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franciscan - May 1997

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1997

The need for sanctuary

By David Haslam

‘They dragged him away, kicking and screaming’, reported the church’s minister. ‘The feeling around here is that because a man has been here for seventeen years, to separate him from his family and deny him the right to remain is really appalling’.

Albert Tong thought he was doing the correct thing when he applied for a National Insurance number, before starting a new job. He had lived for 17 years in Cornwall, after arriving for a visit from Hong Kong. He had completed a course of study, done various jobs, paid taxes, married a local woman and started a family. But the Immigration Department pursued the legislative road to deportation.

Albert then took sanctuary in the Methodist chapel at Marazion, a south Cornish village. Several days later police arrived, with equipment to break down the door. Albert thought it was the minister and opened at their knock. They carried him to a police van and dumped him unceremoniously inside. As a result of the treatment he suffered a mild heart attack and was taken to hospital.
He was visited by the Bishop of Truro, who commented, ‘It ill behoves a government committed to family values to treat such a vulnerable man like this. If he is deported, the whole family will be destroyed.’ The national Methodist Conference, meeting in Blackpool, passed a strongly-worded resolution.

Fortunately his solicitor had spotted a loophole in European Union legislation. Any EU citizen, working in another EU country, has a right to have their spouse and other close relatives living with them. Albert’s wife Rebecca promptly moved to Dublin, in the Irish Republic, and found a part-time job. Technically she should have been there for longer, but due to the campaign, and Irish Government flexibility, Albert was allowed to go to Ireland. A British citizen thus has more rights under European law than British. While sanctuary did not keep Albert in the UK, it almost certainly prevented his deportation to Hong Kong.

Immigration Law

Immigration law and practice has become increasingly restrictive in Britain since the early 1960s. The changes have come under vigorous attack from black and minority communities, immigration and refugee agencies, the Churches and many others. The authorities have always resisted arguments that racism has been a factor, but those facing deportation have usually been black.
In response to some threatened deportations, local communities – including churches – have set up campaigns. The Churches’ Commission for Racial Justice (CCRJ) knows of many such initiatives. Often local community-based campaigns are ultimately successful. A small number have as a last resort employed ‘sanctuary’, where an individual or family have moved into a church or other religious building.

This has been done to provide what the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Milwaukee called a ‘holy respite’, so that justice in its wider and more compassionate sense may be seen to be done. A number of examples are recounted in the CCRJ booklet Why Sanctuary?. Modern sanctuary originated under Nazi domination and more recently in El Salvador, the United States, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where it has been directed more to the needs of refugees than overstaying families.

Those in the US Sanctuary Movement based their actions on the sanctuary tradition originating in Numbers 35, 6-15, where God tells Moses that six cities must be designated for temporary respite. In the New Testament, parables such as the Last Judgement and the Good Samaritan, or teaching about what Christians should do for a needy brother or sister (James 2), provide a basis for action.

The first English saint, Alban, was martyred for giving sanctuary to a fleeing Christian. The basis for sanctuary has always been moral rather than legal, the legal right being removed in Britain in 1623. The tradition remains however, through such symbols as the sanctuary knocker, which is still present on one of the doors of Durham Cathedral.

Effects of the Present Law

There has been strong opposition from the Churches to increasingly-restrictive immigration law over the last thirty years, in particular the 1981 Nationality Act which removed the principle of ius soli, by which any child born here has the right to British citizenship. This led to the quite large number of families with children born and brought up in the UK now facing deportation.
The typical situation is a student who came to do a course, but stayed on because s/he ran out of funds, parents died or could no longer send money, exams were failed, or conditions at home changed and a job was no longer likely. The student had a wife or husband from home, or met one here. Children were born, often a spouse worked to support the family. At some point their right to stay was refused, or their lawyers slipped up, or the Home Office wrote to the wrong address, and they became overstayers. There were appeals, and by the time all means had been exhausted, or the authorities had caught up with them, people had been here for seven, ten or even fifteen years. Some case studies of the kind of families facing deportation appear in the 1994 CCRJ booklet Breaking up the Family.

Conscience, the Law and Sanctuary

Civil disobedience has a tradition in democratic societies. There was considerable civil resistance by many American Christians regarding civil rights through the 1960s, and the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King was a strong advocate of civil disobedience, and he undertook it with a specifically Christian motivation. A Dutch Council of Churches statement on Sanctuary states that ‘Churches accord room for acts of civil disobedience precisely on the basis of the Biblical adage that we must be more obedient to God than to men’.

The Roman Catholic Catechism published in 1994 makes reference to Christian obedience to conscience: ‘The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community.’ Christians who undertake civil disobedience for reasons of conscience must of course be prepared to take the consequences.

At the beginning of the 1980s, US activists began helping to smuggle in refugees from Central America escaping persecution. In 1982 the Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, declared itself a sanctuary church for such refugees. Between 1982 and 1984 several hundred congregations – Christian and Jewish – declared themselves to be sanctuary churches. Tens of thousands of refugees were given refuge. The US Government became increasingly concerned. In February 1984 they charged two refugee workers bringing Salvadorean refugees to safety with transporting ‘illegal aliens’ and they were given prison sentences. The Immigration and Nationality Service infiltrated and recorded church meetings. Eventually however, in 1989, the US Government was forced to change its refugee policy.

Since the 1970s, the issue of sanctuary has arisen in several European countries, mainly with respect to asylum-seekers and refugees. In the Netherlands the sanctuary movement began when asylum-seekers and groups of migrant workers sought to avoid removal, and local churches in the city of Groningen offered help. Since then Dutch churches have organised sanctuary for several hundred asylum-seekers from various countries in thirty towns and cities, and in most cases acceptable solutions have been found.
In Germany also sanctuary has become an issue. In early 1992, eighty refugees took sanctuary for three months in a Protestant Church in Schleswig-Holstein. By 1994 some 200 churches had been involved in giving sanctuary; over 2,000 refugees have taken sanctuary over the last ten years. In Bavaria in June 1994, 400 people formed a human chain around a church where a Kurdish couple and child were sheltering. However the German movement has been less successful than the Dutch in obtaining permanent solutions.

 In Sweden the Alsike Convent, near Uppsala, has offered sanctuary for several years. Here the small community of Lutheran nuns has looked after dozens of refugees at a time, many from former Yugoslavia. The Archbishop has taken a very supportive rôle in Alsike’s work, and has had correspondence with the Government. However, in December 1993, police raided Alsike and a number of refugees were traumatically removed. This met with substantial protests in Sweden and beyond, and there have been no further raids.

In Britain, the first church sanctuaries were in 1985, since when there have been a dozen open sanctuaries, and many more hidden. Only two overt sanctuaries have failed. The only open sanctuary in the UK in February 1997 was the Ogunwobi family in Hackney Downs Baptist Church (see Breaking up the Family) which began in March 1994.

The Position of the Churches

The Churches’ Commission for Racial Justice has developed a position in a paper The Churches, Immigration Law and Sanctuary, which has been agreed by the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland for discussion and appropriate action by the Churches. It states that sanctuary is most likely to be effective if a person or persons are known to a local congregation, and at least one of the following applies:–

a) there is a well-founded fear of persecution;
b) there is a serious threat to family life;
c) there would be a basic denial of justice and compassion. §

Revd David Haslam is Secretary to the Churches’ Commission for Racial Justice.

The publications referred to above can be obtained from the CCRJ, Inter-Church House, 35-41 Lower Marsh St, London SE1 7RL, as can the book Race for the Millennium by the author of this article, which sets these issues in a wider context.


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