A year and a half ago I never imagined that I would be having phone calls using interpreters for five different languages, making emergency children’s Social Services referrals, writing to prominent local MPs, poring over videos of rats, and booking dentist appointments: all in a normal working day.
After starting at RAMFEL as the administrator in January 2022, I became fascinated by what the organisation does, and at the beginning of this year I became a caseworker in our Refugee and Asylum Seeker team. In this team, we support refugees and asylum seekers with ‘casework and destitution support’. This involves issues to do with accommodation, benefits, daily welfare, and access to employment, schools, and healthcare.
It is rewarding being able to work with clients day to day on some of their most basic and essential living needs. But as someone who did not have experience in the migrant sector prior to starting at RAMFEL (other than small bits and pieces of volunteering), I have found a lot surprising and shocking. I still have a huge amount to learn – from my colleagues and from my clients. But at this early stage I wanted to share some of the things I have found most aggravating about the way people like my clients are treated in the UK.
The majority of my work with asylum seeking clients involves advocacy around accommodation. As asylum seekers do not have the right to work, many are destitute, and have to be supported in Home Office accommodation. This can take the form of camps, barracks, and – in the case of my clients – repurposed hotels. Conditions in these hotels are often inhumanely terrible. Mould, bedbugs, food poisoning… Mice in the rooms are commonplace, and a couple of my clients have sent me videos of rats.
My job is to gather evidence about what my clients and their families are suffering in these hotels, and then advocate for the Home Office to move them to ‘dispersal accommodation’ (self-contained buildings) with cooking facilities. Apart from in the most drastic emergency cases, this escalation process takes months if not over a year.
Sadly, when dispersal is granted, even that does not always improve things. One client recently was moved to dispersal accommodation, only to discover that it was not only in the middle of nowhere, but also in an advanced state of disrepair, with windows and a front door that did not close, disgustingly dirty floors and facilities, and no gas. It is disgraceful that these obvious issues were not sorted before the family was moved in. After a week of complaints, the accommodation provider gradually began the works, and my client and his wife and toddler are having to go out while the repairs are taking place, to avoid the spraying chemicals.
With no money and nothing to do nearby, hanging around outside the building is their only option. Meanwhile, the private companies who have won the government contracts to manage asylum seeker accommodation make a vast profit. It is very clear to see that they are doing this by using as little of the contracted money as possible on creating humane conditions for the vulnerable people they are paid to accommodate.
When an asylum seeker’s claim is successful, they are granted leave to remain as a refugee. Unfortunately, their issues with destitution and accommodation do not end there. After a grant of status, a refugee is evicted from asylum support accommodation, and given less than a month to leave. Given that these people were not allowed to work and had essentially no income while their claim was pending, it is like starting from zero.
There is a rush to assist the client with opening a bank account, applying for relevant support, getting connected with employment organisations, and – most pressingly of all – looking for accommodation. The first step is always to request a homelessness assessment from the client’s local council. While councils can provide advice to anyone that they deem homeless, they are not obliged to accommodate anyone who is not in priority need, ie. someone with children or who is severely disabled.
For anyone else, the only option is sofa surfing with friends, or to navigate the private rental sector (difficult if benefits are currently your only income as you have understandably been unable to find a job within weeks of finally being granted permission to work). We assist clients by introducing them to housing association properties, but these are few and far between. Many of our refugee clients are therefore homeless, and some are even rough sleepers. It is devastating to me that, after the government finally accepts that their plea for protection is well founded and that they have been given leave to remain in the UK, many of my clients are plunged straight into poverty.
Perhaps it should not have shocked me that our government’s hostility towards migrants is enacted through such an aggressive and unpleasant welcome to life in the country. After all, the Conservatives’ unhealthy obsession with deterring immigration means that every aspect of the asylum seeker’s journey towards rebuilding their life in the UK is tarnished by humiliation, suffering, and disrespect. Luckily for British citizens like me, people like my clients are seeing this difficult process through, and bringing a wealth of diversity, talents, stories, traditions, and new perspectives to our country. It is a privilege to work alongside them on that journey.