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Tikkun Olam

Healing the World Through Social Action

Various  |  Winter 2008  -  Number 212



Jewish Perspective

How can we not, as Jews, have compassion for asylum seekers? We have only to look to our own history.

The first person to call the Jews a nation was Pharaoh. We were forged into peoplehood not through great military victories, but as slaves in Egypt. The longing for freedom forms the foundational narrative of Judaism; from it emerge the core values of the Torah; dignity, justice and compassion. Year by year we study this story; daily we refer to the exodus from Egypt in our prayers and rituals. On Seder night we re-enact it, teaching our children the taste of its bitterness and hope. This, notes the historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, is how Jews do history, by reliving its drama and values. Regarding asylum seekers, the Torah sums up the latter very simply: ‘You shall not oppress the stranger, for you have known the soul of the stranger…’ (Exodus 23:9).

In subsequent history Jews have repeatedly been reminded what that soul feels like. The eleventh century poet Yehudah Halevi compared the reflection of the stars in the sea after a great storm to the lamps of wandering strangers, a prophetic image of the many exiles the subsequent centuries would bring. Time and again, many Jews perished for want of a safe haven. Through centuries of statelessness, Jews have understood the difference between abandonment and welcome.

I grew up hearing my parents’ accounts of how they fled Germany in their teens. I have in my desk my grandfather’s passport marked with the Nazi eagle, and carrying the life saving stamp of the British authorities.

When people arrive here today, fleeing unspeakable violence, terrorised and often tortured, longing for family whose fate they don’t know, and deeply lonely, how can we abandon them to sleep outcast on the street, in dread of deportation?

Jonathan Wittenberg is Senior Rabbi of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues UK


There are an estimated 285,000 destitute asylum seekers living on the streets of Britain. Many are told by the British government that they do not fit the necessary criteria to receive refugee status but they stay as they are too scared to return home to countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. A very small minority of failed asylum seekers receive Section 4 Support which consists of £35 of supermarket vouchers a week, plus accommodation. The rest live hand to mouth, sleeping rough or on the floors of people’s homes. Some asylum seekers end up destitute because of administrative errors — they are entitled to support but the UK Border Agency process their asylum claims incorrectly and as a result people find themselves ejected from their accommodation with all support cut off. There is a high rate of post-traumatic stress in the asylum seeking community. Many are stripped of basic human dignity in a country they were hoping would offer them protection.

     Perhaps the best account of what life is like for destitute asylum seekers can be found in the reports from the drop-in for destitute asylum seekers started by members of New North London Synagogue (NNLS). It runs the first Sunday of every month and provides essential services to 200 destitute asylum seekers such as medical and legal advice, supermarket vouchers, hot food and clothing. Below is an excerpt from the November drop-in report:

     ‘Two elderly women tearfully recounted their recent experiences of rape and torture in prison in Democratic Republic of Congo. Both are surviving here entirely on the kindness of friends. Both have multiple physical health problems as well as enduring psychological trauma. Rape is always a horrific crime but is particularly disturbing when it involves very young or very old victims.

     Another elderly woman wept continuously as she detailed her experience of torture in Angola. She lifted her skirt to reveal horrific torture scars on her legs and said that her whole body was covered with such scars. She also has no support and moves from friend to friend. Although she struggles to walk the Home Office has decreed that she must ‘sign on’ at one of their reporting centres for failed asylum seekers every two weeks.’

Reluctant Refugees

The novelist Mark Haddon recently wrote an article in the Observer about an Armenian doctor he met called Sergey.  Sergey told him: ‘When I was in Armenia I was very happy. Everything was OK for me, for my family, thank you God. In the city I have a good home. I had popularity because I help many people to survive. It is my duty as a doctor. So everybody knows me. In the street they say, “Hello, Doctor.” The police know me. They say, “Hello, Doctor.” Even the Russian KGB, they say, “Hello, Doctor.” But after the Soviet Union break-up, there is life without law. There is mafia. There is killing, many times. My friends. My neighbours. Tomorrow, maybe me.’

With the help of friends, Sergey managed to escape hidden in a truck, while his wife and children went to stay with relatives.  When he reached England he assumed he was finally safe. But he was refused asylum and became homeless. While sleeping rough Sergey contracted Hepatitis C, leading to liver disease. He will not survive without a liver transplant, but he doesn’t qualify for one because of his asylum status. Eventually, with the help of a Law Centre, he got some basic subsistence, and was seen by a doctor, who told him to eat three meals a day and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. He has to do this on £35 of vouchers each week, but these have to be spent in one specific supermarket, with no change given . He is not allowed to earn any money.  

Sergey could be saving people’s lives. He is not asking for money. He just wants to work as a doctor.  Meanwhile he is cut off from his family — he cannot visit his wife and children, who now live in one room in Italy, and they cannot visit him.

      Today in Britain there are tens of thousands of destitute asylum seekers. They must choose between living in abject poverty or returning to places like Congo, Zimbabwe, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Among them are journalists, dentists, engineers, teachers, and civil servants. Others are not professionals but also flee here because their homeland is too dangerous. Many are homeless. Most are desperately poor. None of them is allowed to work. In purely economic terms this is a terrible waste of money and skills which this country, according to the latest skills shortage audit, desperately needs.

     Fortunately, many Jews have mobilised around this human problem, both in groups and as individuals.  A couple of hundred volunteers help to run a monthly drop-in centre in London; small charities work hard to raise awareness; some people fundraise for basic necessities; others write letters and lobby their MPs; and some have taken destitute asylum seekers into their own homes. 

     Defying the shrill anti-asylum rhetoric, these and many other initiatives not only help people, but also help rehabilitate the very notion of asylum, in keeping with the best of Jewish tradition.

Dr Edie Friedman Director, Jewish Council For Racial Equality (JCORE) and co-author of Reluctant Refuge: The Story of Asylum in Britain


The Independent Asylum Commission was established by South London CITIZENS in 2006 to conduct a nationwide review of the asylum system.  Led by Sir John Waite and Ifath Nawaz, the twelve impartial Commissioners spent eighteen months gathering evidence and testimony at a series of public hearings across the UK.

They published their Interim Findings in March 2008, and found that although the UK asylum system had improved, it was not fit for purpose yet. The Commissioners were particularly concerned about the plight of destitute refused asylum seekers, describing their treatment as ‘indefensible… a shameful blemish on our nation’s proud record of providing for those who come here in search of sanctuary.’  The testimony of destitute asylum seekers such as Afshin, who has been here for thirteen years and has been destitute for the past six, stirred the Commissioners to such strong criticism and made national headlines.  You can watch many of the testimonies at

The UK Border Agency issued a written response to each of the Commission’s Interim Findings. Each response was published in full in three reports of conclusions and recommendations published in summer 2008: Saving Sanctuary (on public attitudes and improving decision-making); Deserving Dignity (on treatment of people seeking sanctuary); and Safe Return (on destitution and returns).  You can read all of the reports at

The Commission made over 200 recommendations across the three reports — including calling for the end of the policy of destitution, allowing asylum seekers to work, and ending the use of vouchers. The policy of destitution seems particularly absurd in the case of Zimbabweans — even the government admits that they cannot be sent back yet, so why not let them work in the meantime? The Independent Asylum Commission was involved in a service and rally in Westminster on 12th July which made this point to the government very strongly. We await Gordon Brown’s response.

The Commission has since concluded its work and the reports have been handed back to London CITIZENS.  London CITIZENS have now launched CITIZENS for Sanctuary – a CITIZEN-led campaign to secure justice for people fleeing persecution, rebuild public support for sanctuary, and implement the findings of the Commission.  For more details of the CITIZENS for Sanctuary campaign and to find out how to get involved, log on to:

Jonathan Cox, Coordinator of the Independent Asylum Commission

What Can You Do?

*Donate goods: Through JCORE Support you can collect basic goods for the NNLS drop-in centre for destitute asylum seekers. Nappies, toiletries, food and clothing are all necessary for the drop-in to run successfully

*Volunteer with JCORE and the JCC: You can volunteer to either mentor or befriend an asylum seeker or  at a drop-in centre for asylum seekers. Contact the JCC or JCORE for more information

*Campaign to end destitution: Lobby your MP to end destitution — more details can be found on the JCORE website

*Get your community involved: Ask your community to take on the plight of destitute asylum seekers as a social action project. If you would like support in doing this contact the JCC or JCORE who would be happy to help

*Donate £5 a month to help run the. drop-in centre for destitute asylum seekers

*For more information on any of these ideas please visit: and

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