Review: Action for Refugees in Lewisham

Thank you to SELHuG member Helen for reviewing this meeting.

The speaker at our meeting on 6 May was Katie Commons, Director of Action for Refugees in Lewisham (AFRIL) a charity that SELHuG supports with a donation every year. AFRIL works to relieve poverty and isolation among local refugees and asylum seekers, to advance their education and to educate the general public about their rights and needs. It offers a wide range of services including English language classes, a day centre with sewing and yoga classes, a (Helping Hands) food bank, and a supplementary school (Rainbow Club) teaching English and Maths for children aged 4 to 12 and an allotment gardening club. AFRIL’s income is around £150,000 pa. It recently got funding for an immigration solicitor to work in their Advice service. AFRIL supports around 110 families (c370 individuals).

Katie’s experience over the last 12 years is that the asylum process is broken and not fit for purpose. Applying for asylum has got more and more difficult which has resulted in a political environment which could be described as ‘Kafkaesque’. There have been around 40,000 changes in immigration law since 2010, with 5/6 full legislative changes.  We heard just how difficult it is to get a successful asylum claim.  Destitute migrants have no access to benefits, health and welfare or housing support. On arrival having only £8/ week, no phone and no legal rights.

Around 6,000 destitute refugees are in ‘grim’ hostels / ‘hotels’ across London, run by large companies such as Clearsprings and Serco. Typically, they have no cooking facilities and people are left isolated – often then suddenly moved to other hostels and many fast tracked to the migrant camp Napier Barracks in Kent.  The Council are often not notified when children are in the hostels and AFRIL find they are not able to access even when delivering food and essential items. It is a struggle to find lawyers to take on cases. A “culture of disbelief” in the realities of refugees’ situations permeates the Home Office and popular media.

Those with children may end up on the 10 year settlement route, with huge costs (paying the £1,500 per head Home Office application fee and Immigration Health Surcharge 3 times) and no access to legal aid. Those without children need to prove they have been in UK for 20 years – clearly very difficult if undocumented. If they are ‘lucky enough’ to get ‘leave to remain’, this only lasts for 5 years and is then subject to review, which may result in another 5 year right to remain, and only after that may they gain full rights. The current Home Secretary is however, seeking to make the route to permanent citizenship even more difficult. There are concerns from many including the Law Society that current asylum plans ‘pose a serious threat’ to rule of law and ‘undermine access to justice’.

The system means most refugees are unable to bring their families over.  

Few refugees are resettled now as “the bar is so high”.  Increasingly, the men are being sent to the detention camp for an unspecified time – which could be life. Right now, no bilateral agreements are in place between the UK and any EU countries. 

Katie praised Lewisham schools’ support for children, who receive no grants for uniforms etc. She has found that although the Council has supported some effective work, they are hide-bound by central government and lack of funding. She felt that outsourcing to charities is not the answer particularly as there are insufficient safeguards to protect the most vulnerable traumatised people. So she cautioned us to be selective on which charities we might support.

So, how can people like us help? Volunteer, donate or fundraise.  AFRIL are looking for drivers / cyclists to undertake food bank deliveries. The supplementary Saturday school needs teachers and the board would welcome new members with experience of business & public administration. She urged us to respond to consultations and speak out against / complain when there is disinformation about refugees (example was a recent BBC programme which gave a platform to far right anti migrant activists). 

Other charities that work to support asylum seekers include Freedom from torture and Refugee Action

You can find out more about AFRIL here