The asylum seeker/refugee situation, with all its problems, looks set to be with us for the foreseeable future. In this respect at least, 2017 will be very similar to 2016.
The UK part of the story of an asylum seeker begins with the lodging of a claim for asylum and ends with a decision: 'leave to remain' or 'voluntary return'. The process is often long and usually difficult. Its ending can be traumatic.
Just before Christmas I met a small group of volunteers at a church near Wigan. They don't want to be identified and they definitely don't want any praise. They would be embarrassed to be called the face of Christ but I am certain that is what they are. Their story is of how they responded to a situation that presented itself to them.
Resolutely throughout the last year, this anonymous group have been offering kindness to asylum seekers who are temporarily lodged in a hotel close to the motorway near their parish. The hotel is one of those places of legend, beloved of the tabloid press, where asylum seekers are reportedly housed in luxury apartments with all the benefits of hotel living from where they emerge to be a threat to local people.
The reality, of course, is much different. It suits Serco to house their clients near the motorway network while they are in transit, waiting to be dispersed to somewhere in the region. It suits the hotel company to have a steady stream of paying guests who will never complain about anything. The accommodation is cheap, with no facilities other than a bed, a sink and a toilet. The food is basic. The asylum seekers are supposed to be there for a few days and certainly not longer than three weeks. One man who was there for three months was given fish fingers and chips every day.
The group from the parish visit the hotel and meet the new arrivals. For some, these may well be the first friendly faces glimpsed in the UK. Everyone gets welcomed and greeted with a smile but there is practical help as well. People are offered toiletries and warm clothes suitable for our climate. Young mothers are offered baby clothes and, whenever possible, buggies for their children. A basic English class is offered every Wednesday afternoon, and the parish makes its internet available so that people can contact their families back home.
Serco now contacts the parish volunteers when there are emotional problems that they – the professionals – are unable to deal with. One of the volunteers has even been birth companion to two female asylum seekers. All of this wonderful work is done with no funds other than what the parish and the volunteers provide out of their own resources.
At the other end of the asylum seeker/refugee journey, a group of people in Liverpool are preparing to set up a night shelter for those who have disappeared into the murky world of destitute 'failed' asylum seekers. Estimates vary of the numbers in this group. It is thought that up to a hundred new 'refused' asylum seekers stay in Liverpool every year rather than return to a place that they think is dangerous.
Whatever the legalities of their decision, these vulnerable people are in danger and the local community has a problem on their streets. The proposed shelter is a limited attempt to keep some of these people safe and at the same time bring them back into the system so that they either get leave to remain or return home.
As well as these two extremes, we are still looking for a way to join in the Syrian Resettlement Programme. I hope that there will be positive news about this later in the year.