The Archbishop of York has called on the Home Secretary to stop the imprisonment of children in asylum cases.
Dr John Sentamu issued his plea after he visited a drop-in centre in Leeds and met families trying to seek sanctuary in Britain.
Visibly moved by the personal stories he heard, the archbishop chose the altar of the nearby St Aidan’s Church in Harehills to deliver his message to Theresa May and the new Coalition Government.
He said: “I want a very bold statement from the Home Secretary that children should not be put in detention.
“We need some bold statements and, more importantly, action.
“I don’t like the (political] language that we are going to be tougher than the last regime.
“What I want to know is that we are going to be more compassionate.” Archbishop Sentamu was a guest of the Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (PAFRAS) group yesterday as part of a two-day tour of the Diocese of Ripon and Leeds.
The normally upbeat clergyman delivered a sombre message in front of the Anglican Bishop of Leeds the Rev John Packer, Canon Alan Taylor from St Aidan’s and PAFRAS founder Christine Majid.
He said: “The word refugee is no longer being used in our vocabulary. It used to be a term for people escaping persecution.
“Then we created the word asylum seeker, it’s almost a less serious term than refugee.
“If people are clearly escaping persecution they deserve to be treated with compassion and dignity.
“I don’t believe that if you care for people properly you are a soft touch.”
Speaking of the people he met at PAFRAS, he added: “I’m just amazed that most of them are not angry.
“Maybe the centre has been so caring and loving it has taken the sting out.
“I suppose PAFRAS ought to be congratulated that it has absorbed the pain of these people.
“My heart, it breaks in the sense that I have met people whose cases have gone on for over six, seven, eight, years without any resolution.
“This country, for heaven’s sake, should not be operating such draconian stuff.”
The issue was raised in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech as the Government pledged to end the detention of children, albeit only after a review had been carried out which would take months to complete.
The archbishop said: “I will continue to raise this question in the House of Lords until we get a very definite answer.”