A lifeline amidst a sea of destitution: Oldham Unity’s Asylum Seeker Project

Here’s a piece that got published on the Quays News website: 
 
At a time of increasing attacks on the British welfare system I spoke to the organisers of one of the few places of shelter for destitute people attempting the turbulent and uncertain path to asylum in Greater Manchester, who this year are celebrating ten years of crucial work in the community.
 
“Hold on, someone else has just turned up” shouts Mike Luft to the team of volunteers about to drive back to their storage centre with the project’s left-over food of the week. Late for the weekly drop-in service, the man in question has walked for four hours in icy winds and rain from Salford to Oldham to get to the project and collect the items that will help him survive for the following seven days.
 
The desperation of the 70 or so people who attend the Oldham Unity (Destitution Project) from around the region each week is stark. Founded in 2002 by Luft and other members of the local community action network that grew out of the aftermath of the 2001 Oldham riots the project is now one of the largest frontline services for asylum seekers in Greater Manchester, with around 20, mainly retired volunteers helping out each week. It provides subsistence for those awaiting asylum appeal decisions who are struggling to survive on the weekly living allowances granted by the government and others who find themselves completely without aid after their appeals have been rejected.
 
Luft explained: “We realised at our community meetings with local refugees and asylum seekers who live in the area that there was a massive need for day-to-day help. Many of these people were not allowed to work, couldn’t afford food or pay for accommodation so we decided to do what we could to help.
 
“People can sometimes have a very distorted view of the realities of asylum seekers in Britain. Not everyone knows about the meagre amounts of £37.50 that adult asylum seekers live on each week, which sometimes only comes in the form of a voucher that can only be used at certain shops.”
 
At the two hour drop-in visitors are given thirty “points”, or roughly seven pounds, to spend on food and other essential items including clothing that are bought with donations to the project and given by a mixture of religious and secular organisations. A hot meal and refreshments are also provided by a mix of local interfaith groups, such as the Baptist Church and Planet Mercy whilst the British Red Cross covers their travel costs for up to one year. Although recently having secured a deal with Fairshare, who distributes food from local supermarkets to charities the project must still find around £1500 each month to continue to run.
 
Whilst an integral part of the project, food is not the only service provided by Oldham Unity. The drop-in acts as a crucial social space for this part of the community for whom isolation and confusion are daily occurrences. They provide practical legal advice to help people navigate the complex asylum application process, access to free medical care, mentoring and a safe space where people can socialise and share their experiences.
 
Luft himself is no stranger to the frustrations and hardships surrounding claiming asylum, his grandmother a Jewish refugee from Russia and with a past rooted in neighbourhoods of Manchester with large refugee populations.
“The people who come to us are not economic migrants, they come to the UK in fear of their lives and the government should accept that and actively help them. People have given up absolutely everything to escape traumas and find a place of safety but sometimes I think the way they are dealt with here is a complete affront to them.”
 
The lives of asylum seekers in the UK are ones epitomised by being in a state of constant limbo. Fleeing to the country, they are met with a disorientating, drawn-out asylum application process to become a refugee.
Although the UK receives fewer claims than the European average, the following decision-making process is arduous, with rulings sometimes taking up to several years to be made. Oldham Unity are aware of situations where applicants have literally been forgotten about by the home office, including one individual who waited more than ten years for a decision to be made on his case.
 
Changes to legal aid paid to immigration lawyers, which has introduced flat rates for some cases regardless of complexity, now means that more people are losing access to some key advice services. This has made the system a lot more bewildering for the many people who have no knowledge of the UK’s legal process.
 
After such a lengthy process, most decisions only serve to shatter asylum seekers hopes of acceptance, with 74% of cases being initially refused according to the latest official data released in 2010. The decision to make further appeals often wields little more success yet even these final, outright rejections do not seal their fates.
 
“We have this crazy situation where people are turned down for asylum but the government doesn’t deem it safe for them to return to their own country. We see some people from Palestine, who because their country doesn’t legally exist, they can’t be repatriated. They’re just completely ignored, unable to live either here or in their home country”, said Luft.
“They can’t work and are only sometimes entitled to temporary benefits under the government’s Section 4 asylum support.”
 
The realities of those who are successful are in many ways no more secure. The general granting of an initial five year refugee status makes it difficult to plan for the long-term, consigning refugees to a foreseeable future of uncertainty and fear that is intensified by governmental ability to have cases reviewed at any point during this time.  
 
At the centre the volunteers are all too aware of the red-herring that successful applications can signify. It can take up to six weeks to be issued with a national insurance benefit number, in which time families are left in virtual financial limbo, unable to claim state benefits such as job seekers allowance or housing benefit and at the same time not legally allowed to find employment. At this point the work of the project becomes even more crucial for day-to-day survival.
 
Hopes for suitable and permanent housing are also far from easy to ensure. One case the project is dealing with involves a family with six children who upon being granted leave to remain in the UK were moved from the temporary accommodation they had been living in for around four years to a house in a different town. This has ignored the fact the family must now make almost daily, long and unaffordable bus rides to take the children to the school they enrolled in when they first moved to the country. They have since had to move again due to receiving abuse from children in the area to a house that some members of the project believe is not fit to live in. The delay in processing the family’s national insurance numbers has meant that they have only just been added to the social housing list, where they face tough and lengthy competition for a house big enough to comfortably house the whole family.
 
Nasreen, not her real name, is still waiting to hear a decision from the government about her bid for refugee status. She spoke about how the project provided her with a strong support network.
 
She said: “I had been living in the UK for about nine months before I found out about the project. It  has helped me to understand and get access to the support that I’m legally entitled to. Coming here has also helped me to meet lots of other people in similar situations to myself and also form supportive relationships with people who’ve been living in Oldham for a long time. I think it shows communities working together at their best.”
 
Donations can be made to the Oldham Unity (Destitution Project) c/o Baptist Church Chaucer St.Oldham OL1 1BA. Those wanting to donate food and clothing should contact Stewart Bailey on 0161 652 2379.
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