Sanctuary Garden

BBC Gardener’s World this week is host to an unusual exhibit:  A garden with a mission to challenge the prejudices towards those seeking a place of safety in our country.

Beyond its superficial simplicity, Sanctuary Garden has hidden layers and conveys a powerful message. It seeks to raise awareness of the complicated issues that surround asylum seekers in the UK, and to dispel common misconceptions about asylum.

At its heart, a white tree, stripped of its bark and painted white represents the thousands of ‘Living Ghosts’: Asylum seekers whose cases have been rejected and are forced into destitution by UK Government policy. Many consider starving and sleeping on the streets to be preferable to returning to the dangers from which they have fled.

Mary came to the UK from Uganda, seeking asylum. She has been refused asylum but is unable to return home, and now lives in Manchester.

She is now forced to survive on weekly food parcels from Rainbow Haven, a church run project in East Manchester.  The centre is a place for asylum-seekers to meet up and get a hot meal, but it is also the frontline of an increasingly difficult battle against destitution.

“I have to make it last for a week. But it's sometimes four days," she says. "If I get some milk, cooking oil, sugar and spaghetti and tea bags, that's when I'm happy.”

Mary does not qualify for any benefits and is not allowed to work. In 2005 she exhausted her legal avenues for her asylum claim, but she says her life would be in danger if she returned to Uganda.

“I want very, very much to go home, but if I go there, I don’t know what could happen to me... It’s not easy to stay because you can’t make friends here... They keep asylum-seekers in darkness – you are not allowed to work.”

Earlier this year, the Children’s Society report Living on the edge of despair told the story of the impact of destitution on asylum seeker and refugee families in Birmingham.  It found that children and young people were sleeping in hostels which were not designed for families, they were growing up in households without food, heating or toys, and pregnant women could not afford to eat or get to hospital to have their baby.

At the end of last year, the Red Cross estimated that at least 26,000 destitute asylum seekers are now living on Red Cross food parcels in the UK.  Others put the numbers much higher.  

Sanctuary Garden, a collaboration between Robert Hughes and Whitchurch, Rhiwbina and Birchgrove Churches Together, Cardiff and sponsored by Church Action on Poverty is also a tribute to the valuable work being done by so many parishes, groups, projects and churches who feel the injustice is intolerable and compassion is the only possible response.  

Restore is one such project, set up by Birmingham Churches Together, to help welcome asylum seekers to the region through a network of befrienders, holiday schemes, social events and advocacy while raising awareness of the issues.  But destitution projects are struggling to cope with the level of demand.  At root, the problem is not one of a lack of charity – but of harsh and unjust Government policies.

Nick Sagovsky, Canon theologian at Westminster Abbey presents the challenge in these terms: “In the present situation, where we have a political auction to buy the sympathies of voters by talking tough about asylum seekers, the churches have a key role to play - reminding politicians of all parties that asylum seekers are people too, and that there are many within the electorate who wish to welcome them hospitably.”  

If you can’t make it down to Gardeners’ World Live this week, why not do your bit to remind politicians that asylum seekers are people too by signing up for Church Action on Poverty’s Living Ghosts campaign to end the abject poverty and destitution of refused asylum seekers at 

Niall Cooper is National Coordinator of Church Action on Poverty

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