I work one day a week as a volunteer in the asylum crisis project at Refugee Action. The Asylum Crisis project helps dealing with asylum seekers in the UK who have become or are about to become destitute. And it is a crisis. Even with enough volunteers to cover most days of the week at Refugee Action, we struggle to answer all needs, respond to all queries, and provide help to all those that need it.
The clients that we represent are individuals and sometimes families that are entitled to some of the public benefits that Government provides to asylum seekers while their asylum claim is being treated. It is not much, a stable roof over their heads, a little regular cash money, but it is a start in providing some stability, some regularity into lives that have experienced chaos and are spent waiting for an official authorization to finally start rebuilding. Some are homeless, others sofa-surfing. One of the individuals I helped, a victim of torture, was living in a garden shed, when we met him.
Personally I don’t get to meet all the several volunteers that rotate in the office at Refugee Action because on a typical day I will be working on outreach at the Helen Bamber Foundation, a charity that has been providing psychological treatment to refugees for years. I work in support of their work and with their staff. Their clients are often highly vulnerable individuals, with complex migration stories that frequently involve torture, traumas, all sorts of experiences that have left their mark. Yet these are actually remarkably resilient individuals that will explain their situation to me always with astonishing calm, where anger, or despair, I have thought more than once, could be entirely justified.
A typical day will be spent meeting with new clients – usually one every week, whenever possible – and, time permitting, chasing with the Home Office regarding previous applications that have not been answered, or helping clients understand letters that they have received from the Home Office. When meeting clients I help piece together the elements of their story that are needed to allow for their application to be submitted, then organize their documentation. While we don’t deal with immigration status of our clients, sometimes understanding the basic elements of their situation will require chasing with their solicitor, their friends, or family members. No two stories are alike, no two cases comparable. Each case requires paying attention to the smallest details to be able to advise the clients to their best interest. Sometimes a detail will reveal that a client is potentially in an abusive relationship. Or a detail will indicate that the client cannot in fact ask for support. Some are newly-weds; others break up. A child is born and needs to be added for support. Etc. The job is to listen, advise, and, if the application for support is made, to defend the client’s interests.
Since I volunteer only one day a week I cannot work on too many cases, so I personally manage a rolling caseloads of about 3 or 4 cases in any given week. I’ve had cases that came to successful conclusion very rapidly in two or three weeks, and other cases that drag on for months—and it is not always clear why or what is preventing the Home Office from granting support. And, no, I have not yet had a refusal, fingers crossed.
Thanks to the non-stop support that our wonderful supervisor Nicolette provides, patiently, to all her volunteers, the most difficult part of the work isn’t getting to master the intricacies of the asylum process. In fact I’m not even sure that I would say the work is difficult, but if I had to say which part is the most difficult, I would probably answer that it is in making sure that I can deliver for our clients. They come to us with needs and expectations, and while we cannot answer all questions, or meet every need, when I take on an application I feel a trust has been given and must be honored. That’s where the tension is, for me, in this work – but also of course that is where part of the reward is. And when on top of that I get a smile, a shukran or a gift of a box of home-made baklavas, even better!
So in a nutshell, a typical day in the life of an asylum crisis volunteer? There’s nothing typical about it. It’s about being available to listen and advise. It’s a chance to help some rather incredible individuals get some ground under their feet, if only for a short time while their asylum claim is being processed, and if only in a limited way — and to do it in and with the support of an organization like Refugee Action where the defense of vulnerable asylum seekers is a clear priority.
Fabrice Lyczba is a volunteer in Refugee Action’s London Asylum Crisis Project, funded by the City Bridge Trust.