Asylum Applications and Religious Beliefs
An immigration solicitors perspective on the phrase ‘pray to stay’
Members of Parliament are reported to be calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the so called ‘pray to stay’ conversion tactics allegedly encouraged by the Church of England. The media frenzy and focus on asylum seekers and religious beliefs all stem from the actions of Emad Al Swealmeen who blew himself up outside Liverpool Women's Hospital. Initial investigations reveal that he had made an asylum application that was not successful and he then converted to Christianity. Immigration solicitors and asylum lawyers fear that the focus on one individual, however terrible their actions, and use of the phrase ‘pray to stay’ really does a disservice to those asylum seekers who are seeking asylum in the UK because of their religious beliefs.
In this article our asylum lawyers take a look at asylum applications and religious beliefs.
UK Online and London Based Immigration Solicitors and Asylum Lawyers
UK asylum law
It is always said that if you do not want to upset or offend people you should not talk about religion or politics. For asylum solicitors that is impossible as they are advocates for people fleeing persecution. That persecution stems from the claimant’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, politics or religion.
Asylum law states that to claim asylum in the UK an asylum seeker must be unable to live safely in their own country because they fear persecution there. This persecution cannot be because a particular person or group does not like the claimant. The persecution must be because of:
- Political opinion
- Gender, gender identity or sexual orientation.
The fear of persecution must be more than a general concern. An asylum seeker must have failed to get protection from the authorities in their country. In addition, an asylum seeker can't claim asylum if they came to the UK by travelling through a ‘safe third country’ where they would not be persecuted for the beliefs held and from where they would not be sent to another country where they would be persecuted or harmed. An asylum seeker also can't successfully claim asylum if they have a connection to a safe third country where they could claim asylum.
UK asylum law and religious beliefs
Asylum based on religious beliefs are not limited to beliefs in the major religions such as Islam, Judaism or Christianity. Nor does the religion have to be the first faith. An asylum seeker can claim asylum based on their conversion to a new religion where they will face persecution in their home country because of the new faith.
In the UK we live in an increasingly secular society and that can result in the population being sceptical of persecution based on religion when people do not have first-hand experience of living with a religious belief or the persecution that can be experienced in some countries if a person converts to a new faith. Sometimes the best analogy in the UK is football as football team support can be like a belief system to some.
Whether you are religious or not, it can be equally hard to accept that some people want to convert to a new faith and are doing so for all the right reasons; a genuine calling and commitment to the religion rather than because the conversion will help with their asylum claim.
Asylum solicitors acknowledge that religious beliefs and asylum applications can be tricky to assess as deeply held personal beliefs are held within a person and are not obvious as in the case of some people’s gender or their ethnicity. That does not mean that the beliefs are not genuinely held or that the persecution in their home country will be any less severe simply because it is based on religious belief.
Some people maintain that an asylum seeker can change their religion and the persecution will end. Thus, there is no need for asylum. In the case of religious conversions, it is said persecution can be avoided through not converting to a religion where persecution is likely to occur in their home country. This approach totally fails to appreciate the nature of religious belief and conviction.
With faith or religious belief there is no stamp to show that beliefs are genuine or not. An assessment has to be made by a Home Office official as part of the asylum application process and, if necessary, on appeal by the court.
With asylum seekers, many are forced to seek help from the church or local charity because an asylum seeker is not able to work. It is therefore not surprising that some asylum seekers convert to the religion that they have learnt about and grown close to, through the financial and emotional help and support received, whilst waiting for their asylum application to be processed.
How can religious belief be tested?
Religious testing reminds you of the Spanish inquisition and its horror stories. The reality of religious belief is that even if questions are asked and testing takes place, as part of the asylum assessment process, knowledge of a particular religion or even attendance at church or other religious venues or learning scripture by rote does not guarantee true faith or real religious commitment.
Despite the intrinsic difficulty of testing religious belief Home Office guidance states that a Home Office official assessing religious belief as a ground for an asylum claim should consider:
- Whether the asylum seeker genuinely adheres to the religion and
- How the asylum seeker practices their religious beliefs. For example, do they do so privately or do they worship publicly and
- Whether the asylum seeker’s religious beliefs and manner in which they practice them would place the asylum seeker at risk of persecution if returned to their home country.
The asylum seeker will not be expected to:
- Lie about their religious beliefs to avoid persecution in their home country or
- Follow the approved religion in their home county or
- Not convert to the religion of their choice in order to avoid persecution in their home country.
When it comes to a conversion., including one that has taken place in the UK , Home Office officials will look at the credibility of the conversion through interviewing the asylum seeker and taking into account any other evidence, such as the statement of a religious leader or members of the congregation.
During interview, an asylum seeker will be expected to be able to give information about the reasons for their beliefs and conversion, their understanding of their new faith and information on whether they participate in religious group activities. Whilst an asylum seeker should not be expected to be able to quote scripture as a right of passage to their conversion, they do need to be able to credibly show that they have faith. Quoting a holy book is evidence of memory and not faith so the assessment is really based on the case workers experience of assessing credibility. The standard of proof is ‘reasonable degree of likelihood’ as unfortunately, even for Home Office officials there is no window to the soul and the best they can do is examine the evidence and listen to the asylum seeker.
The role of the church in assessing religious belief
One thing that immigration solicitors and the Church of England are agreed on is that it is not the role of either asylum lawyers or clergy or religious leaders to assess faith. It would be a sorry state of affairs if religious leaders and their congregations were not welcoming to those seeking asylum and instead engaged in an assessment of genuineness before welcoming a potential worshipper or convert. However, in light of recent cases, it is inevitable that failed asylum seekers taking crash courses before religious conversions followed by requests for evidence of conversion may produce dilemmas for religious leaders who do not want to get involved in the politics and security issues that come with the cases that ‘go wrong’ but who genuinely want to help and support those asylum seekers who need practical and emotional help, whether they want to convert to their faith or not.
UK Online and London Based Immigration Solicitors and Asylum Lawyers