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Racism lies at heart of conflict over asylum, Methodists say

7/7/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

This report is a sidebar to UMNS story #351.

Kathleen LaCamera*

LLANDUDNO, Wales (UMNS) - The Rev. Inderjit Bhogal lives in what some might call a "disadvantaged area" of the northern English city of Sheffield. But he says he doesn't see it that way. For this British Methodist minister, it's an advantage, especially as a newly appointed member of a high-level British government advisory panel on racial equality.

"I'm living in a multicultural part of Sheffield," Bhogal told United Methodist News Service during the 2003 British Methodist Conference. "I've got my ear to the ground and I can bring local concerns and local views (to the government)."

A past British Methodist president and the first person of color elected to that role, Bhogal said he has been badgering government officials here for years, particularly on issues of justice and fairness for asylum seekers.

"As I see it there are some 50 million people seeking protection - people who have lost the safety of their country, living both inside and outside those countries," Bhogal said. "The vast majority of those people are being cared for by neighboring countries. The poorest countries have the biggest burden of protection and hospitality. … A trickle come to the wealthier nations. We could be more hospitable and take a greater share of the burden."

At its 2003 conference in July, the British Methodist Church released a churchwide report on racial justice. It stated that "those seeking asylum are demonized as bogus, illegal immigrants and economic migrants scrounging at Britain's 'capital' gate and threatening British culture." The report warns that these widespread views signal the emergence of a new racism and new violence toward people of color and those perceived as "from outside or not like us."

"There's a lot of misinformation and mythology around on the issue of asylum," Bhogal observed. "The perception over all is that these people are all over here living off the welfare systems and jumping the queue for good housing and jobs."

According to the British Refugee Council, a recent MORI poll shows that people in the United Kingdom vastly overestimate the numbers of asylum seekers and refugees in Britain. On average, they thought that 23 percent of the world's refugees and asylum seekers are in the United Kingdom, more than 10 times greater than the reality, which is actually less than 2 percent. Per capita, Britain ranks 10th among European Union countries in the number of asylum seekers it accepts.

Naboth Muchopa, the Methodist Church secretary for race relations and author of the racial justice report, says this misinformation and the British government's policy of dispersing asylum seekers around Britain is creating a "blame the victim" mentality resulting in violence. During the last two weeks in June, asylum seekers were attacked in two separate racially motivated incidents in Plymouth in southwest England and in Wrexham near the northern English-Welsh border.

"This is about the attitudes of those in communities receiving (asylum seekers)," Muchopa said.

Both Muchopa and Bhogal say churches are involved in helping asylum seekers but also acknowledge that Methodists have a way to go in combating other manifestations of racism in their own midst.

"For example," Muchopa said, "visibility for blacks and Asians in the church is not what we'd like it to be. … There must be a big political will in the rest of the church, and we must put resources into raising this issue."

Bhogal is more blunt. "We've been saying this for decades. Now we want to see evidence from the Methodist Conference that what we are saying is heard. … We are all equally a part of the body of Christ. That leaves no room for racial injustice or any injustice for that matter in our church."

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*LaCamera is a United Methodist News Service correspondent based in England.

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