Seeking Sanctuary – a History of Refugees in Britain

Seeking Sanctuary – a History of Refugees in Britain

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Emigration of the Huguenots 1566 by Jan Antoon Neuhuys (Image Credit: Public Domain).

The media has many, often negative, stories about asylum seekers trying to arrive in Britain. More sympathetic interpretations exhibit shock that people would risk their lives in flimsy dinghies to attempt to cross the English Channel; less sympathetic accounts say they should be physically rebuffed. However, crossing the sea to Britain is not a new phenomenon for people seeking sanctuary from persecution.

Religious conflicts

In the 16th century the Spanish Netherlands, roughly equivalent to modern day Belgium, was ruled directly from Madrid. Many people living there had converted to Protestantism whilst Spain, ruled by Phillip II, was fiercely Catholic. In Mediaeval times religion was of overwhelming significance to people’s lives. It ruled their rituals from birth to death.

Philip II by Sofonisba Anguissola, 1573 (Image Credit: Public Domain)

However, corruption in the Catholic Church had begun to undermine its authority in parts of Europe and many had renounced the old faith and embraced Protestantism. This led to intense conflicts and in the Spanish Netherlands in 1568 a revolt was ruthlessly suppressed by the Duke of Alva, Phillip’s senior general. Up to 10,000 people fled; some north to the Dutch provinces but many took to boats and crossed the often perilous North Sea to England.

Arrivals in England

In Norwich and other eastern towns they were warmly welcomed. They arrived bringing special skills and new techniques in weaving and allied trades and they are credited with reviving the cloth trade which was in serious decline.

The Museum at the Bridewell in Norwich celebrates their history and recounts that the Norwich City Football Club acquired its nickname from the colourful Canaries that these ‘Strangers’ kept in their weaving rooms.

London as well as towns like Canterbury, Dover, and Rye equally welcomed the strangers. Elizabeth I favoured them not only for their contribution to the economy but also because they were fleeing the rule of the Catholic monarchy of Spain.

There were, however, some who found these new arrivals a threat. Thus three gentlemen farmers in Norfolk plotted an attack on some strangers at the yearly fair. When the plot was uncovered they were put on trial and Elizabeth had them executed.

Jessie Childs is an award-winning author and historian. In this fascinating interview, she explores the Catholic predicament in Elizabethan England - an age in which their faith was criminalised, and almost two hundred Catholics were executed. In exposing the tensions masked by the cult of Gloriana, she considers the terrible consequences when politics and religion collide.

Listen Now

St Bartholemew’s Day Massacre

In 1572 the occasion of a Royal wedding in Paris lead to a blood bath which escalated way beyond the palace walls. Some 3,000 Protestants died in Paris alone that night and many more were slaughtered in such towns as Bordeaux, Toulouse and Rouen. This became known as the St Bartholemew’s Day Massacre, named after the saint’s day on which it occurred.

Elizabeth condemned it outright but the Pope had a medal struck in honour of the event. Such were the geo-political and religious divisions in Europe. Many of the survivors came across the Channel and settled in Canterbury.

Like their counterparts in Norwich they established successful weaving enterprises. Once again, recognising their importance, the Queen gave them permission to use the undercroft of Canterbury Cathedral for their worship. This particular chapel, Eglise Protestant Francaise de Cantorbery, is dedicated to them and is still in use to this day.

St Bartholomew’s Day massacre by François Dubois, c.1572-84 (Image Credit: Public Domain)

The Huguenots flee France

The largest group of refugees came to Britain’s shores in 1685 after Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes. This edict, established in 1610, had given some tolerance to the Protestants or Huguenots of France. An increasing onslaught of oppressive measures had been unleashed on them in the period leading up to 1685.

This included Dragonnades being billeted in their houses and terrorising the family. Contemporary lithographs show children being held out of windows to force their parents to convert. Thousands left France at this time with no chance of returning to their native soil since Louis had their nationality irrevocably revoked.

Dan visited the Bodleian Library in Oxford, home to one and a quarter million historic maps. Aided by professor Jerry Brotton, together they discuss the significance of ancient cartography and look at some of the jewels of the collection.

Watch Now

Many went to the Americas and South Africa but an overwhelming number, some 50,000 came to Britain with a further 10,000 going to Ireland, then a British colony. Dangerous crossings were undertaken and from Nantes on the west coast where the Huguenot community was strong it was a rough journey across the Bay of Biscay.

Two boys were smuggled in wine barrels aboard a ship that way. Of these Henri de Portal made his fortune as an adult producing bank notes for the Crown.

The Huguenot legacy

Huguenots succeeded in many fields. It is estimated that a sixth of the UK’s population are descended from the Huguenots who arrived here in the late 17th century. They brought major skills to this country and their descendants live on in such names as Furneaux, Noquet and Bosanquet.

Huguenot weavers’ houses at Canterbury (Image Credit: Public Domain).

They too were favoured by Royalty. King William and Queen Mary made regular contributions for the upkeep of the poorer Huguenot congregations.

Modern day refugees

The history of refugees arriving by boat and seeking sanctuary in the UK extends further into the modern era. It recounts the stories of people such as the Palatines, the Portuguese refugees, 19th century Jewish refugees from Russia, Belgian refugees in the First World War, child refugees from the Spanish Civil War and Jewish refugees in the Second World War.

In 2020 and with no safe and legal routes, asylum-seekers often feel they have no choice but to take to flimsy boats. How people seeking asylum have been received here has been dependent on many factors including leadership from the government of the day.

Being a stranger in a strange land is made much easier by being welcomed and supported. Some of those fleeing persecution found a warm welcome for their skills but equally for political reasons. Refugees fleeing a regime that England, the host country, was in conflict with received strong support here. The 250,000 Belgian refugees who fled the German invasion of their country in World War One are a notable example.

They were met with an outpouring of support across the country. However not all refugees have been so warmly welcomed.

Seeking Sanctuary, a History of Refugees in Britain by Jane Marchese Robinson seeks to reveal some of these stories, set them in an historic context and illustrate this through the use of a few personal journeys seeking sanctuary. It was published on 2 December 2020 by Pen & Sword Books.

Seeking Sanctuary – a History of Refugees in Britain - History

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Seeking Sanctuary: A History of Refugees in Britain

208 pages | first published 2020

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Seeking Sanctuary: A History of Refugees in Britain

Seeking Sanctuary: A History of Refugees in Britain

208 pages | first published 2020

The StoryGraph is an affiliate of the featured links. We earn commission on any purchases made.

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Seeking Sanctuary, Finding None

BERLIN — Ever since the brutal crackdown on the Iranian opposition in June 2009, in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s security forces and militias killed at least 250 people, more than 4,300 Iranians have fled to Turkey.

There, they are stuck in a difficult situation. The European Union has not opened its doors to people who had won so much international respect and praise for their courage in challenging Mr. Ahmadinejad’s election victory, which was widely criticized as fraudulent.

“The attitude by the E.U. is so hypocritical,” said Volker Beck, a German legislator with the opposition Greens who is a member of Parliament’s human rights committee. “Here we have European governments saying that the E.U. stands for human rights, democracy and values. But it seems that values stop when it comes to refugees. Europe is not protecting the Iranian refugees.”

The international reaction to the Iranian protesters is reminiscent of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, when tens of thousands took to the streets in Budapest to oppose the Communist regime. They were encouraged by the West to continue their struggle. But in the end, the West did nothing to help them. Scores were executed. Hundreds were given long prison sentences. Much the same is happening today in Iran.

Many of the Iranians who have fled to Turkey had been imprisoned and tortured by the Iranian security forces after participating in demonstrations against the disputed presidential election, according to Omid Advocates for Human Rights, an organization based in Berkeley, California. They fled as soon as they were released, fearing further reprisals. Others are also seeking refuge because of the random and ever-increasing intimidation of individuals.

Amnesty International, the human rights organization, reported recently that Iran executed 388 people in 2009. Nine people are on death row on allegations of participating in more demonstrations. Between the presidential election and last December, more than 5,000 people were imprisoned, according to Amnesty.

There are trade union leaders still behind bars as well as 34 journalists. Web sites run by human rights groups have been shut down. Opposition supporters, human rights defenders, ethnic and religious minorities, gays and lesbians, and teachers regularly endure harassment, surveillance, interrogations, nighttime raids, imprisonment and torture, according to Human Rights Watch. “Many ordinary people are being victimized by their government,” said Bill Frelick, refugee program director at Human Rights Watch in New York.

Most of those who have fled since June 2009 are young and educated. Many of them had been involved in journalism and filmmaking, blogging, radio broadcasting and setting up Internet communications and civil society movements, according to a detailed report published by Omid.

Bernd Mesovic, a refugee expert at Pro Asyl, a German nongovernmental organization, said “countries should be opening their doors to these people who have defended civil society and fought for democracy.”

But Europe is not. The E.U. policy toward Iran is focused almost entirely on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions — not supporting civil society.

The Iranians in Turkey, like other non-European asylum seekers, are in a particularly precarious situation. They are barred from work, receive little financial or medical help, are not allowed to move around the country and have to pay high residence permit fees to Turkish officials.

“They are caught in the political cross-fire,” said Mr. Frelick.

This is because Turkey has no statutory asylum law. It protects refugees only from Europe, Russia and the former Soviet states west of the Urals — meaning the Baltic states and the countries of Eastern Europe. Refugees from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and other non-European countries can only be given temporary asylum until they have been resettled in a third country through the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Carol Batchelor, the refugee agency’s representative in Turkey, says Ankara, which is negotiating to join the European Union, intends to make changes to its asylum policy. It would extend its refugee status to non-European seekers on condition that the Union agrees to common policies on resettlement and burden sharing.

“I can understand that approach. Why should Turkey become a dumping ground for the E.U.?” said Mr. Frelick of Human Rights Watch.

This is exactly what would happen unless the European Union changes its policies on accepting refugees.

Shining a light on the Valley of Sanctuary this Refugee Week

Wainhouse Tower in Halifax will light up orange from Monday 14 to Sunday 20 June to mark Calderdale’s support for national Refugee Week.

Refugee Week is a UK-wide festival celebrating the contribution of refugees and asylum seekers across the country, and promoting understanding of why people seek sanctuary. This year’s theme is ‘We Cannot Walk Alone’.

Calderdale has a long history of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers from around the world and has developed a Valley Of Sanctuary (external link) , a growing network of local organisations who come together to make the borough a welcoming place for all, especially for refugees seeking sanctuary from war and persecution.

Members of the Valley of Sanctuary will unite once again for the annual Refugee Week and are promoting this year’s local events (external link) on their website, (external link) and on Twitter @CalderdaleVoS. From walks to webinars, everyone is welcome to join in.

St Augustine’s Centre (external link) , a Valley of Sanctuary member, is running a ‘We Cannot Walk Alone’ mass walk on Sunday 20 June – World Refugee Day – in celebration of Refugee Week and in memory of Jo Cox. For more information, please visit their website (external link) and sign up for the event here (external link) .

All year round, the Valley of Sanctuary celebrates the contribution of refugees and asylum seekers to Calderdale, highlighting the borough-wide kindness that is a key part of the Vision2024 for Calderdale. Members always welcome the opportunity to grow the network. Any organisation wanting to join can find out more at (external link)

Cllr Tim Swift, Leader of Calderdale Council, said:

“Kindness, diversity and togetherness are just some of the things that make Calderdale such a special place. We embrace the contribution that refugees and asylum seekers make to Calderdale’s story.

“The Council is a proud member of the Valley of Sanctuary and works with other organisations to maintain a welcoming and friendly borough for everyone, where kindness and inclusion are at the heart of everything we do.

“The importance of Refugee Week is being highlighted by lighting up the iconic Wainhouse Tower in orange as a symbol of our communities’ support, and through a range of events that everyone can take part in.”

Part of the Council’s work to support refugees and asylum seekers is through its partnership with St Augustine’s Centre in Halifax, which offers a warm welcome and safe space to people seeking support and sanctuary.

Work includes supporting refugees with housing, benefits claims, healthcare, language skills, employment, education and volunteering opportunities, and activities that build social connections.

Phoebe Hendy, a Caseworker at St Augustine’s Centre, said:

“As Calderdale’s specialist charity working with people seeking asylum and refugees, we are delighted to celebrate Refugee Week and the incredible contribution that refugees make to Calderdale.

“Come meet us and find out more about us at The Great Get Together at The Piece Hall on Saturday, or walk with us on Sunday 20 June from People’s Park. There’s so many fantastic events happening this week, we hope everyone makes the most of it.”

Phoebe’s lockdown story

“Throughout the pandemic I have continued my role as a Caseworker at St Augustine’s Centre, as have all the staff here, in a COVID-secure way. It’s important that we have been able to keep going to support people seeking sanctuary during lockdown. When the world stopped, our work continued.

“As part of the Support Team, I offer advice and assistance which is vitally important for our community. We help people make GP appointments, deal with housing issues, find solicitors and support people to access English lessons, donated clothes and volunteering opportunities, amongst other services.

“Centre Members are key contributors to our community and the centre supports everyone to work within COVID-19 guidelines. They are chefs, donation organisers, tailors, artists, carpenters, gardeners and tech whizzes.”

Seeking Sanctuary: A History of Refugees in Britain Paperback – 13 January 2021

After graduating from Birmingham University in Economic and Social History Jane spent some 30 years as an advocate for marginalised groups including the homeless, people with disabilities and mental health problems and latterly refugees. She had always loved writing but it wasn’t until 2010, when she finished working full time, that she could become fully committed and undertook the MA in Creative Writing at Plymouth University. An historical novel set at the time of the Boer War ensued. On discussion with Pen and Sword this became the basis for an historically researched book “Tracing Your Boer War Ancestors: Soldiers of a Forgotten War”. The book was published in 2016 and kindled interest in a subject which had been much overlooked.

The present book “Seeking Sanctuary, a History of Refugees in Britain” has been inspired by the work Jane undertook with refugees and asylum seekers in Plymouth as well as a personal discovery. It was only after her mother’s death in 2004 that she delved into her grandmother’s history and found that she had been one of the 250,000 Belgian refugees who fled here when the German army over ran their country in 1914. Uncovering her grandmother’s history meant learning about the fascinating story of those thousands of refugees who sought sanctuary here in the First World War.


In England, King Æthelberht of Kent proclaimed the first Anglo-Saxon laws on sanctuary in about 600 AD. However Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136) says that the legendary pre-Saxon king Dunvallo Molmutius (4th/5th century BC) enacted sanctuary laws among the Molmutine Laws as recorded by Gildas (c. 500–570). [5] The term grith was used by the laws of king Ethelred. By the Norman era that followed 1066, two kinds of sanctuary had evolved: all churches had the lower-level powers and could grant sanctuary within the church proper, but the broader powers of churches licensed by royal charter extended sanctuary to a zone around the church. At least twenty-two churches had charters for this broader sanctuary, including

Sometimes the criminal had to get to the chapel itself to be protected, or ring a certain bell, hold a certain ring or door-knocker, or sit on a certain chair ("frith-stool"). Some of these items survive at various churches. Elsewhere, sanctuary held in an area around the church or abbey, sometimes extending in radius to as much as a mile and a half. Stone "sanctuary crosses" marked the boundaries of the area some crosses still exist as well. Thus it could become a race between the felon and the medieval law officers to the nearest sanctuary boundary. Serving of justice upon the fleet of foot could prove a difficult proposition.

Church sanctuaries were regulated by common law. An asylum seeker had to confess his sins, surrender his weapons, and permit supervision by a church or abbey organization with jurisdiction. Seekers then had forty days to decide whether to surrender to secular authorities and stand trial for their alleged crimes, or to confess their guilt, abjure the realm, and go into exile by the shortest route and never return without the king's permission. Those who did return faced execution under the law or excommunication from the Church.

If the suspects chose to confess their guilt and abjure, they did so in a public ceremony, usually at the church gates. They would surrender their possessions to the church, and any landed property to the crown. The coroner, a medieval official, would then choose a port city from which the fugitive should leave England (though the fugitive sometimes had this privilege). The fugitive would set out barefooted and bareheaded, carrying a wooden cross-staff as a symbol of protection under the church. Theoretically they would stay to the main highway, reach the port and take the first ship out of England. In practice, however, the fugitive could get a safe distance away, abandon the cross-staff and take off and start a new life. However, one can safely assume the friends and relatives of the victim knew of this ploy and would do everything in their power to make sure this did not happen or indeed that the fugitives never reached their intended port of call, becoming victims of vigilante justice under the pretense of a fugitive who wandered too far off the main highway while trying to "escape."

Knowing the grim options, some fugitives rejected both choices and opted for an escape from the asylum before the forty days were up. Others simply made no choice and did nothing. Since it was illegal for the victim's friends to break into an asylum, the church would deprive the fugitive of food and water until a decision was made.

During the Wars of the Roses, when the Yorkists or Lancastrians would suddenly get the upper hand by winning a battle, some adherents of the losing side might find themselves surrounded by adherents of the other side and not able to get back to their own side. Upon realizing this situation they would rush to sanctuary at the nearest church until it was safe to come out. A prime example is Queen Elizabeth Woodville, consort of Edward IV of England.

In 1470, when the Lancastrians briefly restored Henry VI to the throne, Queen Elizabeth was living in London with several young daughters. She moved with them into Westminster for sanctuary, living there in royal comfort until Edward IV was restored to the throne in 1471 and giving birth to their first son Edward V during that time. When King Edward IV died in 1483, Elizabeth (who was highly unpopular with even the Yorkists and probably did need protection) took her five daughters and youngest son (Richard, Duke of York) and again moved into sanctuary at Westminster. To be sure she had all the comforts of home, she brought so much furniture and so many chests that the workmen had to knock holes in some of the walls to get everything in fast enough to suit her. [6]

Henry VIII changed the rules of asylum, reducing to a short list the types of crimes for which people were allowed to claim asylum. The medieval system of asylum was finally abolished entirely by James I in 1623.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." The United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees guides national legislation concerning political asylum. Under these agreements, a refugee (or for cases where repressing base means has been applied directly or environmentally to the refugee) is a person who is outside that person's own country's territory (or place of habitual residence if stateless) owing to fear of persecution on protected grounds. Protected grounds include race, caste, nationality, religion, political opinions and membership or participation in any particular social group or social activities. Rendering true victims of persecution to their persecutor is a violation of a principle called non-refoulement, part of the customary and trucial Law of Nations.

These are the accepted terms and criteria as principles and a fundamental part in the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees non-refoulement order. [7]

Since the 1990s, victims of sexual persecution (which may include domestic violence, or systematic oppression of a gender or sexual minority) have come to be accepted in some countries as a legitimate category for asylum claims, when claimants can prove that the state is unable or unwilling to provide protection.

JRS: 'Cruel and dishonest' changes to UK asylum system marks 'dark day in Britain's history'

Changes announced by Home Secretary Priti Patel today, have been condemned by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS UK) as deeply cruel, dishonest and inhumane. Those seeking asylum who arrive via irregular routes, such as in small boats in the English Channel, will no longer have the same entitlements when claiming asylum as those who arrive through government designated routes.

Under new plans announced in parliament this afternoon, those forced to flee their homes, seeking protection from the UK who have not arrived via the limited and restrictive routes laid out by government, would not be immediately able to claim asylum. This process would place vulnerable refugees at risk of removal at any time, and force their family reunion rights and access to necessary financial support to be vastly limited.

Sarah Teather, Director of JRS UK said: "Today is a dark day in Britain's history. The country which was once at the forefront of championing the refugee convention has announced it no longer supports the right to claim asylum and be granted sanctuary here from violence.

"The changes being announced are cruel and dishonest. The government knows full well that those seeking safety are forced to cross borders irregularly. An asylum system designed to penalise this is lying about its purpose.

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which the United Kingdom is a signatory, those seeking asylum are guaranteed the right of entry into a country. The reality for so many seeking sanctuary, including those supported by JRS UK is that they frequently have no choice but to cross borders irregularly. JRS UK renews calls for a fair and just asylum system that should support all those who have been forced to flee their homes from violence, persecution, and war in order to rebuild their lives elsewhere.

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Claiming ‘Sanctuary’ in a Medieval Church Could Save Your Life—But Lead to Exile

The most famous scene in the The Hunchback of Notre Dame is when Quasimodo saves Esmeralda from execution, rushes her to the cathedral and cries, “Sanctuary!” Though the act is pretty dramatic (he swings in and out on a rope), it’s based on a real religious custom. In medieval Europe, fugitives really could escape the death penalty by claiming sanctuary in a church. The catch was that afterwards, they usually had to go into permanent exile.

Quosimodo with Esmerelda taking sanctuary at Notre Dame.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The concept of sanctuary predates Christianity, going back at least as far as Greek and Roman temples that offered protection to fugitives. Early Christian churches competed with these pagan temples by offering their own protections, and by the end of the 4th century, sanctuary was a part of Roman imperial law. If a person murdered someone and then ran to the church to claim sanctuary, no one could could come in and harm, arrest or remove her for punishment.

Even after the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, churches maintained their authority to protect people who had broken major secular laws. Roman Catholic leaders believed a consecrated church was “protected space,” says Karl Shoemaker, a professor of history and law at the University of Wisconsin and author of Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400-1500. “It would be inappropriate in the extreme to carry weapons into the church or to arrest someone or to exercise force within the church.”

In addition, the church was �ply suspicious about the punishments meted out by secular authority,” he says. Many early church leaders thought the Roman Empire was too concerned with punishing criminals as opposed to “restoring the moral balance between the wrongdoer and God.” Sanctuary was meant to address the latter. If fugitives claiming sanctuary weren’t already Christians, they were supposed to convert.

Murder and theft were the most common crimes for which fugitives sought sanctuary in medieval Europe. Once a fugitive entered a cathedral, their pursuers could lie in wait for them outside, but they couldn’t enter to capture anyone. In addition, fugitives couldn’t bring a bow and arrow into the church to attack their pursuers from the windows, or any other weapon that they might use to defend themselves once they left.

While safe inside, fugitives might work out an agreement with the people they wronged in order to leave safely. Yet more often, fugitives had to go straight from sanctuary into permanent exile from their city, region or country. This was especially true in England beginning in the 12th century, when the country legally regulated sanctuary more than any other region in Europe.

According to England’s laws during this period, fugitives who claimed sanctuary had to leave England for the rest of their lives unless they received a royal pardon, which was very difficult to obtain. And unlike most European churches, which didn’t have formal limits on how long a person could claim sanctuary, English people weren&apost supposed to stay in sanctuary for more than 40 days.

A short sanctuary followed by exile was still better than a death sentence and for many people, it was also better than prison. “Jails were a common place to die,” says Elizabeth Allen, an English professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies sanctuary in medieval England. “You weren’t eating well, you were given often just bread and water and disease was quite common.”

Though English sanctuary was the most heavily-regulated type in Europe, English people didn’t always follow the letter or the spirit of the laws. ln the 14th century, a London woman murdered a priest in a church and then tried to claim sanctuary there. After some legal consideration, officials decided she couldn’t claim sanctuary in the church because she𠆝 desecrated it. There were also instances in which pursuers illegally removed people from sanctuary or, as was the case with Archbishop Thomas Becket, killed them right there in the cathedral.

Hubert de Burgh, 1st Earl of Kent (1170�), being taken from sanctuary at Boisars, France, 1232.

Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

There were also those who took advantage of England’s sanctuary laws because they were rich and powerful. Most of the early sanctuary seekers in England were poor, but this changed in the 15th century as influential royals began to avoid their crimes by staying in sanctuary as long as they wanted. In fact, the apparent abuse of sanctuary by aristocrats may have aided its demise in England after the Protestant Reformation.

“Once you’re protecting only a select few, and you’re protecting them permanently instead of just sending away your indigent criminals, sanctuary becomes a lot less appealing,” Allen says. “That, I think, starts to pave the way for the demise of sanctuary as a religious practice of protecting the weak.”

England outlawed sanctuary in 1623, a few decades after the Catholic church restricted what crimes sanctuary could apply to. Sanctuary faded after this, but didn’t completely disappear, even in England. “People are still claiming sanctuary—in some instances, all the way up through the 19th and 20th century and even today,” Shoemaker says.

As an example, he points to a church in The Hague that protected a family seeking asylum from deportation by holding round-the-clock services for 96 days. Under Dutch law, police cannot enter religious institutions during rites, so the church only let up when the Netherlands granted the family more time to stay in January 2019.

“If you listen to what pastors and members of faith communities today who are protecting sanctuary seekers in the U.S. say,” he continues, “in many cases, they’re very consciously aligning themselves with this much older, longer history in which Christianity held up the protection of sanctuary seekers as one of its highest obligations.”

Similarly to today, many medieval European churches didn’t have a specific right to protect fugitives under secular law. But people who pursued fugitives understood that it would make them look bad if they broke the church’s canon law and harmed or arrested someone inside.

Seeking Sanctuary – a History of Refugees in Britain - History

Guest post by Jordanna Bailkin

Photograph of Ugandan Asians at Tonfanau camp by Jim Arnould, Nova (April 1973)

Today, as the 20 th anniversary of Refugee Week marks the contribution of refugees to British life, very few people think of Britain as a land of camps. For many Britons, camps seem to happen “elsewhere,” from Greece to Palestine to the global South. Yet during the 20 th century, dozens of camps in Britain housed hundreds of thousands of Belgians, Jews, Basques, Poles, Hungarians, Anglo-Egyptians, Ugandan Asians, and Vietnamese. These largely forgotten sites remind us that Britain’s track record on refuge is not just about the politics of entry and exit – letting people in or keeping them out – but also how they are cared for after they arrive.

In Britain, refugee camps were spread out all over the country, from the heart of London to the tiniest villages. Refugees slept in holiday chalets and concrete bunkers, in military bases, prisons and stately homes. Some camps were tightly controlled, with barbed-wire perimeters and armed guards. Some camps were virtually ignored by locals others completely transformed the nature of nearby towns. People could be encamped for just a few days, or for decades.

Perhaps one of the strangest refugee camps was Tonfanau, located in a bleak corner of Welsh-speaking North Wales. Here, hundreds of Ugandan Asians (expelled from Ugandan by Idi Amin in 1972) huddled over heaters amid wartime wooden sheds, all of which had been deserted by the army three years earlier. Miles from any industrial center, squeezed between mountains and the stormy sea, the camp was marked by a barbed-wire fence and a sign that said, “Beware of the firing range.” As Asians in other camps went on hunger strike to protest the quality of food and racial segregation in the dining halls, the Welsh happily adopted the camp shop as their local delicatessen, dining out at Tonfanau to enjoy exotic treats.

As the history of Tonfanau suggests, refugee camps in Britain brought a startling variety of people into contact, creating unique intimacies and frictions. The interactions between refugees and citizens that took place in these camps can’t be easily characterized as hostility or benevolence, prejudice or tolerance. Instead, they reveal a morally complicated story about empathy, solidarity, and activism.

It is difficult to imagine a space like Tonfanau existing in Britain today. As Britain’s asylum policies have become more restrictive, the refugee camp has been pushed out of Britain and across the Channel. Within Britain, the refugee camp has been replaced by the immigration detention center. At a time when the future of refuge may be not in a camp, but in a cell, it is vital to remember that the spaces in which refugees have lived are all around us, even in the heart of liberal democracy itself. We are still standing on their ground.

Jordanna Bailkin is the Jere L. Bacharach Endowed Professor in International Studies in the Department of History at the University of Washington. She is the author of three books, including Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain (Oxford, 2018).

Seeking sanctuary

An ornate 17th century church in central Brussels has become a shelter for a group of Afghan asylum seekers, protesting their deportation back to their home country.

The families, whose first request to stay in Belgium was rejected, were invited to stay in Saint John the Baptist at the Beguinage by the church’s priest. They have now been eating, sleeping and teaching their children in the building for more than three months.

The church’s priest, Daniel Alliet, said he opened his doors to the refugees because he disagreed with Belgium's current asylum policy.

Now, half the building is filled with tents and makeshift beds, and children run around among its stone columns and elaborate statues.

The church is not fully equipped to deal with its new residents it has few toilets and its water supplies are under strain.

But the Afghans living there have been helped by local charities, who have provided them with tents, blankets and other necessities.

Drawing classes have even been organised for the children in the building, while the adults have been given the opportunity to study French.

Abdul Khaleq, one of those sheltering in the church, holds out a picture of himself taken in Afghanistan - just a small remnant of the life he left behind.

Many of the refugees say they fear they will be killed or forced to join terrorist groups if they return to their home country.

Before receiving shelter at the church, the Afghans occupied several empty buildings in Brussels from which they were evicted and staged protests to draw attention to their cause.


The group of asylum seekers sleep inside the church.

Laundry hangs inside one of their tents.

A young man lies under a duvet.

Afghan asylum seekers wash themselves in the church bathroom.

Khatera Shams, from Kabul, hugs her five-year-old daughter Hadia.

Elyas Fazli, originally from Herat in western Afghanistan, shows a photo of a slaughtered sheep that was taken in her home country.

Eight-year-old Hadiha Homahi, one of those sheltering in the church, holds up a picture that she drew.

Children play inside the building.

A group of Sikh men from Afghanistan sit on their beds inside the church.

51-year-old Abdul Khaleq Homai, from Herat, poses for a picture at the church.

Homai holds out a document, which lays out the removal of his right to stay in Belgium.

An asylum seeker from Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province shows a severed finger on his left hand. The man, who declined to give his name, said he was injured by the Taliban.

An Afghan girl plays inside the church.

An asylum seeker walks past tents pitched inside the building.

An Afghan man stands outside the church wrapped in a blanket.

It was a cold, wet morning when I passed through the doors of the Church of Saint John the Baptist at the Beguinage, a grand 17th century building in the centre of Brussels.

Inside, children were playing and shouting in the large, dark hall, which was lined with rows and rows of tents. I had not just entered a church – I was inside people’s homes. The building had become a very private space.

Saint John the Baptist’s is occupied by a group of Afghan migrants, who have been living there for more than three months. Their first asylum request was refused by the authorities and they were told to leave Belgium, but some ended up travelling around the county aimlessly and were left squatting in unoccupied buildings.

That was before Daniel Alliet, the priest at Saint John the Baptist’s, opened its doors to them. When I went to visit the church at the beginning of the year, more than 200 migrants were living there, although that number has since dropped as many have found shelter in asylum centres.

On my first visit, I felt a sense of dismay when I saw the chaotic and unsanitary conditions in which the asylum seekers lived. The church was not built to house this many people, day and night. Water supplies were under strain. There were only two toilets. The priest told me that the condensation from so many bodies had even begun to damage the organ.

But after several visits I realised that what at first seemed to be chaos was actually fairly well organised, thanks to the resourcefulness of the families and the support of some local charities.

Different time slots were allotted to men, women and families to use the church’s sinks and two toilets. I saw that spacious tents had been installed to accommodate women and children while the men slept in other, smaller shelters. Charities provided tents, blankets, clothes, biscuits, drinks and hot meals and migrants had access to a doctor. The few power outlets available were used to heat water for tea, charge mobile phones or provide some light at night.

Of course, things were far from perfect. When I asked some of the migrants how they managed to wash themselves or their clothes, one of the men replied timidly that he was allowed to take a shower in a private home once a week. Another man told me that, given the large number of clothes they received, he would just throw them away once they became dirty.

As I photographed these families, I really wanted to have an idea of what their lives used to be like back in Afghanistan. I tried to take pictures of any images they had from the country, but most had almost nothing no physical pictures, no IDs even. Some had just a few images on mobile phones of their families.

All the migrants, however, had reasons for protesting their deportation back to Afghanistan. One man explained that he had been jailed by the Taliban, others feared violence and some said that their children could no longer speak their old languages – only French and Flemmish. No matter where they go now, they will be strangers.

Altogether the time I spent at the church brought me in touch with a group of people who proved kind and gentle. The one thing they didn’t want was to go back home.

The Church of Saint John the Baptist at the Beguinage stands illuminated in central Brussels.

Watch the video: How a 13 year old changed Impossible to Im Possible. Sparsh Shah. TEDxGateway


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