Asylum seekers: Synod backs rethink on immigration

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We need to rethink our policy on asylum seekers. That was the message from the General Synod yesterday. Clare Garner says they may have their prayers answered when the Government unveils the results of its policy review in January.

The issue of asylum seekers is surrounded by ignorance and fear, and the agenda dictated by racism and xenophobia, the General Synod heard yesterday.

Introducing his private member's motion at Church House, Westminster, the Rev David Houlding, from the London diocese, condemned the "fundamental injustices" in the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act which removed all benefits from asylum seekers unless they had declared themselves at port of entry into Britain.

Mr Houlding said that, while there would always be those who take advantage of the system or even abuse it, talk of "bogus" asylum seekers was unacceptable. Nor should the recent arrival of refugees in Kent distract from the fundamental issue.

He also urged the Government to deal with the backlog of the 55,000 asylum seekers in Britain who are awaiting a decision. However, the motion, which was worded under the Tory government, was amended to drop the call for a total amnesty for all these people.

The Bishop of Worcester, the Right Rev Peter Selby, said the issue was a test "not just of our compassion but a fundamental component of our mission to the country". He warned against the "fear of the stranger" and said Christians must convey the message that "those who entertain strangers may be entertaining angels unawares."

Last week Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, gave a speech to the Refugee Council promising that Labour was bringing a "new spirit of openness" to the asylum issue. He promised that in January Labour would be announcing "policies and practices which are well-informed, properly considered, and founded in reason and principle".

But Mr Houlding remains unconvinced, saying: "there has been no clear indication that they will repeal the Act or that they will restore the right to benefit for asylum seekers."

The final motion, which was backed unanimously, expressed the Church's continuing concern about the effects of British asylum, immigration and nationality law. It welcomed the Government's commitment to a "fairer, firmer system" and called for a law which is "humane and non-discriminatory, and which enjoys the confidence of all our communities."