19 June 2023, The Tablet

What is Sanctuary Sunday? In the face of expanding detention and hostility, it is much needed

by Eileen Cole

What is Sanctuary Sunday? In the face of expanding detention and hostility, it is much needed

Offering sanctuary is a concept in stark contrast to Government proposals in the Illegal Migration Bill.
File pic by Mark Kerrison/Alamy Live News

An ecumenical endeavour brought about by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, The Refugee Council and City of Sanctuary, Sanctuary Sunday is the Sunday at the end of Refugee Week, which falls 19-25 June this year.

Sanctuary Sunday is an opportunity for churches and congregations to focus their Sunday worship on the issue of sanctuary, and to reflect on how we can all contribute to creating a culture of welcome and hospitality for asylum seekers and refugees in our communities. It is an opportunity to reflect, pray, and commit ourselves to celebrate and continue to build hospitality and sanctuary for all, especially those whose lives are most vulnerable, and most in danger.

Offering sanctuary is a concept in stark contrast to Government proposals in the Illegal Migration Bill, currently being debated in Parliament, which will make it near impossible to claim asylum in the UK.

The proposals involve a huge extension of the detention estate – envisaged alongside huge expansion of quasi-detention – of asylum seekers, which clearly militates against the concept of sanctuary. There are serious problems with immigration detention: it’s harmful, expensive and often ineffective. Incarceration in detention centres does not help people progress their asylum claims – most people are ultimately released back into the community with little progress on their cases being made. This, coupled with the effects on mental and physical health and its cost, show clearly that detention is not a way to work towards resolving asylum seekers’ cases with dignity.

The government must abandon plans to bar access to the asylum system – and it must process asylum claims in the community.

Immigration detention serves no good purpose. Asylum claims can and should be better processed in the community. Indeed, there can be community-based alternatives to detention which potentially take deprivation of liberty out of the immigration system.

One example, developed by the International Detention Coalition is the Community Assessment and Placement model, a framework that brings together many of the alternatives to detention mechanisms which their research identified. It is described as “a tool for governments, civil society and other stakeholders to build systems that ensure detention is only used as a last resort and that community options result in optimal outcomes”.

The benefits are for individuals, governments and societies, such as trust and engagement as case managers build consistent trust relationships with individuals, encouraging engagement with immigration processes. It leads to improved coping and well-being as they facilitate access to services and support mechanisms. Personal stability is increased, enabling people to make difficult, life changing decisions. Case managers ensure people have access to all relevant information, and act as a link between the individual and the authorities, supporting timely and informed decision-making. All leading to timely and fair case resolution, as all migration options are explored, and individuals are better equipped to work towards resolving their cases.

Clearly, crude incarceration of vulnerable human beings is not only cruel – it is also not the cleverest way forward. There are other options, which might not be political vote-winners but which could provide better outcomes for all.

The Bill, and lots of Government and media rhetoric, seem to suggest that offering hospitality is much harder than creating hostility. In fact, analysis from the Refugee Council estimates that in the first three years the Bill is in force, between £8.7bn and £9.6bn will have been spent on detaining and accommodating people denied access to asylum.

Furthermore, the alternative pilots, where detention is used only as a last resort, show that community-based resolution has the best outcomes.

Churches and faith groups across the country are increasingly part of the movement to offer creative and heart-felt welcome and hospitality to refugees. Some of these churches may be formally signed up to the Church of Sanctuary initiative. Others may be involved in outreach and service, fundraising or prayer activities with and for refugees and asylum seekers.

A theology of sanctuary is not new to our faith – churches have had a long history of offering refuge – and we may not always remember how important this is. The command to “love the stranger as yourself” is repeated at least 36 times in the Bible – the children of Israel clearly needed reminding of this, just as we do now.

Offering a welcome need not be daunting – the Church of Sanctuary website has a number of resources to support individuals, churches, and community groups, offering reflections, prayers, and ideas for action. Scottish Faith Action for Refugees has also produced a beautiful resource to aid worship, ‘the God who sees me’, as well as a video series, “Journeys of Faith and Welcome”, which tells the stories of people seeking safety and faith communities. Together with Refugees have produced a “Hospitality Not Hostility” toolkit for faith groups to assist community groups who want to host a meal or tea for refugees. We encourage you to take a look at these resources, and that this Sanctuary Sunday is the start of a journey of offering hospitality in your community.

An old Celtic saying reminds us that it is “in the shelter of each other that people live”. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything else. If we can become curious about each other, take the risk to welcome the stranger, the world will be a better, happier place.

Praying with refugees | JRS UK 




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