first published with ASIRT, circa April 2014
I arrived to my first volunteer shift at ASIRT‘s weekly drop-in clinic to a group of people already waiting; 17 people had had signed in before 10am and they, alone or with their children, friends and family, filtered in as we opened the doors. And then they waited some more. First for an initial intake, then again for more in depth support in trying to understand and navigate through the opaque and Kafkaesqee Home Office bureaucracy within which they were trapped. Over35 people signed in for the clinic that day whilst the 6 of us, three staff members and as many volunteers, engaged holistically with empathy whilst trying to see everyone in a timely manner, a nearly impossible contradiction to resolve given the convoluted nature of most people’s needs. But most people come to ASIRT as a last resort. What can they do but wait, all day if needed, in hopes that when they leave they will be one step closer to realizing their rights or, at least, one step closer to food and shelter for the coming few days.
As they waited, a volunteer came by with lunch, (the only meal that some of them would have that day), supporting each other in keep their babies happy, their toddlers occupied and arranging to get their older kids picked up from school. They found solace, advice, and interpreters among each other, sharing a sense of camaraderie that is built through adversity and waiting rooms.
“Adil” was new to Birmingham, being forcibly relocated from his hometown of more than a decade in Leicester, where his solicitor, family and friends were. He had come in to try to establish support in his new city. When i asked if he had secure housing and money for the time being he said “I don’t know”, and showed me a recent ruling that denied him Section 4 support (£36/wk on a non-transferable Azure swipe-card, valid at a restricted list of chain-stores for a restricted list of items and housing). He didn’t understand the decision, let alone know why, getting the results of the decision but not the rationale; Adil was very confused. Fortunately, a seasoned ASIRT worker speculated that his this decision might be due to a problem with his claim, and that we should try to track down if that was true and what it might be. Were it not for this insight, he’d never have known there was a problem with his newly-filed asylum claim.
I spent over 2 hours with one phone on redial, trying and failing to get through to various UKBA offices, whilst i used my mobile to call the courts, his solicitor and a Leicester-based charity he’d accessed, to track down various pieces of this puzzle that had left him destitute and unaware of the status of his claim. Without credit for his phone or money for the train, he couldn’t possibly have tracked this information down himself. We eventually got a copy of the decision to deny him funding which, in everyone’s opinion, was illegal. But through it we learned that his claim had been submitted to the wrong office, despite having a receipt saying his claim had been received. He had no idea that his claim was therefor rejected, pending a new submission to a different office. We figured this out with unanswered rings to the UKBA telephone number as a monotonous and relentless soundtrack. His next step, to make an appointment to resubmit his claim to an office in Liverpool, required a train ticket and an appointment. ASIRT can get access to funds for such a ticket, but the more difficult matter will be the appointment. I’m told some people have wrung that office for 3 days straight without getting through. And that they only answer the first 30 calls in a day.
Here was a shoe-string budgeted charity in which workers are somehow making time to see over 35 people in a day, trying to reach a fully-funded government agency that can’t even answer the phone to book an appointment. It’s baffling, but indicative of the increasing need for charities like ASIRT to exist and be able to continue to see every person who walks through the door, and spend the time needed to sort out the intricacies of each person’s needs.
Adil’s circumstances are far from rare. In many cases, in fact, people with young children find themselves in similar circumstances, and end up couch-surfing or sleeping rough for weeks, months, even years, until they find themselves at ASIRT, where they manage to access temporary food and shelter, and start the process of getting greater stability.
Adil’s circumstances also illustrate why so many people want support for even some of the simpler aspects of being a migrant in the UK. One error can lead to disastrous results, and so people even with relatively secure status came in with forms to fill out, terrified of making a single mistake lest they be sent back to the beginning of this bizarre nightmare of bureaucracy, and have to endure more waiting, destitution, and possibly face detention or deportation.
One, a permanent resident who had lost her documents in a fire had been waiting for the Home Office to send back her file, so that she could essentially submit it back to them to get new documentation from them to prove her existing status. In the interim, she received the ubiquitous communique from the UKBA’s bumbling bounty-hunter firm, Capita, indicating that she may be subject to removal and should leave as soon as possible. She came in full of questions: “Who are these people? Is this legit? Does this mean there’s another problem with my file? It doesn’t seem real because why on earth wouldn’t they send an official letter. What would have happened if this had gone to a spam folder? Are they just trying to intimidate us, because, if they are, it’s working.”
She was not alone in her wait to get documents back from the UKBA, many long past the 40 day deadline to respond to such requests.
Still others were waiting on files from ex-solicitors, including the firm Blackmores, an office that was shut down controversially, after experiencing some financial struggles due in part to policy changes including those that make legal aid increasingly difficult to access. With Blackmores gone people are struggling to find someone else with the needed expertise and qualifications who can become familiar with their case. With changes to legal aid rendering 93% of immigration cases no longer eligible, finding new solicitors will be nearly impossible for most. Yet claims are 50% more likely to succeed with legal representation. People using ASIRT are increasingly relying on pro-bono legal services or support from the Birmingham Law Centre –which came close to closing this winter due to lack of funds—to deal with some aspects of their case. ASIRT itself is not immune to this decade’s economics; charities like ASIRT have seen average reductions of 20% in funding over the last year, and funding sources as well as individual donations continue to diminish. The current economic climate is conspiring with on-going changes to polices around legal aid, judicial review and immigration policies to deepen the pool of destitution, with fewer and fewer ways to keep afloat and a decreasing number of organizations able to help people navigate their way out. Which is why, I suppose, so many people were so patient while they had to wait.
And after all, people who come to ASIRT are sadly used to waiting, having often been in and out of limbo, waiting for claims and appeals to be ruled on, for new ones to be filed, fighting sometimes for well over a decade, for basic human rights here, enduring destitution, violence and unrelenting fear in the UK as a better option than any other alternative they may have. And so, after weeks, months, years of this, they were willing to endure 8 hours longer in the hopes that this will lead to eventual security, if not for ever, at least for a little while.
And that is why ASIRT so needs the support of us all in continuing to both intervene at policy levels and provide the tireless service committed to helping out everyone who comes in, with an unwavering sense of care, respect and solidarity for the services users, as well as for each other—something that is rare and hard to maintain in understaffed, stressful, front line work. I have to say in my short time there it’s been one of the more supportive and collaborative environments i’ve worked. I wish circumstances were such that ASIRT had no reason to exist, but I appreciate the work that they do and the opportunity I’ve had to be a part of it so far.
I’ll be back for my third volunteer shift this Thursday, but this Sunday I’ll be participating in a walk to help raise money for ASIRT. Every dollar raised will be matched by the Midland Legal Support and will go directly towards maintaining the services that so many people wait for week after week. If you can help support us in any way, by donating to ASIRT, joining us in the walk, and/or spreading the word to your communities, please do. Please help ASIRT continue it’s work, giving hope to those dispossessed and destitute by our system, so that, at least for some, the wait for justice and security can come to an end.