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UK Christians Welcome Refugees amid Frustrations with Immigration Process

The churches are willing. But the bureaucracy is weak.
UK Christians Welcome Refugees amid Frustrations with Immigration Process
Image: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

When Wai Lin Wong arrived in Bristol from Hong Kong in April 2021, one of the first things she did was look for a new church.

“I logged onto Facebook; I searched Google,” she said, “and found churches with webpages translated into Chinese, groups of other Hong Kongers, and sanctuaries full of people like me.”

That happened a lot, said Mark Nam, an Anglican priest in Bristol. As the Chinese government clamped down on the democratic freedoms of the former British colony in 2020, thousands of Hong Kongers fled to the UK thanks to a visa program that allows them to live and work in Britain with a pathway to full citizenship.

Hundreds of churches announced they would welcome the Hong Kongers with open arms. They did. And cities like Bristol have since seen their churches swell with newcomers, Nam said. Anglican parishes, Chinese Protestant churches, and evangelical congregations all grew dramatically in the last year.

“It’s been wonderful to see the welcome,” Nam said last year.

In recent months, UK Christians responded to another influx of refugees, this time from Ukraine.

The Sanctuary Foundation, which supports potential sponsors and assists the government in rolling out its Homes for Ukraine program, said over 2,000 churches, businesses, and schools plugged into their programming or volunteered to help in some way since March.

But in both cases, along with the surge of compassion, support programs, and congregational growth, there have come a host of challenges—from bureaucratic inertia to worrying signs of prejudiced double standards.

Sanctuary Foundation’s founder Krish Kandiah, who has been working with refugees since the 1990s, said his organization has been seeing churches welcome thousands of newcomers from Hong Kong, Afghanistan, Syria, and Ukraine.

The outpouring of generosity by congregations, individuals, and local organizations has been immense. Amid the rush from Ukraine alone, more than 1,000 UK churches stepped up to host refugees, he said.

However, enthusiasm on the part of Britain’s churches has not always been met with efficiency or empathy by their government.

Shifts in public opinion in recent years have resulted in new legislation and changes in the UK Home Office’s asylum policies. Particularly since Brexit in 2019, Britain has tried to revamp the control of its borders, stem the flow of migrants, and build more checks and balances into the asylum application process. This has meant that even if a visa program is in place—such as in the case of Hong Kongers or Ukrainians—processing can be agonizingly slow.

Nevertheless, migrants and asylum seekers continue to come. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a total of 133,094 refugees and 61,968 asylum seekers were living in the UK in 2019. In 2021 alone, the UK received 48,540 asylum applications, the highest total in nearly two decades and 63 percent more than in 2020.

But the “root and branch” change of the immigration system since Brexit has “made it more and more difficult to come to the UK and claim asylum,” said Kandiah.

This has led to a fair share of frustration among British Christians looking to warmly welcome the stranger.

Even as thousands of households, numerous institutions, and many churches signed up to host and help make newcomers neighbors, many then stood by as visa applications were processed in a timespan ranging anywhere from five weeks to nine months or more.

That can be frustrating, Kandiah said, but it can also be doubly-traumatizing for those fleeing conflict, political repression, or persecution—their lives existing in limbo as applications laboriously make their way through an overstretched system.

Although Kandiah sympathizes with the discontent, he said that churches must remain patient. Likening the UK’s revamped immigration system to an oil tanker headed in one direction for the last three years, he said that it will take time to turn the ship around. “The UK built a system that is designed to turn away as many people as we can,” he said. “Now, we are trying to accept as many people as we can, as fast as we can.”

There is also noticeable exasperation about what looks like a two-tier system for those seeking asylum.

Nathaniel Jennings, area mobilizer with OMF International’s mission in Belfast, Northern Ireland, said it was particularly ironic timing when Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government announced a plan to partner with Rwanda to manage migration even as Johnson touted the UK as a “a beacon of openness and generosity” for Hong Kongers, Ukrainians, Syrians, and Afghans.

Under the plan, announced mid-April, some asylum seekers who cross the English Channel—with a focus on single men arriving on boats or in trucks—will be sent directly to Rwanda, a landlocked country in central Africa, for processing.

From his vantage point in Belfast, Jennings said it is frustrating to see that “while we are opening our nation to some people, we seem to be closing it down to everyone else.”

While he said the situation with people from Ukraine and Hong Kong caught people’s hearts, imaginations, and minds, it is disheartening to still see “hotels full of asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East that were pretty much neglected.”

He hopes that as Christians respond and welcome people from Hong Kong and Ukraine into their homes, churches, and lives, it might also stir them to rethink how they are treating others. Jennings said, “It’s awful what is happening. We aren’t taking any joy in it, but God can bring good out of this.”

Echoing Kandiah, he said this process will take time and courageous leadership from pastors and parishioners in local churches and networks across Britain.

Jennings pointed to groups like Welcome Churches, whose vision is “for every refugee in the UK to be welcomed by their local church.” He said they have been exemplary in facilitating church sign-ups and helping churches respond to pressing refugee and asylum seeker needs.

For their part, the West of England Baptist Network (Webnet) took the step of hiring pastor Candy Choy to assist with ongoing arrivals of Hong Kongers in the southwest of England. A pastor in Hong Kong for 20 years, Choy now works with Webnet to establish and encourage connections between new arrivals from Hong Kong and local congregations.

As Hong Kongers pay a personal, professional, and financial price to make a new life in the UK, Choy said it is important for various civil society institutions to provide support to help them polish their English, buy property, or find jobs. She pointed to initiatives like the Bristol Friendship Festival scheduled for May 21 and the website UKHK.org as prime examples of how the government can provide what she called “physical living guides for Hong Kongers” while the church provides mental, spiritual, and emotional care.

With more asylum seekers expected this summer, Choy said churches are preparing Alpha courses, providing bilingual English and Cantonese services, offering empty chapels for use by Hong Kongers, or revamping their youth ministries to receive children and teenagers coming with their families.

“There are different models, but most churches see it as a golden time to reach newcomers,” Choy said. “They have been open and welcome to Hong Kongers and invest a lot of themselves for us.”

Kandiah said it is important for Christians to focus on good examples like these in what he said is “an incredible cultural moment” for the UK.

Exhorting Christians to “attack the policies and not the politicians,” Kandiah said it’s important to partner with a wide range of partners in civil society—from the government to the media and local industry—to mobilize forces for good and catalyze positive change so that the country will be ready for the next influx.

“There are naysayers that say it’s just trendy that people care about Ukraine or Hong Kong,” Kandiah said, “but I say it’s better to catch someone doing good and encourage them in the right direction rather than just critiquing the process.”

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