Churches demand action for 'Living Ghosts'

  Poverty Action Sunday takes place on 26 February. This day highlights the fact that many thousands of people in the UK - from people on state pensions to those on benefits or on below minimum wage jobs - are struggling to survive. This year Church Action on Poverty are focussing on a new group of people in extreme poverty - the so-called: 'Living Ghosts' or destitute asylum seekers. Once a person's claim to asylum has been refused all benefits are withdrawn. They have no right to work. Yet at the same time, for various reasons, it is also impossible for them to leave the UK. Destitute and homeless, they are forced to rely on friends, charity and food parcels. The campaign describes a profoundly deaf woman from Somalia, forced to sleep in a phone box and a family from Zimbabwe spending the night among the rubbish bins behind a London theatre Babak Ahadi, from Iran, who believed his conversion to Christianity would have led to his death there, became so terrified and depressed when he heard his claim to asylum had been refused that he doused himself in petrol and set fire to himself. This was in Bristol last year. Around forty desperate 'failed' asylum seekers have now committed suicide since 2001. "'Living Ghosts' refers to a very particular group of people, surely amongst the most vulnerable in our society" said Mr David Maggs, from the Churches Council for Industry and Social Responsibility (ISR). "Officially they no longer exist, that's why the campaign refers to them as "ghosts", but latest Red Cross figures estimate their numbers to be 33,600 across the country and we are aware of an increasing number here in the South West". "These people are not ghosts but fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters" says Sue Ingham, Secretary of the Clifton Diocese Justice and Peace Commission. "We all know how important it is to be heard. Each one of these people has a story to tell and we need to listen to them, to understand the situations they have come from and why it is currently impossible for them to return home". A 'Living Ghosts South West Hearing', takes place at 10am Friday 17 March at the Council House, College Green, Bristol. Similar events have been organised around the country. In addition to the hearings, church communities are being invited to sign cards expressing concern at current government asylum policy. The cards will be delivered to the Home Secretary in person this summer. They make the point that a simple policy change whereby asylum seekers would be allowed to sustain themselves through paid work or, where this was not possible, allowing them to continue to receive a basic entitlement to support from the state, would have a dramatic impact on the lives of those currently forced to survive as virtual 'living ghosts'. "The small change in asylum policy suggested by Church Action on Poverty, would make a huge difference to the people concerned as well as being to everyone's benefit", said David Maggs. "Not only would it stop people from disappearing into the underground economy, but it would enable them to share their often considerable skills and experience and to make a positive contribution to society as a whole."

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