National Justice & Peace Conference

Picture courtesy of: independant catholic news

The 40th conference of the National Justice and Peace Network (NJPN) in Derbyshire took the theme, ‘In the shelter of each other the people live’ and explored building a Church and a society with the marginalised, the excluded and the most vulnerable at its heart. Julia Coulton, Caritas’s Community Centres manager attended as a day delegate on Saturday 21st July a packed and inspiring day. This is here report.

The conference was organised in partnership with Church Action on Poverty, Housing Justice, the Prison Advice and Care Trust and Apostleship of the Sea. As well as J&P representatives from around England and Wales, J&P Scotland and Missionary groups – such as the Columbans, Mill Hill Missionaries and Assumption Sisters – were there.

Theologian David McLoughlin of Newman College in Birmingham spoke very powerfully, and called for the Church to see its mission as tackling injustice and endorsed the inspirational leadership of Pope Francis in calling for “a poor Church committed to the poor”.

The keynote speaker, Sarah Teather, former Liberal Democrat MP and now Director of the of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) spoke of refugees and asylum seekers getting more destitute in a UK asylum system that is “profoundly flawed” and marked by “deliberate cruelty”.

JRS is an international Catholic organisation that works in around 50 countries worldwide including most of Europe. It is 20 years old and part funded by the Jesuits. There are 65 million people who are displaced from their homes around the word, and just 30,000 asylum seekers per year arrive in the UK.

The experience of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK includes:
• Poor quality accommodation from which they are moved around a lot
• Very limited access to legal advice
• 40% of people whose applications are turned down are overturned at appeal
• Certain groups of refugees and asylum seekers are treated very unfairly e.g. gay people; victims of sexual abuse; and converts to Christianity
• Not allowed to work or study
• Not allowed to rent property
• Assets can be claimed or frozen (although this in temporarily on pause in the wake of the Windrush scandal)
• Not allowed to drive
• Access to healthcare via the NHS is limited
• They have little or no money
• They could be subject to detention
• They have to go to Liverpool to show any documentation no matter where they are living

JRS research shows that:
• 62% of people who go to JRS day centres have been street homeless during the previous 12 months
• 34% of people who had somewhere to stay were frightened of the people they were living with
• The young, sick, pregnant and old are all included among JRS clients
• The plight of refugees and asylum seekers is not accidental, but a tool of government policy to create a ‘hostile environment’ and to try to get people to give up their claim for shelter and protection

Amongst this very challenging reception for refugees and asylum seekers and the criminalisation of those seeking work, Sarah said that JRS make sure that “amidst the uncertainty they have the certainty that we are with them”.

Services offered by JRS include:
• Practical support and advocacy including giving money for bus passes and hot meals
• Visiting people in detention
• Activities to enable friendships to develop with one another
• Arrange hosting as a temporary accommodation solution
• The friendship of community and simply listening to people’s stories (something Cardinal Vincent Nichols did last weekend at a JRS Centre and was very moved by the experience.)

The Q&A session after the speech included a focus on the Home Office staff who carry out this work. There is a very high staff turnover among case workers, many of whom are young and inexperienced, and some have reported that it is like being in a telesales centre with targets to meet, whilst dealing with extremely traumatic cases. There is anecdotal evidence that some staff have been given M&S vouchers as incentives to make sure that appeals fail.

(Revive in East Manchester under the leadership of Father Uchenna offers a similar service to JRS in London.)

Sarah ended by saying that the face of God is reflected in those with the least.

Actions identified at the end were generated in 15 workshops. The Pax Christi workshop on violence, led by Pat Gaffney, prompted a challenge to the culture of militarism and to the British government selling arms to Saudi Arabia. It also called for letters to the Foreign Secretary urging speaking out against the destruction of Bedouin communities in the West Bank. A workshop on interfaith outreach, led by Columban Jim Fleming who worked for several decades in Pakistan, called for a valuing of differences and building community collaboratively. Fr Dan Mason, the National Chaplain for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, led a discussion on ways the Church could be more supportive and welcoming of travelling people. The Medaille Trust suggested ways of tackling slavery in our society. Catholic environmentalist Mary Colwell highlighted how ‘home’ is changing for wildlife due to climate change and distributed copies of her latest book on curlews. In the Housing and Homelessness workshop which I attended, Tommy Cloherty from the London based Housing Justice project spoke about how they had set up a Hosting service in people’s spare rooms for refugees and asylum seekers.

Finally, I came away with a strengthened conviction and renewed faith that each of us can do small things that will make a big difference to those who need our help. Action is just as important as words. The principle of Encounter is extremely important – really meeting people and really listening to them. If we do this then we may just learn a lot about human dignity as a result. But the workshops and issues discussed also underlined the importance of advocacy work, and the need to fight against injustice where we encounter it.