In Norman Britain, all churches could offer sanctuary to those who might be put to death because of their crimes, with churches in some cities being granted royal charters which allowed them to offer temporary protection to debtors and other criminals. Important throughout the Middle Ages, the practice declined, with the last place of sanctuary being abolished by an Act of Parliament at the end of the 17th century.
The idea of sanctuary re-emerged in the 20th century, with churches in North and South America and Europe offering a refuge to those escaping political persecution. The best known case in the UK was that of Viraj Mendis, a Sri Lankan Tamil who sought sanctuary in a Manchester church in December 1986 and remained there until his removal by the police and deportation in 1989.
Sanctuary was generally offered to individuals. But persecution, ethnic cleansing and civil war have forced large numbers of people into exile. The first major entry of refugees into England occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries when the Protestant Huguenots escaped persecution in Catholic France where they were denied the right to practice their religion. About 20,000 Huguenots settled, particularly outside the city of London in Spitalfields, where they worked as silk weavers, jewellers and clockmakers, contributing significantly to the city’s economy.
Asylum seekers and refugees
Everyone has the right to asylum, and annually hundreds of thousands of people seek safety by fleeing from conflict areas, political persecution or human rights abuses. Only a small minority seek asylum in the UK and an even smaller number are accepted as refugees. Less than 2% of the world’s refugees are in the UK, with the majority living in developing countries, many in refugee camps.
A refugee, according to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, is someone who “is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. In the UK, however, a person only has official refugee status once their claim for asylum has been granted by the government. Until that time they are seeking asylum, and – if their claim is turned down – they become a refused asylum seeker who must return to their place of origin. Some return voluntarily, some are forcibly sent back, and others remain illegally. With no rights or access to services, they must depend on help from friends and support networks.
About 84,000 people claimed asylum in the UK in 2002, but the annual figure has dropped substantially, with 24,250 applications made in 2009. The majority of asylum seekers in recent years have originated from Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Iran, Eritrea, Iraq, and Sri Lanka, all major conflict zones.