Humanity in a Hostile Environment - a blog by our volunteer Phoebe Hendy

One of our volunteers, who completed a week-long work placement with our immigration advice team has written a blog post about the hostile environment and her experience as a volunteer with us. Read it below -

— I began my week at Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network much as it was to continue; somewhat chaotically and with a million things going on at once. A new potential client arrived, unannounced and with no appointment. An immigration case advisor spoke to her through an interpreter and we found out that she is Vietnamese, she arrived in the UK 3 days ago with no English skills and is potentially a victim of trafficking. She doesn’t know what trafficking is, and I’m not so sure she was any wiser after the meeting. Language difficulties and a basic education are barriers many clients here face to understanding and therefore accessing their basic rights.

“It is when a human being, a person, is treated like a thing, like an object.”

This woman tells us she was forced into prostitution by her employer at a shop in Vietnam. She was seduced into supporting an anti-government political party with the promise of benefits and money, but ended up in prison after she was caught handing out their flyers. She spent over 5 years in prison. I’m not sure how she came to the UK, whether she was on her own or trafficked, but the advisor directed her to Lunar House to submit an asylum application and stressed to her that she must request an interpreter and she must understand everything herself. If she relies on another person’s understanding of her case she will be at risk of being re-trafficked.

This is one example of the broad range of clients that attend the clinic to receive advice on immigration, housing and benefits and gender-based violence. In this small office filled with overflowing bookshelves and filing units, staff and volunteers work tirelessly to give the destitute fair access to justice. If you show up requesting help and you can afford a lawyer, you can turn around because the clients at this charity are homeless or in government provided accommodation. They have little to no income, usually relying on state funding but if they are not entitled to that, sofa surfing, food banks and charity are their only help.

And it is not only the clients who are suffering from lack of funds. Austerity has led to cuts being made to Legal Aid, the government funded support for legal representatives for those who who otherwise can’t afford. “Between 2010/11 and 2016/17, legal aid funds have fallen by £950 million”. Hourly fees for legal aid work have been cut and some fees have been switched to fixed, which could discourage firms from taking on more complex cases as they would effectively be losing money.[2] Legal aid firms have been closing and so the number of clients referred to charities such as LRMN is increasing.

Some interesting cases with which I have come into contact this week include a Dad whose wife has been confined to hospital due to mental health issues. He and his family fled Nigeria after the eldest of their two children was killed there by militia. They had two more children in the UK and still have an asylum application pending, however they are facing a worsened situation following Mum’s mental health issues. Social services have advised that it is not safe for Mum to see the children after she threatened to kill them, however Mum is still in possession of the asylum card which should be used to provide for the whole family. In the meantime, the family have been relying on vouchers and food banks. Due to the family’s inability to pay for a solicitor, they were taken on as clients.

One case related to a 19 year old woman who has lived in the UK for 13 years. Her immigration status has not really been an issue for her until she turned 18. While her friends were applying to Universities and student loans, she was unable to take her dream job in the RAF due to her lack of Leave to Remain. She was shown the relevant applications and given a list of good solicitors to contact.

Another case concerned a 24-year-old woman who has lived in London since she was 5 years old and has a 2-year-old son. She was forced to move from her Mum’s home due to domestic violence and so must now file her own application for Leave to Remain. Over 1kg of evidence was sent to the Home Office for her application in order to prove that she has lived in the UK for 19 years and attest to the violence she has experienced. This client, like most at LRMN, applied for a fee waiver, because despite having 3 jobs she simply cannot afford to pay the £3,066 fee required for her and her son’s application. Her son came along to her consultation with the case advisor and made another difficulty of this job clear - it’s hard to give legal advice when there’s a toddler squealing and running around the room, but destitute clients can hardly afford child care and this lady could no longer rely on help from her family.

The standard fee for a Leave to Remain application is £1,033 + £500 health fee per person on the application.[3] So for a single mother with two children it would cost £4,599. And this fee is due to double in December 2018. For applicants who cannot afford the fee they must prove that they are destitute, or that they would become destitute if they were to pay. The latter will almost certainly be the case for a lot of applicants after the fee rise.

This fee rise is just one of the ways in which the Home Office are making it increasingly difficult for immigrants to stay in this country legally. The bureaucracy in this area has become so complex in spirit of the “hostile environment” and a bid to repel as many applicants as possible. So much so that the Home Office itself doesn’t know what’s going on. One judge ruled that the Home Office is no longer under the rule of law but the rule of confusion. “The web of Rules and Guidance has become so tangled that even the spider has difficulty controlling it”.[4]

Not every immigrant can be granted leave, and not every immigrant can be denied leave. In 2017 an average of 70% of all asylum applications were refused, however on appeal a further 40% were granted.[5] It seems to me that under a fair system we would have faith in the decisions and the government would stand by them. They should come from a place of compassion and justice, traits that entirely sum up the Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network.

The staff at LRMN are firefighters, at the forefront battling against the hostile environment to do the best for the clients and help them navigate the UK immigration system. Their clients are days away from eviction and having their income cut and they work to keep them away from the lowest levels of poverty for just a little longer. Their varied work and frequent interaction with clients are aspects of the work that greatly appeal to me, and I have a huge amount of respect for their resilience and optimism working within an increasingly restrictive system. I’m extremely grateful for their invitation and for allowing me to sample their working week. It has reminded me of where I would like my career to go and invigorated my efforts. —

 

Phoebe Hendy


— If you would like to get involved with us by volunteering or contributing to our website, then get in touch with us at info@lrmn.org.uk

Alessandra Sciarra