The recent acid attack by a refugee, Abdul Ezedi, who, it is said, converted from Islam to Christianity has led to accusations of refugee conversions being fraudulent and undertaken only to ‘game’ the asylum system. The Telegraph’s extensive coverage of the case, is misleading and has the effect of stoking animosity towards asylum seekers and the Church of England.
Countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, India and Pakistan deny Christians rights accorded to other groups and persecute some Christians. Christians who discuss their faith may be accused of illegal proselytising and sentenced to death. Relationships between Christian men and Muslim women are prohibited in Sharia, if not secular, law in many Muslim countries with the expectation that both the man and woman will be killed to avenge the woman’s family honour. Many persecuted Christians flee to the UK.
The Telegraph article, and much other media coverage, states that 40 of those on the Bibby Stockholm are attending church – maintaining that they are all recent converts or in the process of converting. It is highly likely that many of those ‘accused’ of converting were Christians long before their arrival in the UK.
Refugee conversions in detention
Conversion in detention is not unusual. Asylum seekers are effectively detained; they can live only where placed and are generally placed with other asylum seekers rather than within the wider community. They are unable to work or engage in community education and so do not socialise or spend much time with UK citizens. They have no funds for leisure or to support integration and attacks on them have curtailed their freedom of movement.
Asylum seekers, particularly those in more closed conditions such as the Bibby Stockholm, are at their most vulnerable and susceptible to influence. This is not to say that the churches are actively ‘grooming’ them, though some evangelical sects may be attempting to. But, in providing kindness and empathy and perhaps the emotional and spiritual support that make conditions bearable, clergy are offering an attractive religion – one that asylum seekers can identify with.
This is quite common amongst criminal prisoners and hostages. Sunday chapel in prisons is the most well-attended event of the week. It provides an opportunity to join in, for collective meaning and sharing, and to socialise. While the commitment may not be sustained following release, the attendance or conversion was meaningful and important at the time. Even secular and aggressive reform programmes such as ‘scared straight’[LH1] approaches to work with young offenders in prison can have a similar ‘conversion’ effect which is rarely sustained on release.
Conversion may harm an asylum claim
Again in the Telegraph, Suella Braverman said:
“Attend mass once a week for a few months, befriend the vicar, get your baptism date in the diary and, bingo, you’ll be signed off by a member of clergy that you’re now a God-fearing Christian who will face certain persecution if removed to your Islamic country of origin. It has to stop”.
Braverman’s statement contradicts the guidelines issued by her own former department and is a display of gross ignorance.
Immigration officials are specifically trained on religious beliefs and conversions and the Home Office guidance is very clear. An application may be refused if there is any suspicion of deception and (section 9.7.2.) states it “must be refused where the decision maker can prove that it is more likely than not the applicant used deception in the application”. Recent religious conversions are automatically viewed as suspect and it is for the convert to prove otherwise (if they wish it to have some bearing on their claim).
Decision-makers are explicitly told not to take the affirmation of a religious leader as sole evidence but to consider other factors including “the timing of their conversion, knowledge of the faith, and the opinions of other congregation members as to the genuineness of the conversion”.
Most of those involved in the asylum system or with asylum seekers understand that religious affiliation, unless it was the reason for fleeing violence or persecution, is more likely to lead to a red ‘deceit’ warning flag than sympathy from an immigration official. And this seems to be borne out in the case of Ezedi who was refused, we are told, asylum twice by the Home Office.
Often, those who have had to flee their homes because of religious persecution are told that they should live in a different area, hide their crosses, and even divorce rather than be given asylum in the UK. Immigration officials can be guaranteed to err on the side of refusal in these cases.
Asylum seekers may not know this. They lack access to good information, especially legal information. In this information lacuna, asylum seekers listen to other asylum seekers and much of what they believe is wrong. A successful asylum application by someone who has converted to Christianity may be understood as the reason, or one of the reasons, for their success whereas it may be totally irrelevant.
The Appeal Court
An asylum seeker is unlikely to gain asylum based on being a convert but he or she can appeal against the decision and can argue they would be at risk of persecution or death if returned to their homeland.
We are told that Ezedi was granted leave to remain (his immigration status is not clear) and this was following an appeal. We are told he converted to Christianity, but we do not know if this was the basis of his appeal or of the court’s decision. It seems highly unlikely. Afghanistan has long been a country to which its citizens cannot be returned because of the risks they face irrespective of their religion (or sexuality, or gender). ‘Refoulement’ is illegal under international law.
For conversion to be argued at the appeal court as rendering deportation unsafe, it would have had to be maintained through the application and appeal processes. This, in most cases, will take several years and, far from requiring just weekly attendance at mass for a short period and ‘befriending a vicar’ as Braverman claimed, it requires investment in the faith by involvement in other church activities and spiritual life. If this is fraudulent, it is at considerable cost to the asylum seeker and a high price to pay.
Inaccurate reporting in an election year
The Telegraph has misled its readers about the nature of conversions and why they might occur, their extent and their impact on asylum decisions. It creates a misleading narrative about those who do convert, and the churches involved with them. This strategy, to discursively and persistently de-legitimise those who provide support for despised or powerless groups is a dangerous one. And especially in an election year.