John Sentamu: Is the Big Society big enough to offer shelter to refugees?

In 1973 I was forced to flee Idi Amin's brutal regime. I found compassion and care in Britain. Today, I want to live in a society that holds out the same hope for fugitives

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The events of the first Easter were told against a social backdrop of violence, injustice, migration, and the desperate search for safety. Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover that week, a festival that recalled their forebears' desperate flight from Egypt as refugees. Generations before, their ancestors had gone to Egypt as economic migrants. In the past weeks, as the turmoil in the Middle East has played out, Egypt has once again found itself a refuge for those seeking sanctuary. Having made historic changes in its own political settlment, it is admitting fugitives from the conflict in neighbouring Libya.

Today, no country should have to act alone, and those states affected by recent political upheaval are assisted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. International arrangements are in place to ensure that victims of violence and torture, and any in need of international protection, are given a chance both of surviving immediate crises and of finding security for the future.

The persistence of violence and injustice anywhere is regrettable but the international agreements to protect refugees are a mark of human progress, and indeed arise from a virtue common to many religions – the virtue of hospitality to the stranger and the alien.

In stretching economic times, it is not surprising that those who foot the bill for humanitarian provision should, along with others, have to find ways of increasing efficiency and cutting costs. But I hope that, as a nation, we are as committed as ever, even now, to those values which have made Britain great, among them a firm conviction that it is our duty to come to the aid of the oppressed, and to offer protection where it is needed.

Immigration and asylum is an area of moral debate where there is often more heat than light. This week, for example, we have seen France closing its border with Italy to prevent desperate new migrants fleeing unrest in North Africa reaching its territory.

But to assess whether there really is a refugee or migration "crisis" we must consider the evidence carefully. And one key area of research must surely be into what happens to "failed" asylum-seekers who are returned to their country of origin. More notice needs to be taken, I believe, of increasingly unpalatable evidence from countries like Congo and Cameroon that some returnees from the UK, including those with young children, are subjected to imprisonment, torture, abuse and starvation. By the time we learn of their appalling fate, it is too late to say, "we got it wrong".

The UNHCR recently released a report which found that during 2010 some 358,800 asylum applications were made in the 44 industrialised countries. The US, France, Germany, Sweden and Canada were the largest asylum recipients in 2010 and accounted for more than half of all asylum applications received by these 44 states.

But applications for asylum in industrialised countries are more than 40 per cent lower than they were 10 years ago and many have raised concerns that this is partly due to tighter immigration controls which are stopping refugees from seeking protection in these countries. The fact is that globally there are no fewer refugees than before: it is just that most refugees continue to be assisted in poor countries.

Tunisia and Egypt, for example, despite the turbulence of recent weeks, have both recently pledged to allow the thousands of Libyans fleeing the escalating conflict to enter their territory. Meanwhile, some hundreds of thousands of Ivorians fleeing the recent violence in Cote d'Ivoire have received assistance in eight West African countries. Let us hope that the conflict there is truly coming to an end now, but for the time being the number of people who have become refugees as a result of these conflicts in West Africa alone is equivalent to the total number of asylum applications that the UK has received in the last five years. In 2010, the UK received its lowest number of asylum applications since 1989.

Given that the number of asylum-seekers and refugees who end up in the European Union is now relatively small, it is particularly important that we respond to individuals who do seek sanctuary in our countries in a principled and compassionate way. This should include providing protection to all those fleeing persecution or escaping situations of conflict and widespread human rights violations, and providing adequate support to those in the asylum system so that they can meet their essential living needs.

When the public-spending cuts bite, it should not be the most vulnerable of all who suffer. It usually falls to local refugee groups, and often to churches, like many I visit in the north of England, to support those who are struggling to live on the meagre levels of support offered to asylum-seekers. How "Big" is our "Big Society" in relation to these people? There will always be those who need our protection and our support – are we big-hearted enough to accept this? It would be tragic if, because of misplaced fears over immigration numbers, we shut our doors to those seeking sanctuary from persecution.

In 1973, I myself was a refugee who had to escape Idi Amin's brutal regime in Uganda. Many of my contemporaries were not so lucky. I was received in Britain with great compassion and care – it was almost a home from home. Yes, one room in a communal house sufficed for me, my wife and daughter. However, I recall the struggles of surviving on the very limited financial support available at the time, and I also recall the generosity of those who went out of their way to make us welcome. I would like to think that those genuinely needing protection today find that Britain is no less committed to help than its partners in the international community.

Easter for Christians is a time of rebirth, resurrection and good news. I would like to see that message transformed into something very practical, human and down-to-earth. I want to belong to a society that treats its vulnerable people with respect, and which holds out the hope of a new life for those who have been battered, bruised and abused. This is a desire I share with many fellow travellers, those with and without belief in God. Let Easter be a time of hope for everyone – but especially the broken, the homeless, the fugitive and the destitute.

The writer is the Archbishop of York

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