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franciscan - January 2003

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2002

A Twist in the Tale

by Roger Greeves

The Immigration Reception Centre at Oakington, Cambridge, was opened in early 2000. It was designed to hold asylum seekers for speedy processing over seven days.  Days one and two are spent preparing for the substantive interview on day three. After two more daysí processing a decision is given on day six, leaving a day to finalize arrangements for the next stage.

Those sent to Oakington are new arrivals or new applicants who are deemed to have a potentially weak case and who do not have special needs.  The first arrivals were from eastern Europe  (Baltic States to Albania) but since then detainees have come from Africa, the Indian subcontinent and China.  Admissions are dependent on the presence of Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) staff and interpreters in particular languages.

The Centre is managed by Group 4, with an establishment of about 220; medical and catering services are sub-contracted out.  Office accommodation on site is occupied by governmental and non-governmental refugee organizations. In total there may be 500-600 people employed at the Centre.  The capacity for asylum-seekers is 400, including women and children in families.

In March 2000, the Bishop asked me to go and set up a Chaplaincy in the Centre, at the instigation of the Diocesan Board for Church in Society. IND had initially been resistant to the appointment of a Chaplain, on the grounds that people were there so briefly, but agreed after some powerful lobbying by concerned groups.

When the Centre opened the buildings were not all ready. Group 4 management was very open to the need for religious provision, and generous in the setting aside of rooms. Virtually the entire first floor was turned into a 'Spirit Zone'.  On one long corridor three large rooms have become a Christian Chapel, a Quiet Room and a Muslim Prayer Room  (not Mosque, because of the possibility of sanctuary being claimed). 

The Christian Chapel has been furnished with the basics by Group 4, augmented by gifts from churches far and near.  There are symbols there from Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions and there is an organ.  Bibles are in plentiful supply, in all the languages present in the Centre.  There is a Visitorsí Book, which makes impressive reading. I liked the message from a Chinese detainee - 'Thank you. Have a good time'- but there are also many expressions of faith and prayers such as 'Lord, grant the people of Africa and the world as a whole peace so that no-one has to leave their homes to search for it.'  There are some stunning one-liners such as 'In the Lord there is no prisoner' and 'YOUR decision is final.'

Group 4 has provided the Muslim Prayer Room with an excellent washing facility beside it. The local Imam visited early on with his special compass and oriented the room correctly for prayers. He and his community presented prayer mats and caps and the Muslim Relief Agency in Birmingham sent more mats and copies of the Holy Qu'ran.  Muslim detainees appreciate the facility greatly and use it well.

The Quiet Room is intended for the use of other religious groups - Jews, Sikhs, Hindu, Buddhists, Falung Gong - though obviously not all at the same time!  Their needs will decide how the space is developed.  This room, set between the other two, is windowless and uninspiring.  Consequently, a Peruvian artist in Cambridge has produced collages on the themes of leaving and finding a home, which make that place rewarding to visit.

The human resources for Chaplaincy consist of one Chaplain/Manager of Religious Affairs, assisted by a team of Ministers representing the main Christian denominations and Islam. The regular acts of worship offered at present are Muslim prayers at the daytime hours, Roman Catholic Mass once a week, Anglican Eucharist on Sundays and daily Evening Prayers. Attendance does not exceed twenty at any occasion, a small proportion of those present. On a typical day there were resident 151 Christians, 42 Muslims, 18 Sikhs, 13 Buddhists, 4 Hindus, 5 Falung Gong and one atheist.

The pattern of Chaplaincy in this setting has to take into account the permanently transitional nature of the personnel - constantly changing shifts for the staff and asylum seekers hardly touching the ground. The Centre is like one large waiting room. The models are perhaps a hospital or an airport.  The religious plant needs to be instantly accessible, capable of being used at any time for quiet, prayer and, hopefully, encouragement.  Ministers need to be present every day, both to stress their availability and to give any chance of building up relationships before it is time to move on. Requests for help - spiritual or practical - need to be followed up immediately.

In a situation of such transience, and of such strong control over individuals, it is all the more important to recognize that a detainee - '20/2K' for instance - is a whole human being, and that part of his identity is his religion or belief system. For many asylum seekers, religion is not a private hobby or a life-style choice - it is part of their identity, and in some cases bound up with the reasons for their flight.  It seems right that the asylum seeker, having been detained, should find him or herself addressed as a person with a whole range of needs, one of which may be religious.

The staff present on the site are uniformly welcoming to Chaplaincy. They appear to understand what it is about and help greatly to project the role of the 'padre'. There is stress and tension among those working on site, and a Chaplain has an important role in being available to support individuals and help colleagues to work together.

The presence of Chaplaincy would seem to be a sign, a symbol and a catalyst.  It can be a sign that this place of detention is not a secret, hidden, even shameful, operation, but part of the life of the whole society, albeit doing a difficult job. It needs recognition and understanding.  Chaplaincy can be a symbol of a whole range of attitudes to asylum seekers, which run counter to the more xenophobic and other fearful opinions fostered by sections of the media.  The simple action of donating clothes, toys and teddy bears, for instance, is a powerful message to all those who deal face-to-face with detainees. It is almost a touchstone for basic attitudes.  Thus Chaplaincy can be a catalyst for the development of the culture of the Centre in the direction of humane values and respect for individuals.

Chaplaincy is concerned with the morale of the institution. In the case of the Group 4 staff, an initial pioneering spirit, which was quite exhilarating, has modulated into a work force with a good spirit, adhering sincerely to core values of care and respect and perhaps the Chaplaincy helps to draw this out and encourage it.

Within the Centre there is a sense that a competent job is being done, both in handling the detainees and processing their claims. As a daily visitor, my impression was that of a genuine sanctuary.  Most detainees are calm, if preoccupied and thoughtful.  Their situation at Oakington is probably better than what they have come from and what they are going to.  If only that were the beginning and the end of it. The things that happen to asylum seekers after they leave Oakington are deeply worrying. I was often uneasy. Here we are treating the newcomers to these shores with traditional British kindness and care, while what is really going on is the firm and fast processing of these unwanted people out of here as quickly as possible - 98% of them at any rate.  What they are encountering is the smile on the face of the tiger - and I may be the smile. f

 The Reverend Roger Greeves is chaplain at Clare College, Cambridge.


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