As Christmas approaches asylum seekers and refugees in the UK are facing unprecedented hardship. I spoke with people supporting refugees from Wakefield District City of Sanctuary (WDCoS) and Bradford, Immigration and Asylum Support and Advice Network (BIASAN) about how they are coping with current demands.
BIASAN (Bradford) and WDCoS (Wakefield) have been welcoming refugees for 25 years and 15 years respectively. Both grassroots organisations are non-political and have no religious affiliation. They aim to welcome refugees and are part of a network of organisations offering support in both cities. While welcome, integration and support is the primary focus of BIASAN and WDCoS’s work, they also raise awareness about refugee matters, particularly in schools, and write to their MPs and other politicians about policies that impact on refugees.
The groups run drop-in centres/cafes offering practical and legal guidance and connections to other agencies or services, English classes, arts and crafts, donated clothing and baby equipment, furniture and household goods, bikes, phones and computers. They also provide meals, food, money, and phone top-ups when finances allow.
While the number of people awaiting an asylum decision has increased tenfold in the last decade (now over 170,000) and a wait of seven or eight years for a decision is not unusual, the number of people granted asylum or leave to remain has remained at about 25,000 a year.
Thus, the majority of those needing support and help are:
- asylum seekers in shared or hotel accommodation;
- refugees who have just been granted refugee status and who will be homeless within seven days unless alternative accommodation is found; and
- those refused asylum with ‘no resource to public funds’ and so are destitute. Most refugees are from Africa or Eastern Europe and have come via the Channel.
Paola told me:
“We have between 100 and 120 per week coming to the (BIASAN) drop-in. Sixteen new households a week contact us requesting items of clothing or household goods. On average we are asked to find some 75 items (clothing, footwear, household) a week for people, but we manage to respond to only 55 a week. Each week there are at least12 people waiting for legal advice when we open up the centre.”
WDCoS runs two drop-in sessions with 30–60 people a week attending. Susan explained that, “a few are seeking some kind of advice and we signpost them to relevant services. Increasingly they need access to solicitors, in which case there is usually little we can do. Even getting a name onto a waiting list is an achievement. We also provide groceries for about 30 families or individuals every week”.
Most asylum seekers are in hotels (stripped of comforts and luxury before their arrival). They are often moved without notice – leaving behind support systems, friendships, schools and local connections to start again in a new area. Single people are required to share rooms with strangers and hotels have become less safe with so many people crammed in.
The asylum allowance is £9.10 per week to cover additional food, clothing, toiletries, phone data, and travel. The quality of food reflects the small Home Office allowance so both BIASAN and WDCoS provide additional food when funds allow, particularly fruit and some ‘treats’ for children. Those in flats or houses receive £47.39p to cover all their needs, including food.
Without community support, asylum seekers have no access to leisure or education and are unable to participate in normal community life. Most of those crossing the Channel have no possessions other than their phones, not even a change of underwear. What they do have is almost entirely provided by voluntary groups.
As Paola says, “some people have criticised asylum seekers for complaining about poor Wi-Fi, as though it is a luxury for Netflx, but it is absolutely essential for them. Phones are the only means they have of knowing if their family is still alive, being able to respond and adhere to Home Office conditions, and access information such as bus time-tables or contact health services”.
Linda added, “without well-functioning Wi-Fi and decent phones, tablets, or laptops those who cannot attend college due to travel or other restrictions often have no access to English teaching”. And Salli stressed that, “Wi-Fi is essential to maintain contact with families back home and to speak to someone in their own language. Without it, they may never speak to anyone”.
The pressures are relentless. For those given refugee status there is almost no accommodation in the cities except a few flats provided by other voluntary agencies, or private accommodation of an appalling (sometimes unlivable) standard.
Legal aid lawyers are so thin on the ground that there are long waiting lists and long travel distances are necessary. Without volunteers helping asylum seekers to gather and structure evidence and information into a useable and comprehensible format, applications may be refused and lawyers and Home Office decision makers would have a great deal more work to do untangling very complex histories and journeys.
Siegfried told me:
“P. was asked by his solicitor to sign the usual witness statement but he felt it was incorrect. Many hours of painstaking piecing together the evidence produced an entirely different statement which he could sign whole-heartedly. It also turned out that some of the solicitors´ translators produced a very poor job. Two of our language teachers went with P. to his court hearing and witnessed the success of the case. P. has now refugee status.”
Many local people who have supported refugees over the years are less able to do so now. The cost-of-living crisis has meant people have less money or they need to support their own families more. It is not just refugee organisations that are noticing the pressures, food banks are trying to meet increased need with fewer donations. Local authorities, which carry statutory responsibility for meeting the needs of those who are destitute are increasingly referring cases to voluntary organisations, and health services are relying on voluntary organisations to meet crisis mental health needs.
Paula told me, “people are increasingly turning to us, as well as being referred, for support. We are a group of volunteers with very limited funds. I sometimes feel that we are expected to fill the expanding gaps left by dwindling budgets in contract funded organisations”. And as Siegfried said, “We are simply overwhelmed with the actual work we do, and we have nobody else to write applications for funds we need just to do the basics”.
Some groups have responded by rationing – their time, food, cash, the pieces of clothing people that can be given in a six-month period, and the length of time they can be supported. But still the demand keeps coming. Being unable to meet people’s needs and sending them away hungry or to sleep on the streets is devastating for volunteers too.
Talking about the decisions that have to be made, Susan explained: “I hate it, I hate asking people how much they have had in the past six months or saying ‘we can’t help you any more, because there are so many others who need help’. We sound like immigration officers! They have so little, and we give so little. To stop giving just seems shameful.”
Why do people volunteer?
I have written previously about those who volunteer with asylum seekers and refugees. Many had been volunteering for decades, some volunteering as far back as the Kosovo war. People’s initial motivations were varied. Some were influenced by their backgrounds, their faith or humanitarian need.
“I just put myself in the asylum seeker’s shoe. Another reason is that once we have enough ourselves i.e. food, accommodation it cannot be right to want more when others have so much less. Our wishful thinking of having everything better in infinite and does not lead to happiness”, said Salli.
Many of those supporting volunteers were new arrivals themselves, in the UK or in another country. Siegfried told me: “one reason is that I have been through the painful process of starting a new life in different culture and language, how hard it was to express myself properly. I can easily imagine how infinitely more difficult it must be for them.”
Salli had noted, “having lived, worked and travelled in many countries, I have found the vast majority of people to be kind, thoughtful and helpful …sometimes we all need a helping hand, a level of support for our new situation. So many of the people we encounter are here, not by first choice, and that can be incredibly hard to live with”.
Volunteers do not question people about their circumstances but are frequently confided in and have gained a wealth of knowledge over the years. Siegfried clarified that, “we don’t try to untangle people’s asylum stories. We try not to get involved. However, we do hear of cases not being properly handled and sometimes pick up issues resulting from the aftermath”.
I also found that most steered clear of political discussions but when the asylum system is so evidently broken and volunteers are unable to mend or fill the cracks in the system, they become more political and began to advocate on behalf of asylum seekers.
“In a climate growing increasingly hostile and dehumanising towards people seeking asylum/sanctuary, volunteering to support them is the only way to combat that on a political level. On a human level, the support is sometimes the only link left to hoping for a decent, dignified life. On a more personal level, it is a way of dealing with our own anger at how people seeking sanctuary are treated, at the hostility, the lies, the unnecessary deaths, the political games played on the life of people”, said Paola.
Others are unclear about why they might want to support asylum seekers or there is a mix of reasons. As Susan pointed out: “Social justice, the joy of giving, connecting with diverse people, being part of a team, sharing an ethos, learning from and about others. All of these work for me, but I don’t know which is the main driver.”
How can you help?
Refugee organisations need:
- • Practical people to run clothing and food stores, kitchens, deliver furniture, teach English or practice conversational English
- • Drivers who can transport people or small items of furniture
- • Welcoming people
- • Organising people to help manage the organisation and budgets and to raise funds and awareness
- • ‘Experts’ – particularly lawyers, fund raisers, co-ordinators, accountants, mental health, social work, and IT practitioners.
Organisations also need:
- • Good quality clothing, tents and sleeping bags, toiletries, food, household goods and furniture
- • Places to store clothing and furniture
- • Accommodation – emergency, short or long term
- • Funds – many rural refugee groups that have few or no refugees in their area are linked with urban groups to fundraise for and to support them.
Over the years, all of those I have met who support refugees are passionate about what they do. People may start as volunteers ‘giving’ support or money but are also transformed by the experience.
“The best thing I have done.”
“The most important thing I have ever done.”
“I can’t believe how much I’ve learned about the world and how much I’ve grown.”
“It’s inspiring, it is worth doing, you can make a difference.”
“I’ve met so many lovely people, people who are still here, still struggling on despite everything that has happened.”
“I see children grow, make friends, chatter in English, I love it.”
“They are not refugees, they are my friends.”