Pastoring Asylum Seekers

One of the privileges I had serving in an urban multicultural context was the opportunity to pastor asylum seekers and other immigrants seeking leave to remain.  As well as those with what you might call fairly conventional asylum claims and those who were primarily economic migrants we also saw a number of people who were seeking leave to remain for other humanitarian reasons, those cases could become quite complex.

Those who were here as refugees came for a variety of reasons, some to escape religious persecution, others because of political reasons and then there were those at risk from gangs, drug cartels and the like where the state in their home country could not offer meaningful protection. 

I thought I would share some thoughts here on what is involved in pastoring people in these situations.

Prayer

I would often be asked to pray with someone or for them about their case, often before they were ready to share their story.  I didn’t simply pray. I took the opportunity to talk with them about prayer and the Gospel. Some came as believers, especially if fleeing religious persecution but others were at various stages in responding to the Gospel.

The big question was “what should we be praying for?” And the follow up question was “what result can we expect?” For some, there was the hope that a pastor’s prayer would carry extra clout.  I would explain that my prayer was not extra special because I was a pastor but that I wanted to pray with them.

Then we would talk about prayer. I was always clear that there were things I could not promise or guarantee. I had no special influence with the authorities but also we had to be aware of what God did and did not promise.  There is no promise in God’s Word that it will all get better and we should not tell asylum seekers when praying with them that it will all be okay now. What God does promise is eternal security for those who put their trust in Christ and that is far more than any earthly security.  Furthermore, he promises those that are in Christ that he will never leave or desert us.

We would talk about how their ws a real possibility that they would have to return to their home country and that once there they must face the real danger of persecution again.  Trusting God means trusting him to keep us through suffering and persecution, not just taking us out of it. So, we would pray together that they would be able to find peace and rest in Christ. We would pray that they would depend on him whatever the answer in their case.

But we also prayed for justice and compassion from the Home Office and/or the judge here.  You see I firmly believe that it is right to simply pray from the heart, to tell God our desires and hopes, to ask for what we want and what we believe we need. That is the natural response from children even as we recognise that in his perfect will he may have a different and better plan for his glory and our eternal good.

Listening

People would share their stories with me.  They were not easy to hear. It wasn’t just about the brutal torture and abuse they experienced, and they often spared me the details. Just as hard, was listening to the way that they had been deserted and disowned by friends and family, deceived by people that promised help and discarded and failed by the system at home and here. They were often disbelieved and dismissed. 

One thing I’ve learnt is that it takes time for the whole story to come out. People need to rebuild trust, to know you are on their side, to know that you are willing to believe them too. Often I would recognise that we hadn’t heard the full story yet. 

I’ve also learnt over time, not just with asylum seekers that the story you hear will include a mixture of the truth and what people think you want and need to hear.  This does not mean that their case isn’t genuine or that they are intentionally seeking to deceive. Rather it can mean that they’ve bene coached and encouraged to present a certain version in order to progress their case. Alternatively, people can be holding back from sharing the full truth in fear that they won’t be believed or in shame.

Asylum seekers carry the mental/emotional affects of trauma.  Listening is of course something helpful and therapeutic for the person receiving pastoral care and part of this arises out of our belief in a God who removes shame and stigma, in a God who also listens and hears.

Practical Help and support

Whilst waiting for their case to be heard, an asylum seeker and their family cannot work. They are given accommodation and a small allowance, but it is barely enough to cover basic needs and then there are the big expenses that hit from time to time.  When they do get leave to remain then once they are provided with accommodation, it will come empty, they’ll need beds, cookers, fridges, washing machines, sofas, tables, chairs etc.

I believe it is so important that help does not come in the form of a charitable hand out but there is a sense of a family, a community looking after each other and sharing the good gifts that God has given us.

The Legal process

Having a law degree and an analytical mind, I perhaps got more involved in these aspects of cases than others would. The crucial need for an asylum seeker is to have a good solicitor who believes in them and their case.  Such solicitors do exist and it is important to be able to spot them!

I’ve been with people to see a solicitor and the lawyer has barely looked at their potential client.  They’ve had their head down looking at their screen as they’ve typed. Of course, detailed note taking is necessary but as with a pastor or a doctor, the first thing a good solicitor will do is look at the claimant, listen and then re-assure them that they are heard, believed and that they now have someone who will advocate for them.

One thing I’ve found is that often by the time people open up with their  church, the case has been going for some time and it has gone down a track of constant appeals, rejections and resubmissions. The problem is that whenever you submit a new application, although it is meant to be a fresh case, you are still stuck with the previous background. This means that the Home Office are acting on assumptions about what the case is. At some point a Judicial Review may be needed. The aim of such a review is in effect to reset the process in order to get things on the right track and ensure that the real case is heard.

Asylum seekers may find it helpful to have someone willing to help them prepare and ensure that all the paperwork is in place and in order as well as that they are able to fully articulate their whole story in a structured way that leaves nothing out but also gets the salient points across. They may ask you to submit a letter in support of their claim. Unless the specific issue is whether or not they have Christian faith, such letters probably do not make too much difference to the outcome but they may help to encourage the claimant. It is a reminder that they have others in their corner.

Be ready to go with them to visit solicitors, their local MP and to court hearings. You won’t be able to speak for them in court (unless called as a witness in religious cases).  However, the emotional support is crucial to them and again it may help to show to a solicitor or MP that they are credible.

Be there for them in the waiting and the aftermath. Remember that when the legal case is won that this is where the challenges of healing and recovery really beging.

Learning

I’ve learnt so much from asylum seekers who are believers. Here are people who have been through so much suffering and continue to do so but can witness to God’s goodness and salvation. This is humbling.

Asylum seekers may not be able to work for pay but they still can play a huge part in the community and in the local church as part of the body of Christ. It is truly a privilege to pastor them. 

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