The problem with asylum tribunals and a ray of hope

I was interested in a Twitter comment from Ryan King yesterday. Here is what he said:

As you can imagine, I found this interesting because half our church (more or less) are Iranian and have come through, or are currently in, the asylum system. We have been in Ryan’s situation dozens of times. I enjoyed the fact that he and his Iranian pal dressed up for court far more than we ever do – don’t think I’ve bothered wearing a suit and tie to one yet!

Ryan went on to say:

This is standard practice. The judge never gives an immediate decision in these cases. It is always a full written judgement sent to the appellant several weeks later. Nor is it any surprise that the Home Office’s case was “pathetic”. They usually are.

The courts, but even more so the Home Office, are theologically illiterate and ecclesiologically ignorant. They have little to no knowledge of British Evangelicalism, particularly low church and dissenting forms. This probably comes as no great shock, but it is most problematic when you realise that one of the grounds for a right to remain is not ‘being a Christian’, but specifically being an Evangelical Christian who would proselytise on your return to your home country. To know nothing of the theological views of Evangelicalism, and the range of churches that would identify as Evangelical, is a special kind of incompetence.

Ryan noted one of the claims in the Home Office case:

We have faced these identical issues. Our church stopped producing baptism certificates on my arrival. They used to offer certificates for the benefit of the Home Office – I decided it wasn’t Biblical and was providing an unhelpful incentive to feign conversion and so we scrapped them. We have received this exact comment from the Home Office numerous times (no certificate; no conversion) and it has only been upon our evidence in person on appeal that this point has been accepted.

Other silly arguments have been points of trivia based on a misunderstanding of the word ‘gospel’. One appellant was told that because we talk about the gospel every week, he should have been entirely familiar with the four gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. That he didn’t know a piece of trivia few of our longstanding members would know, he was told he can’t be a believer or even attend the church that often because we read those every week (which, obviously, we don’t).

Similarly, we’ve had appeals rejected because somebody didn’t know how many candles are on an advent candle. There was no acknowledgement that we are not Anglican thus have never made them, that I – a Christian of some 26 years and churched my entire life – have never so much as seen one and didn’t know the answer nor that it bears no relationship to whether somebody is a true believer or not.

In one ridiculous case, an appellant had a civil action against the Home Office for illegal detention running simultaneously to their claim to asylum. Bizarrely, in the one case the Home Office admitted a point of fact because it suited their particular argument. In the other case, related to the very same issue, they denied that same point of fact because it didn’t suit them. This was totally ignored by one judge with no mention in his judgement. It was only at second appeal that a different judge insisted one case had to complete – to push the Home Office to take a line on the question – that would then determine the line in the other case. That nobody up until second appeal thought this unfair rather underscores the reality of the system.

It has been our experience that churches are generally treated as either naive gulls willing to believe any cock and bull story or liars desperate to buck the system in a bid to swell their membership rolls by one. There is, rarely, any recognition that many churches have credible systems in place for judging professions of faith nor is any weight given to the fact that churches are spending vastly more time around the appellant than the two-hour interview offered by the Home Office. You tell me who is better placed to determine credible professions?

One thing gives me hope. I recently received an email on this issue regarding a case going through the Scottish Courts. Part of it read this way:

We rejoice that the Court of Session recognises that experienced church leaders (including lay leaders) may have a contribution to make to help the court understand whether or not a profession of faith in Jesus Christ on the part of an asylum seeker is genuine. The church leader who can demonstrate that they have the necessary knowledge and experience will be able to give evidence of the asylum seeker’s response to teaching in the course of church ministry, without that evidence being treated as suspect merely because the asylum seeker has been deemed to be lacking in credibility by a judge of the Immigration Tribunal in a former hearing.

Effectively this is a judgment that enables experienced church leaders to appear and give evidence in the Tribunals a “expert witnesses”. We will of course have to be able to show that we have that “expert” evidence that the court lacks, in our knowledge of the individual and in the procedures we have in place for the teaching and training of new believers leading to and beyond their baptism on confession of their faith.

We praise God for this good decision that will, so far as I am aware, apply throughout the UK, and thank you for your prayers.

Whether this will apply throughout the UK, or just under Scottish law, waits to be seen. But, if so, it is most certainly an improvement on the current situation whereby Immigration Tribunal judges in a Fresh Claim for permission to remain in the UK are directed to start their consideration of new evidence (for example, of conversion) at the point of the decision (that is, refusal) of the previous judge. So an applicant in a fresh claim based on his or her conversion must be regarded as lacking in credibility. He is therefore often considered to have deceived church leaders, using false claims of conversion to gain baptism with the sole aim of getting permission to remain in the UK.

If this new case applies throughout the UK, Christian church leaders will now be seen as “expert witnesses” and not immediately rejected. This is welcome because, at the moment, the system is badly stacked against genuine converts. A theologically and ecclesiastically illiterate Home Office are making theological arguments to a (usually) poorly informed judge and church leaders – who are much more theologically literate and able to offer credible testimony – are rejected as gullible fools regarding the area in which they are the only people with such specialist knowledge in the room. It is high time this changed and will lead to fairer outcomes for those seeking asylum.

In the meantime, let’s pray for Ryan’s pal. While you’re at it, I’d be grateful if you could pray for a bunch of mine too.