Stronger Together, Weaker Apart
By Helen Hintjens
Sanctuary is a moral principle found in many ancient cultures. In Hebrew and Christian law, sanctuary was offered to runaway slaves, those facing mob violence or capital punishment. The Qur’an too “exhorts Muslims to provide sanctuary and aid to both Muslims (8:72) and non-Muslims (9:6)” (Muzaffar, p. 122). In 2008, the Independent Asylum Commission’s report, Saving Sanctuary, pointed to “grave misunderstanding in the public mind about the term asylum”, and argued it was necessary to “win hearts and minds and long-term public support for [the term] sanctuary”. It seems to have worked, with the City of Sanctuary website reporting 114 towns cities and locations of sanctuary across the UK, including 12 in Wales. And Wales is poised to become the world’s first Nation of Sanctuary.
The key document here is the Welsh Government’s Nation of Sanctuary Plan (2019). The UNHCR’s Representative to the UK introduces the plan, commending its “person-centric approach” – an approach which contrasts with the very restrictive, bureaucratic and hostile approach of the Home Office in London. Elections for the Senedd (the parliament of Wales) take place in May 2021. In preparation, the Welsh Refugee Coalition and Asylum Matters have been asking us what we think Welsh politicians should do for asylum seekers and refugees in Wales, in surveys and focus groups. The challenge is how to prioritise equally vital problems such as accommodation, education, poverty, mental and physical health, or legal advice and advocacy. Meanwhile, resisting Home Office policies is equally urgent: no right to work, restricted rights to legal representation, delayed and flawed decision-making (exacerbated by Covid-19), forced destitution, indefinite detention and deportation – but in all these areas of UK policy, the Welsh Government has no authority.
The principle of sanctuary is opening up services and spaces for all local residents. In May 2010, Swansea in South Wales became second City of Sanctuary in the UK after Sheffield. Over one hundred organizations committed to working together across political, religious and public-private divisions to make Swansea more welcoming. For some undocumented people, and asylum seekers, however: “…nothing much had changed”. And how can sanctuary work during lockdown?
One study of the world after COVID-19 noted it is especially important now to remain critical, and balanced: “As scholars and citizens, we have the obligation to think beyond the crisis, create openings in the world, and consider, critically and democratically, how we want to govern ourselves”. The proposal to make Wales a Nation of Sanctuary is an outstanding example of doing just this. What inspires the plan to make Wales a Nation of Sanctuary is the hope for thoroughgoing inclusion in an open, tolerant nation. Yet Welsh Government must work under central government’s restrictive immigration and asylum policies. These have caused anger in Scotland recently after tragic incidents related to asylum seekers in 2020. Poverty has worsened under lockdown and NRPF (No Recourse to Public Funds) remains in place, even though Boris Johnson did not know about it! Hostile attitudes and cost-cutting by the Home Office leave limited room for Senned representatives to make Wales and its cities and towns, safer and more welcoming.
However, efforts of the cross-Wales sanctuary movement continue. First and foremost, asylum seekers and undocumented people need the right to work. If the UK Parliament does not extend this right, the Welsh Senned should. Secondly, asylum seekers and undocumented people need wider access to higher education in Wales, even though there are some scholarships and fee waivers. Even more could be done. The Nation of Asylum Plan stresses improved housing and higher incomes for asylum seekers and refugees, better protections for unaccompanied minors, and health care for all. In this National Plan, the Welsh Government says it will: “Maintain free healthcare for refugees and asylum seekers, including those who have No Recourse to Public Funds”, and “Publish Healthcare practitioners policy guidance to support practitioners to deliver more accessible services” (p. 17).
In other parts of the world, for example in Ontario, Canada, all health services (and not just COVID-19 treatment) have been made fully accessible to all Ontario residents, irrespective of their legal status. Sometimes a crisis can produce a positive turnaround! Let us hope the same can be true in Wales. As one excellent review suggests, our “…response to it [the pandemic] will require us to reimagine lives, rebuild conditions of existence and find better ways of doing science and politics”, including within Wales as it becomes a Nation of Sanctuary. As systemic and institutionalised racism are challenged by Black Lives Matter movements worldwide, the racism that underpins UK politics and health care is being confronted. To treat others as we would wish to be treated – the Golden Rule – cuts across all major religious and ethical belief systems, apart from those of the far right and libertarians. The Golden Rule is the moral basis for sanctuary and for Wales’ future status and reality as a Nation of Sanctuary.