‘Safeguard The Right Of Asylum Seekers’

Marchers on the ‘Strangers to Citizens’ march of migrant workers in London on May 6th last year
Marchers on the ‘Strangers to Citizens’ march of migrant workers in London on May 6th last year

THE Independent Asylum Commission is today publishing Saving Sanctuary, the first of three reports of recommendations aimed at restoring public confidence in sanctuary for those who have fled persecution.

The launch venue: 19 Princelet St, Spitalfields – literally ‘on the edge’ of the City of London – has been a home and sanctuary to incomers since the Romans.

The history of Spitalfields is the history of its immigrants: successive waves of peoples who brought new skills, new attitudes, new cultures and new foods; peoples who over the past millennium shaped and are shaping Britain.  

This pattern of settlement, repeated by many communities over the centuries, is woven into the stories celebrated at 19 Princelet Street.


A multi-cultural charity is working to preserve 19 Princelet Street, a unique and extremely fragile Grade II* building, as a new sort of museum of immigration. 

The building is now closed because of lack of money for repairs. It needs funding to support its educational work with the general public, children, students and many socially excluded groups.

Following eighteen months of evidence-gathering and listening to all sides of the debate, the independent Commissioners appointed by the Citizen Organising Foundation, are now making credible and workable recommendations for reform that safeguard the rights of asylum seekers but also command the confidence of the British public. 

The remaining two reports of recommendations will be published later in 2008.

The Saving Sanctuary report includes the first of three UK Border Agency responses to the Commission’s Interim Findings – Fit for Purpose Yet? – launched on March 27th 2008, along with the results of the Commission’s Public Attitudes Research Project, opinion poll research and Citizens Speak – a consultation that gave ordinary people a say on sanctuary in the UK.

The key findings were:


• The Commission concludes that there is grave misunderstanding in the public mind about the term ‘asylum’ which if not addressed threatens to undermine support for the UK’s proud tradition of providing sanctuary to those fleeing persecution; and recommends that immediate action is taken to win hearts and minds and long term public support for sanctuary.

• Following its public Citizens Speak consultation, the Commission concludes that there is a mainstream consensus on the five key values that should be foundation principles on which policy relating to those seeking sanctuary should be based; and recommends that current and future government policy be brought into line with those values.

• The Commission concludes that in recent years there have been significant improvements in the way we decide who needs sanctuary, for which we commend the UK Border Agency; and recommends that the UK Border Agency takes steps to address remaining flaws, and engage with the 48 recommendations we make to improve still further the way the UK decides who needs sanctuary.  These include ‘front-loading’ legal advice for asylum seekers, continuing to improve the training of decision-makers and making the decision-making process more transparent and understood by its users and the public.

The Commission’s public attitudes research found that the public are unclear about what asylum seekers are and the process that they have to go through when they arrive in the UK. One typical focus group response was that ‘. . . to most people the term asylum seeker just means anybody coming to live off our state system.’  The public  perception is that on the whole asylum seekers are treated better than they would like – another participant in the research commented: ‘Asylum seekers go to a car auction and get free housing, mobile phone, phone credit to search for jobs, and vouchers for a free car.’

Public concern about asylum is strongly linked to perceptions of the effectiveness of the asylum system itself. 

When asked what would make them feel more positive towards asylum seekers, the most popular suggestion was ‘a more effective asylum system’ – cited by 43.8% of opinion poll respondents. 

And while 65.4% of opinion poll respondents were ‘very’ or ‘quite’ proud of the UK’s tradition of providing sanctuary to people fleeing persecution, 58% said that the UK should reconsider its commitment to providing sanctuary.

Speaking ahead of the launch of the Saving Sanctuary report Rt. Hon. Sir John Waite, co-chair of the Independent Asylum Commission and a former Judge of the High Court said:

‘Unless we take action to restore public support and confidence, the outlook for the UK’s tradition of providing sanctuary to those fleeing persecution is bleak.

‘The public overwhelmingly supports the idea that we provide sanctuary to those who need it and they are on the whole proud of our history as a safe haven – but there is a profound disconnection in the public mind between the sanctuary they want the UK to provide and their perception of asylum seekers and the asylum system.’

The key recommendations are:

• Restore public support for sanctuary in the UK through effective communication with ordinary people;

• Restore public confidence by ensuring that asylum policies are in keeping with mainstream consensus British values on sanctuary;

• Restore public trust by continuing to improve the way we decide who needs sanctuary.

In a series of recommendations to restore public support for sanctuary in the UK, the Commissioners urge key figures from politics, media and civil society to hold a ‘sanctuary summit’ and work out a roadmap for communicating sanctuary to the public. 

They suggest that no child should leave school without being aware of the UK’s past and present role as a safe haven for those seeking sanctuary. 

The Commissioners also advise those wishing to communicate effectively with the public to avoid using the term ‘asylum’ or ‘asylum seeker’ if they wish to convey messages about people seeking sanctuary from persecution.

An opinion poll conducted for the Commission and published to coincide with the Saving Sanctuary report launch showed that a larger number of respondents most strongly associated the word ‘asylum’ with mental illness than with providing safe haven for those fleeing persecution.

Conversely, a clear majority understood the term ‘sanctuary’ as referring to safe haven for those fleeing persecution, and over half said that they could relate to the term ‘sanctuary’ personally.

Ifath Nawaz, President of the Association of Muslim Lawyers, and also co-chair of the Independent Asylum Commission also speaking ahead of the launch said:

‘For those who have fled persecution, sanctuary is saving – our duty is to save sanctuary for those who will undoubtedly need it in the future.

‘We hope that this report and the two that follow it later this summer will provide a foundation on which policy-makers can build a system that commands long term public support for sanctuary.’

She continued:

‘The public have to understand and support sanctuary and the system that provides it for those fleeing persecution.

‘And that is why the Commission is calling for a campaign to win a “centreground for sanctuary” – to win hearts and minds – and ensure we have a system that is in line with the values of the mainstream British public.’

The Saving Sanctuary report is being launched at 19 Princelet Street, a cutting edge museum and historic place of sanctuary, a site of civic engagement, and the first of its kind in Britain (and in Europe). 

It is a place of education and communication, a place to address issues of immigration, inclusion and identity; it shows how our society has for many centuries been shaped – and is being shaped – through people arriving as strangers and becoming citizens.