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.