, to setting up Sanctuary Welcome Teams to ensure that people like Justin and Boobakar are welcomed into the community.

The meeting ended with a commitment from the civil servants to prepare for a meeting with Junior Minister Gerry Kelly scheduled for the New Year and to explore each of the recommendations in advance of that meeting.

After the meeting Justin said:
“I was happy that I had the opportunity to tell my story and negotiate directly with important people today. It was the first time I had been to Stormont and the first time I had met with people who have the power to change how people seeking sanctuary are treated in Northern Ireland.”

Margaret McNulty said:
“I felt that the meeting today could not have gone better – but the challenge is that we need to convince the Ministers as well as the civil servants.”

Carina Crawford-Rolt, Projects Organiser with CITIZENS for Sanctuary, said:
“This was the first action for our team in Northern Ireland – and the power of our leaders’ testimonies really got a reaction from the civil servants! We are looking forward to our negotiation with the Minister – and I am excited because this could bring about real change.”

Thursday, 15 October 2009

CITIZENS convince UK Border Agency to turn 'cattleshed' into an £800,000 Welcome Centre

In front of a packed Assembly of 300 people in Lambeth Town Hall yesterday, the UK Border Agency's Regional Director, Tony Smith, thanked South London CITIZENS for making possible an £800,000 redevelopment of the 'cattleshed' at the Agency's Croydon HQ, into a Welcome Centre.

Mr Smith made the decision to proceed with the plans following pressure applied by South London Citizens at their Assembly in 2008. Since that time Mr Smith and his team have worked with a team of leaders from South London Citizens as part of the CITIZENS for Sanctuary campaign. The new Welcome Centre will transform the experience of the thousands of people seeking sanctuary who use Lunar House every year. Instead of queueing outdoors the plans provide for a climate-controlled, fully-enclosed reception area, with seats for those unable to stand, and an 'customer experience' more akin to a government building than a cattleshed. Over 80 builders are working on the project to ensure that it is complete by Christmas, when South London Citizens will celebrate the opening by singing carols.

South London CITIZENS' enquiry into Lunar House had previously led to major changes at Lunar House - the main Border Agency building where people fleeing persecution can claim sanctuary. Over the years these changes have included access to fresh drinking water in the Asylum Screening Unit, the provision of baby-changing facilities, and the removal of the 'pig pen' queueing arrangements. Volunteers from South London Citizens have served over 900 cups of tea and coffee to often traumatised and vulnerable people in the Asylum Screening Unit in the past six months.

Barbara Nalumu, a leader from South London Citizens and a key figure in the CITIZENS for Sanctuary campaign, said:

"The cattleshed was where I had to wait, in the cold and the rain, when I came to the UK from Uganda 20 years ago. I remember thinking: “this is not much of a welcome to Britain.” When I visited it again earlier this year it hadn’t changed much. On Monday a delegation of South London Citizens visited Lunar House - and we were delighted to see that work on the new Welcome Centre was already under way."

Tony Smith, Regional Director of the UK Border Agency for London and the South East, said:

"I am really grateful to South London Citizens and the Friends of Lunar House for giving me the momentum to be able to proceed with the refurbishment. Without your support this would not have happened. I look forward to working with you in South London, and negotiating with you on the recommendations of the Independent Asylum Commission."

Cathy Giraud, a leader from South London Citizens and one of the Friends of Lunar House, said:

"The changes at Lunar House look amazing and are a testament to the importance of the relationship between the Border Agency and South London Citizens."

Monday, 5 October 2009

BBC Radio 4 reports Sanctuary Pledge success at Party Conferences

Our work at the Party Conferences to promote the Sanctuary Pledge has been picked up by a number of journalists.

There is a comprehensive story by the religious news agency Ekklesia. Also on the Community Newswire.

But the pick of the bunch is a great six minute piece on BBC Radio 4's main religious programme, Sunday. Scroll through to 9 minutes and 54 seconds in and you'll find it. It should be available until next Sunday - when we have a slot between 08:00 and 09:00 on Premier Christian Radio.

In case you are reading this and the report has been taken off BBC iPlayer, after a three week tour of the party conferences in Bournemouth, Brighton and Manchester, meetings with senior politicians and advisers in the three main parties, and the engagement of over 80 faith, citizen and refugee leaders, we have tasted success.

Leaders of London Citizens, the Citizen Organising Foundation, the major church denominations and senior representatives of all three main parties (Sarah Teather MP and Steve Webb MP- Lib Dem, Jon Cruddas MP - Labour, and Elizabeth Berridge - Conservative Christian Fellowship) signed a covenant to work together to save sanctuary at the 2010 General Election. This is a major achievement and represents a significant step forward in CITIZENS for Sanctuary's efforts to stake out a 'centreground for sanctuary'.

Each of the political parties have agreed to meet us again soon to discuss the exact wording of the Sanctuary Pledge.

In the meantime, we are preparing to train citizens across the UK who would like to meet with their Prospective Parliamentary Candidates in the run-up to next year's election and ask them to sign the Sanctuary Pledge. If you are interested and would like further information then please send us your name and phone number to sanctuary@cof.org.uk.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Lib Dems Pledge to Work with CITIZENS to Save Sanctuary at the 2010 Election

By Sam Barritt

The Liberal Democrats this week joined the Sanctuary Pledge campaign to secure justice for people fleeing persecution, in partnership with organisers CITIZENS for Sanctuary, faith leaders, community institutions and refugee groups.

Senior Liberal Democrats Sir Alan Beith MP, Sarah Teather MP (Shadow Housing Minister), and Professor Steve Webb MP (Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions), as well as policy makers and advisers from the party attended the meeting, which was supported by the Anglican, Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches, the Salvation Army and the Vincentian Millennium Partnership.

They heard detailed briefings on the findings of polling and focus group research into public attitudes towards sanctuary, as well as moving personal testimony by Mr Jeff Sango of the CITIZENS for Sanctuary Zimbabwe Action Team and the Zimbabwean political party, Movement for Democratic Change, himself seeking sanctuary in the UK.

A diverse alliance of faith leaders, representing approximately 8 million potential voters, impressed upon the politicians the strength of the support for the Sanctuary campaign. The leaders included the Right Reverend Paul Butler, Bishop of Southampton; the Reverend David Gamble, President of the Methodist Conference; the Reverend Graham Sparkes, Head of Faith and Unity for the Baptist Union of Great Britain; the Reverend Dr Rosemary Kidd, Chair of the Churches Refugee Network and Faith and Unity Coordinator, Baptist Union of Great Britain; the Reverend Dr. Andrew Davey, Community and Urban Affairs, Church of England.

Jonathan Cox, Lead Organiser of CITIZENS for Sanctuary, explained that as well as securing broad political support for implementing the findings of the Independent Asylum Commission, the national policy objective of the Sanctuary Pledge is to end the detention of children and families. This was a key recommendation of the IAC and is backed by the leading human rights and children's charities working in the field. Currently it is estimated that some 2,000 children are detained each year for immigration purposes. They have committed no crime - they are simply the children of people who have sought sanctuary and who can be detained indefinitely by the UK Border Agency, without judicial oversight, for administrative purposes.

In an unusual move for a party conference meeting, the participants split into group discussions to consider issues relating to securing justice for people seeking sanctuary, and methods of rebuilding public support for sanctuary. There was widespread agreement that these face to face meetings provided an original and successful way to engage with personal stories, and understand the human face of sanctuary.

Sarah Teather MP, responding to the requests by Mr Sango for the Liberal Democrats to work with the Sanctuary campaign at the next election, to arrange for a Sanctuary delegation to meet with her Liberal Democrat Home Affairs colleagues, and to tell the meeting her personal response to the pledge, was enthusiastically positive.

The MPs and faith leaders present took the opportunity to sign the an agreement to work together to save sanctuary in the forthcoming general election campaign. The coalition behind the Sanctuary campaign will now take the Pledge to the Labour and Conservative party conferences, before aiming to shape the general election by promoting the Saving Sanctuary Pledge to Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) and relevant Ministers and Shadow Ministers.

The Liberal Democrats have helped provided an encouraging start to the Sanctuary Pledge campaign.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Victory for Tees Valley CITIZENS for Sanctuary as UK Border Agency pledges ‘local reporting centres for local people'

An alliance of faith, refugee and citizen groups has today won an important victory in their campaign to stop vulnerable people seeking sanctuary in the Tees Valley being forced to walk from Middlesbrough to Stockton to comply with UK Border Agency reporting requirements.

Tees Valley CITIZENS for Sanctuary met with Jeremy Oppenheim, North East Regional Director for the UK Border Agency, at the Trinity Centre in North Ormesby, Middlesbrough.

Mr Oppenheim had agreed to come to the local area to discuss the issue following a symbolic ‘walk of justice’ by 50 local citizens from North Ormesby to Stockton on 9th July which was organised by Tees Valley CITIZENS for Sanctuary.
At the meeting a team of 16 trained citizen negotiators presented Mr Oppenheim with a copy of a report, ‘The Long Walk to Stockton’, which revealed the human impact of the UK Border Agency’s reporting requirements, and called for ‘local reporting centres for local people’. ‘The Long Walk to Stockton' report found that 77% of people who report at Stockton Police Station actually live in Middlesbrough and called on Mr Oppenheim to put an end to people having to walk up to 12 miles in order to comply with UK Border Agency reporting restrictions.

During the meeting Mr Oppenheim was brought face-to-face with a number of people seeking sanctuary who make the regular walk from Middlesbrough to Stockton and whose stories feature in ‘The Long Walk to Stockton’. Through these testimonies he heard of the impact of the regular walk to Stockton on people’s health, welfare and finances.
After the presentation of the report and the testimonies, Tees Valley CITIZENS for Sanctuary then put a series of requests to Mr Oppenheim. They first asked him to agree that no one should be required to travel more than 3 miles to report without being provided with travel expenses. In a major development, Mr Oppenheim responded by agreeing to bring the Tees Valley into line with the rest of the UK, so that travel tickets will be provided to people receiving asylum support who have to travel more than 3 miles each way. This system will be up and running by 14th September.
In response to concerns about the human consequences raised in the ‘The Long Walk to Stockton’, Mr Oppenheim agreed to minimise the impact of the UK Border Agency’s reporting requirements on people’s health, welfare and family life.
When asked to provide ‘local reporting centres for local people’, so that people can report at North Ormesby and Middlesbrough police stations as well as at Stockton, Mr Oppenheim agreed that in the future people should report to the UK Border Agency as locally as possible. He pledged to end the practice of people having to walk from Middlesbrough to Stockton. In order to achieve this he promised to secure alternative venues for people to report in Middlesbrough, in addition to Stockton Police Station, and hoped to have these in place by 14th September 2009.
Mr Oppenheim also agreed that he and his staff would continue to work with Tees Valley CITIZENS for Sanctuary to resolve this and other issues, with a first meeting to review progress scheduled for mid-October, a month after the new reporting arrangements are due to begin.
Barbara Hungin, a Leader from Tees Valley CITIZENS for Sanctuary, said:
"We are delighted that Mr Oppenheim came to Middlesbrough today. He read our report, listened to the stories of people who regularly walk to Stockton to report, and responded positively to the issues we raised. We are doubly delighted that he has promised to introduce ‘local reporting centres for local people.’

"This is a victory for common sense and decency - and for the power of ordinary citizens to work together for change. We look forward to the commencement of the new reporting arrangements in September. Tees Valley CITIZENS for Sanctuary is already preparing to monitor the impact so that we can be sure that no-one has to undergo the ‘long walk to Stockton’ in the future.”

UK Border Agency Regional Director Jeremy Oppenheim said:
"We are making every effort to ensure that asylum seekers can report to the nearest UK Border Agency building or alternative office.

"Reporting is an essential part of our immigration system and offers an alternative to detention. Foreign nationals who are genuinely in need of our protection deserve a quick decision so that they can learn English, get a job and look forward to a safe, positive future. Equally, those who don't need sanctuary in the UK are expected to leave the country as soon as possible.

"We are looking into alternative reporting centres in the Middlesbrough area and, from 14 September, will offer to buy bus tickets for people entitled to our support.”

Friday, 17 July 2009

Cardiff gets the ball rolling...

The Wales Regional Campaign Action Team, who are already successfully exchanging over £1000 per week of Sectoin Four supermarket vouchers, have decided to take on the challenge of setting up an Internship Scheme for local people seeking sanctuary.

Deskilling, depression and boredom has become a major problem amongst people seeking sanctuary in Cardiff. Many people have shared stories about missing their life in the work place, and have been left feeling that their talents and skills are being wasted. They broke this large problem down into the tangible issue of people being deskilled because they are unable to work.

The RCAT gathered to discuss this issue and agreed that building on the Zimbabwean pilot internship scheme in London would be one innovative citizen subversion to the problem of people not being able to work. The group are going to set up a head quarters, linked to Oxfam Wales, to run an internship for local people seeking sanctuary to get skills and experience in local businesses, charities and service providers. The interns need to be provided with a lunch and travel expenses but otherwise they will volunteer their time and expertise. However, despite being voluntary, the internships will try to provide meaningful tasks and hopefully references in the long term for people seeking sanctuary.

It's an exciting new project that can also help with the local integration and it will be interesting to see how the team and the interns develop over the coming months.

Poems from the Cardiff RCAT

I still remember
That very moment in my life
When I decided the unknown
Over the little known
Booking a place in a plane
Leaving behind the family
And close ones at home; and
Deciding to be part of the unknown
With optimistic view of the day
Having some hope
Which are yet to be dashed.
Leaving the home airport was frustrating
As it involved a lot of risk
I remember those prayers
Which I had done time and again
A prayer to escape home
A payer to keep the hungry lions silent
The journey was full of thoughts
Thoughts from childhood to present age
Thoughts that took me back and forth in time
Thought where hope and despair
Had to face one-another.
The arrival wasn’t bad
Though I didn’t know
Where I would finally end up
As destination was unknown
Life has now changed forever
For worse or better.
The airport was as huge as usual
Embracing people of all colour
Some looked familiar
While others confused
The way to the city wasn’t easy
Using the underground trains
To a place not booked before
It is all keeping going
Going, going, going. going.
Following instincts and thoughts
How tough is it to prefer the unknown
Over the little known
To keep life on hold
On hold for unknown time and future
On hold for reasons little known.

Bekele Debela

"Friends of Lunar House" expands to second day!

Following the successful running of our "Friends of Lunar House" service which offers a friendly face to those seeking sanctuary when they report to Lunar House, a group of local volunteers and members of South London Citizens, will be expanding the service to two days a week. "Friends" has been running for two and a half years just one day a week, but has proved to be a success in improving not only the individuals visit, but Home Office staff also claim it has improved relationships between civil servants, citizens and people seeking sanctuary.

Expanding the service also demonstrates the relationship that has been created with the UKBA and their willingness to engage with our work. Plans are on the way to establish "Friends" services at other UKBA buildings. For more information on how to get involved in the project or in any of the other projects CITIZENS for Sanctuary is running, then please contact Projects Organiser Carina Crawford-Rolt at carina.crawford-rolt@cof.org.uk

Monday, 13 July 2009

"Shows Promise - Must Try Harder in 2010" - Annual Audit and Report Card of the implementation of the Independent Asylum Commission's recommendations

It is a year since the Independent Asylum Commission, the most comprehensive review of policy, practice and public attitudes relating to people seeking sanctuary in the UK ever undertaken, published its recommendations to secure justice for people fleeing persecution and to rebuild public support for sanctuary.

Today, CITIZENS for Sanctuary has published the first Annual Audit and Report Card of the implementation of the Independent Asylum Commission’s recommendations by the UK Border Agency. As well as showing exactly which recommendations have been implemented, the report also includes an audit of the human outcomes – providing an update on the stories of people who gave evidence to the Commission. The Audit highlights unresolved issues of particular concern and sets out key priorities and targets for 2010. You may have heard the report discussed on BBC Radio last night.

You can download the Annual Audit and Report Card here. The full appendices will be available on our website soon.

The Annual Audit also marks the start of an important year of negotiation, with the UK Border Agency recently signing a Protocol with CITIZENS for Sanctuary to negotiate on all of the Independent Asylum Commission’s relevant recommendations, and meetings arranged with Ministers in Wales and Northern Ireland to discuss implementation of the recommendations there.

Victory for Walk of Justice as UKBA Regional Director agrees to meet Tees Valley CITIZENS for Sanctuary

An alliance of faith, refugee and citizen groups is celebrating tonight after a ‘walk of justice’ from North Ormesby to Stockton resulted in a commitment by the UK Border Agency’s Director in the North East, Mr Jeremy Oppenheim, to come to the Tees Valley and discuss the issue of people seeking sanctuary having to walk from Middlesbrough to Stockton police station to report.

In an unexpected personal phonecall to the marchers, Mr Oppenheim promised to come to the local area and meet with leaders from Tees Valley Citizens for Sanctuary who were concerned that vulnerable people seeking sanctuary in the local area were being asked to make a round trip of up to 12 miles in order to comply with UK Border Agency reporting restrictions.

A group of 50 citizens made the symbolic walk from North Ormesby to Stockton. The walk took a dramatic twist when Mr Oppenheim made the call, responding to press coverage and public support for the cause. As the local citizens chanted “Local reporting centres for local people” Mr Oppenheim offered to shift existing diary commitments to deal with the issue and offered a firm date. His offer to come to the Tees Valley for the meeting was greeted by a chorus of cheers from the marchers, who had by this time reached Stockon police station.

The meeting has been fixed for 28th July at 14:00. Leaders from Tees Valley Citizens for Sanctuary are preparing a dossier of evidence detailing the stories of those who live in Middlesbrough and have to walk to Stockton police station on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis.

Barbara Hungin, a leader from Tees Valley Citizens for Sanctuary, said:
“We are pleased that Jeremy Oppenheim has now agreed to meet with us, here in the Tees Valley. No-one should be asked to walk so far when there are so many other police stations nearby in Middlesbrough. Working with Mr Oppenheim, Tees Valley Citizens for Sanctuary now have an opportunity to consign this injustice to the dustbin of history.”

Jeremy Oppenheim, Regional Director of the UK Border Agency, said:
“I take this issue seriously and I would be delighted to meet with Tees Valley Citizens for Sanctuary. I look forward to finding out more at our meeting on 28th July and hope we can find a way forward.”

Thursday, 25 June 2009

CITIZENS call on Zimbabwe PM to endorse Strategic Internship Scheme

This week Morgan Tsvangirai, Prime Minister of Zimbabwe and President of the Movement for Democratic Change, visited London.

London CITIZENS and CITIZENS for Sanctuary helped arrange a meeting between Mr Tsvangirai and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

A delegation of London Citizens and Zimbabwean leaders turned out to welcome Mr Tsvangirai - and to ask for his support for the Zimbabwean Strategic Internship Scheme which aims to give skills and work experience to Zimbabweans in the UK so that when it is safe to return they are able to help rebuild their country.

A letter requesting the Prime Minister's support was handed over by the Project Lead, Mr Jeff Sango, as he arrived at City Hall.

Jeff and his fellow leaders of the CITIZENS for Sanctuary Zimbabwe Action Team then discussed the scheme with senior officials from the Prime Minister's office.

Later Mr Tsvangirai himself came out to greet the team.

Linda Robson, one of the leaders of the CITIZENS for Sanctuary Zimbabwe Action Team and an intern on the Strategic Internship Scheme said:

"The internship scheme has given me some real opportunities - but I never expected to be given the opportunity to meet the Prime Minister personally and shake his hand! I felt proud to be part of that action, outside City Hall, knowing that he was going to meet the Mayor of London - and that we had been a part of making that happen."

You can find out more about the internship scheme on the CITIZENS for Sanctuary website.

The pictures of Boris meeting Mr Tsvangirai made it into some of the newspapers, including the London Paper.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Action from 10 Ways - Minding our Language

On an individual level, supporters and regular Citizens alike are changing their language to better reflect the situation. Using ‘sanctuary’ instead of ‘asylum’ throws off the negative connotations that have all too long been attributed to refugees and those seeking sanctuary. By challenging the use of the word ‘asylum’ you also challenge the perceptions people hold. One person we spoke to has even put a ‘swear-box’ in the living room of their shared house, and challenged his housemates to mind their language, too!

Rory Thompson, a Management Consultant and English graduate from Surrey, said:
"It is a point of personal pride that the United Kingdom has a long and noble history of according sanctuary to persons at risk of persecution, and as citizens it is imperative that we command the government to continue to do so, and that we change our neighbour's attitudes towards sanctuary every day."

Fiona is a PR Executive for a high profile PR company in London, though she was brought up in Jersey.
“Sanctuary is an essential right of every human being, and it doesn't mean 'making an exception', 'going out of your way' or 'dealing with something unpleasant'. We all seek sanctuary every day - in a quiet moment away from work, in the daily yoga lesson, in the friendly one to one with your GP. Even having a cuppa with a friend.

To use 'asylum' implies being taken away and looked after because we can't look after ourselves. That we're being hidden, segregated and cut off from 'normal' activities because we are in some way a non member of society, but we take refuge from crime, injustice and illness, from persecution, unfair fines and citizens advice, we are seeking sanctuary from those elements of modern life that seek to harm us.”

Gabi Fattal, an aviation solicitor from London, said:
“I pledge my support for the campaign to replace use of the word "asylum" with the term, "sanctuary". I believe this is an important issue as the term "asylum" has come to have certain negative connotations in the media and in the public's view that may obstruct the real purpose of securing a better life for people fleeing persecution. Every human must have a right to justice and we are fortunate in Britain that we can use our democratic rights and duties to help improve the lives of others. I personally pledge to use the term "sanctuary" when discussing these important issues in the future.”

Jonathan, Financial Consultant from London:
"I believe there is a general misconception over the real reasons people seek sanctuary in the UK, which is compounded by negative associations in the media and certain political spheres. We appear to have lost sight of what is at the heart of this and that is people seeking a place of safety from the very real dangers of persecution in their home countries. The UK acts as a vital place of safety and sanctuary for people in unimaginable circumstances and I think that message is being lost, we should be proud of the real difference we can make to those in desperate need."

Laura Wathen, Investment Banker in London:
"I endorse attempts to clarify the English language and appreciate the problems, confusion and unfair assumptions that surround the term 'asylum seeker'. Britain has a proud history of granting sanctuary and I support efforts to safeguard it"

Steve Fleming, PhD Neuroscience student:
"Sometimes you don't appreciate the conations of commonly used phrases such as 'asylum seeker'. Unconsciously or otherwise though the term 'asylum' is associated with a stereotype of mental health problems given its historical usage. I will ensure that I use the term "person seeking sanctuary" and I will support a change in language by encouraging others to do so too."

Sophie Faber, Fast Stream Civil Servant:
“In a country where the BNP can win votes and seats by manipulating common misconceptions of the word 'asylum seeker' we have to do all we can to make sure these views aren't propagated. People who come to the UK to seek sanctuary must be fairly recognised and given the help they need to flee persecution. I am committed to never using the term 'asylum seeker', but instead 'person seeking sanctuary'"

Action from 10 Ways - Adopting a Civil Servant...

People are already getting in on the act and using '10 Ways for Citizens to Save Sanctuary'.

One of the 10 Ways is to show care and concern for the civil servants who make difficult decisions on who should be granted sanctuary and who should not.

In our churches for the two Sundays in Refugee Week we are using a prayer remembering those who seek sanctuary here, but also those working at the UK Border Agency.

Tim Clapton, Development Chaplain at Milton Keynes Mission Partnership, said:
"I am really happy the Churches of Milton Keynes are taking part in the collective prayer for people seeking sanctuary and for those making the life-and-death decisions at the UK Border Agency. It's more important now than ever for us to celebrate the diversity of our communities and our proud tradition of offering sanctuary for people fleeing persecution."

Rev Bruce Stokes from Wood Grange Baptist Church, London said:
“I can't think that anybody wants a naive, open border policy, but I do think that I am in the majority when I ask that British politicians should be world leaders when it comes to establishing a fair process, and that British immigration officers should be absolutely fair-minded in implementing that process. I would want nothing less if I were seeking sanctuary.”

Father John Clark will also be using the prayer at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St Joseph Catholic Church, London. Father John said:
"We should not forget that Jesus Christ was a refugee. I wonder how Mary and Joseph would be treated if they were to seek sanctuary here today? We must remember in our prayers the refugees who need our protection, but also the civil servants who have to make life-or-death decisions on our behalf."

Sr Ruth O'Neill, DC, Cardiff said:
'I hope that Churches, in cities and towns throughout the UK, will pray this prayer in Refugee week. Working closely with people seeking safety, I have heard their sincere and desperate longing for peace. It is vital that we pray too, for those who have that difficult job of working at UKBA and for all of us, as we also share the responsibility to welcome the stranger; protect those in danger and enjoy the differences we discover.'

Here's the prayer:

Almighty God,
we give you thanks for every way
in which we experience Britain
as a place of diversity, safety and opportunity.

We pray for all who have come to this country
in search of a welcome, and for the persecuted
who have come in search of sanctuary.

We pray for those in the UK Border Agency
who have the responsibility, freely to admit
those who have a right to be admitted,
and resolutely to protect our borders
from those who wish us harm.

May they have wisdom, fair-mindedness
and pride, in the difficult and important work
they do on our behalf.

We pray that the tradition of providing sanctuary
to those forced to flee their homes through persecution,
may be preserved; and may each of us as citizens
show hospitality to refugees who are among us now,
and so safeguard the concept of sanctuary for the future.

May the communities we belong to
thrive in diversity and peace,
and may our citizenship in the UK,
reflect the open and inclusive citizenship of heaven.

Through Jesus Christ, Our Lord.


10 Ways for Citizens to Save Sanctuary

Finally! It is published! Went like hotcakes at the Celebrating Sanctuary festival on the South Bank last Sunday.

We shifted three boxloads, and we were only giving them out to people who promised to do one of the actions.

80 people signed up for voucher exchange alone!

Don't know what I am talking about? Check out our new publication here.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Highlights of a week flitting across the UK

CITIZENS for Sanctuary do not go where we are not invited. We do not have a territotial presence outside of London and so our Regional Campaign Action Teams are set up by local people with a keen desire for change.

So last week I travelled around the country to meet, train and be inspired by ordinary citizens who want to make the Independent Asylum Commission's recommendations happen in their community.

On Monday I went to Plymouth. About 15 people gave up half a day to talk about how they might campaign together for the common good in their local area. Isolated from much of the rest fo the country and with no history of migrant communities, there was no shortage of issues to address.

On Tuesday I was in Southampton and Portsmouth, meeting 1-2-1 with local leaders who had attended an introductory meeting in April. The story I heard there was the same story we encounter time and time again across the country - a small core of committed leaders working flat out to cope with the consequences of our asylum system, but fed up with just applying a sticking plaster. They want to organise together for change. The challenge as always is finding the time - so some training on 1-2-1s, the benefits of a relational culture and prioritising could be useful.

On Wednesday I headed up to the City of Sanctuary conference in Sheffield. Great to catch up with some old friends doing some inspiring work, including a university contemporary of mine who is running something similar to our 'Friends of Lunar House' project, except in his local Asylum and Immigration Tribunal in Bradford. I ran a couple of workshops on how citizens across the UK are using Obama tactics to make the Independent Asylum Commission's recommendations a reality. Really great bunch of people came to find out how community organising can make their work more effective. Inderjit Bhogal closed the conference with an anecdote about his taxi driver misunderstanding what asylum is, and then uttered words that were music to my ears: "Let us not use the outdated and misleading term 'asylum', but talk instead of sanctuary." Couldn't have said it better myself!

Then on to Durham, my alma mater. Had dinner with two students finishing their degrees, to talk about how we recruit the brightest and best to become community organisers, and challenged them to get students to support our voucher exchanges.

On Thursday I was in Durham and Newcastle for 1-2-1s with leaders who want to be part of the Regional Campaign Action Team. Again, there was real passion and commitment - mostly from British citizens who have recently encountered people seeking sanctuary who have been poorly treated here.

And Friday, early, I visited Milton Keynes for the first time in my life. Given that I only ever ventured about 500 metres of the train station I will refrain from making the usual snide remarks about the concrete jungle, but will instead say how full of hope the lovely people who attended our training event were. Many of them were refugees or people seeking sanctuary, and by the end of the day, as we taught about power and negotiation, you could almost sense their desire to put it into practice.

So a busy week - but the travelling was worth it. With committed citizens working together effectively and strategically, change will come...

Friday, 22 May 2009

A Brighter Future for 5 Young People in Manchester

CITIZENS for Sanctuary is supporting Regional Campaign Action Teams (RCATs) across the UK to take action to implement the Independent Asylum Commission’s recommendation.

Here, Rebecca Murray of Brighter Futures, part of the Regional Campaign Action Team in Manchester, writes about the negotiation training which helped a group of young people to win a successful negotiation with a Vice Chancellor:

"Brighter Futures is made up of young refugees and people seeking sanctuary speaking out on issues they feel strongly about. One big concern the group have is access to education. Many of them do well in their A levels, only to be told that they have to pay international fees (which can be up to three or four time more expensive than home fees) if they want to go to university.

Brighter Futures had already successfully lobbied two universities to accept a quota of asylum seekers as home fees paying students. We had two more meetings with universities on the horizon and so Citizens for Sanctuary offered to train the group in new approaches to getting VCs to offer more places.

The training focused on roleplaying the meeting with the VC - all the roles were played by group members so that they got to experience how it felt to be the decision maker or a journalist covering the story - looking at the meeting from different perspectives. It also involved giving our young people the training and confidence to take charge of the meeting and not to be intimidated by those in authority. We made much more use of the personal stories of the young people affected.

Initially some of our team were sceptical of the new approach, which took us out of our comfort zone. But through preparation and support both meetings were incredibly successful – with one Vice Chancellor offering five places for our young people at university next year.

Citizens for Sanctuary are continuing to advise us on how to maximise our success and continue onto the next stages of negotiation."

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Enthusiasm for Change in the East Midlands

One of the joys of being involved with CITIZENS for Sanctuary is that I get to go to city after city across the UK helping ordinary people to realise that they can make real change.

I never tire of watching the realisation dawn on someone's face that they can make a difference - if they are prepared to organise with others, plan a strategy, take action, and negotiate with those in positions of power. Sometimes you can literally see years of frustration and despair lift from a person's face - and a steely sense of purpose and a determination to overcome injustice replaces it.

It was no different during my tour of the East Midlands this week. I started off in the Secular Hall in Leicester, where representatives of about twenty local organisations had turned out, along with the Deputy Mayor, to hear about how they could join the growing network of CITIZENS for Sanctuary Regional Campaign Action Teams and organise themselves to secure justice for people seeking sanctuary and rebuild public support for sanctuary.

Later I travelled the short distance to Nottingham for a similar meeting.

In both places my message was simple. Where citizens were prepared to work together to implement the Independent Asylum Commission's recommendations, we could support them with advice, training and support. In return, they would need to:

  • Use the principles of community organising to build a powerful alliance locally;

  • Identify a winnable and worthwhile issue and then explore a solution in line with the Independent Asylum Commission's recommendations;

  • Be prepared to take action in pursuit of negotiation with those in positions of power;

  • Commit time and energy to making change happen!
There seemed to be a positive response - particularly when I shared with them concrete examples of change from the work of London Citizens. The proof will be whether I get invited back to run a meeting at which a core of enthusiastic leaders will commit to forming teams in Leicester and Nottingham to join those developing in Cardiff, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Reading, London, Leeds, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Manchester, Southampton and Plymouth.

Oh, and we even got some local journalists from an excellent media project come and record a short interview in Leicester - you can watch it here.