London: conference on church outreach to migrants

 Jon Cruddas, MP for Barking and Dagenham, and Neil Jameson, Director of London Citizens, were the keynote speakers at Migration ­ Welcoming Christ in our Community, at St John Fisher Church in North Harrow on Saturday. The event was attended by diocesan justice and peace members to consider how churches might provide more outreach to the thousands of migrants arriving in London in recent years.

Social cohesion with such a population shift is a huge issue. Jon Cruddas spoke of the lack of accountability of government today, including that of his own party. People in poor areas feel ignored and forgotten, as Labour cuts its ties with the labour movement and grassroots organisations. The views of focus groups, only a few thousand people, are determining policy, along with the financial community. Statistics were inadequate to deal with the changing face of London. Population in his constituency has shot up, including a significant increase in ethnic minorities, though government still maintains the 2001 figures of 30% ethnic minorities out of a population of 174,500, and funds accordingly, so that huge under-resourcing causes tensions. From other sources it has been calculated that the ethnic minority figure is nearer 40%. Refugees and migrants compete with longstanding residents for very finite services, and the BNP exploits the uncertainty of a extremely mobile situation. Jon predicts a dismaying picture, in which recession causes attitudes to polarise further, with a stronger right wing xenophobic movement, accompanied by further acute shortages of services, particularly in affordable housing. Churches were in an excellent position to identify need, to shape the demand for better services and to create community. London Citizens has shown an excellent way to organise.

Neil Jameson congratulated the Catholic Church for its support of the grassroots community organising of London Citizens, and announced plans to set up a North London Citizens section. No-one else is providing a forum for all the different interest groups, whether those of faith or neighbourhood or the workplace. Creating community is crucial in a city where knowing one's neighbour is becoming increasingly rare. Alienation was being countered in many ways. One small simple strategy is that of "Neighbourhood Walks" which entail school children going out with their teachers and knocking on doors to ask, "How do you like your neighbourhood? What would you like changed?" and then going back to pray or discuss the experience. On a London-wide basis, Neil asked all present to turn out at the rally on May 4th 2009 to support the Strangers Into Citizens campaign, which seeks an amnesty for migrants who have been living and perhaps working illegally in London for four years or more, so that they are not forced to remain "invisible". This has the support of Boris Johnson, as the result of the London Citizens Mayoral Hustings earlier this year.

Workshops included discussion of sex-trafficking, of homeless A10 migrants, of English language teaching, of living with refugees, how to get involved in the Strangers into Citizens campaign, the London Catholic Worker contribution, and much more. The Jesuit Refugee Service's voucher scheme means that churches and individuals can buy supermarket vouchers from refugees so that they can have cash to buy more cheaply in local markets. A powerful drama revealing the plight of destitute asylum seekers was performed by the Human Rights group, Ice and Fire.

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