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Building Bridges: Interview with Gill Buttery

Ambrose Musiyiwa, September 14, 2010

A man who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo sits with his back packed outside a house in North London where he was staying for a while, this particular night not knowing where he will sleep.

Gill Buttery—development worker with Leicester, City of Sanctuary—shares her views on the work the organization is doing to build bridges between asylum seekers and the individuals and organizations that have a presence in Leicester.

Ambrose Musiyiwa: What is Leicester, City of Sanctuary?

Gill Buttery: The City of Sanctuary movement is a network of groups, up and down the country, each aiming to build a culture of hospitality towards asylum seekers and refugees, but each following its own route—depending on the local situation and local needs—to achieve that aim. Leicester, City of Sanctuary works across Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland.

A lot of the work we do involves communicating with individuals, groups of people and organizations. We try to counter the myths about asylum seekers that are often promoted by the media. A lot of these myths are readily accepted as fact, but once people know more about the true situation facing asylum seekers, a lot of them express a natural sense of indignation at the way asylum seekers are treated and they express compassion towards asylum seekers.

From there, we try to get people actively involved—for example, by donating an outgrown school uniform to help an asylum seeker child fit in at school; by dropping off a few tins of food to the British Red Cross to be handed out as part of a food parcel; by welcoming asylum seekers into an established group such as a chess club; or by setting up a whole new project to meet some currently unmet need.

We also try to make people aware of unjust situations like the ones that exist around Loughborough Reporting Centre. For example, one of the things that makes the reporting centre's operations unjust is that asylum seekers from across the East Midlands have to attend frequent appointments with UKBA (UK Border Agency) staff there, but while that is so, a lot of asylum seekers, like the ones who are on Section 4 and those who are destitute, are not allowed to work and do not receive any cash and therefore do not have any money for bus fare. The only way they can make the journey is if they either walk all the way to and from Loughborough or if they get the local British Red Cross Refugee Support project to foot the expense. The British Red Cross, like other voluntary sector organizations, is frequently left to fill the gaps in the limited support provided to those who claim asylum in this country.

AM: How have individuals and groups responded to the message you are bringing?

GB: Once people get beyond the misleading media headlines and start to understand the people behind the stories, then the response is usually amazing. So many people become volunteers, and give so much time, week after week. As we are a small organization with just one part-time staff member, we are totally reliant on our volunteers, and what we have achieved over the past few years is essentially down to them.

For example, following an event early last year aimed at giving potential volunteers and other organizations ideas for how they could get more involved with local asylum seekers, a small team got together and started organizing a Voucher Exchange Scheme. This initiative aimed to give asylum seekers who are on Section 4 the chance to exchange one £35 supermarket voucher per person each month. The initiative would link the asylum seeker with a supporter happy to receive a voucher in return for a regular £35 standing order payment.

The volunteers spent hours researching how similar schemes worked in other parts of the country, submitting funding applications to cover the running costs, setting up the paperwork and referral systems, talking to the referring organizations, recruiting supporters, and very soon were running two sessions a month enabling between 70 to 80 asylum seekers to take in supermarket vouchers and come away with an equivalent amount of cash, the vouchers being posted out to the supporters within days.

As well as being able to pay bus fares, this scheme enabled the asylum seekers to buy fresh fruit and vegetables from the local market, or to get winter clothing from a charity shop or car boot sale instead of having to pay high supermarket prices. Those volunteers involved got to know some of the asylum seekers well over the year the scheme ran, and I know many are now proud to call each other friends.

Many groups and organizations are also now more actively involved in welcoming asylum seekers. Those who have centrally placed buildings, like the Secular Society or the Quakers, regularly make their buildings available for meetings and events.

Those groups who meet regularly, like the Red Leicester Choir, now actively reach out to the asylum seeker community and welcome them into their group. The choir holds weekly practice sessions, fundraises to support good causes, and regularly performs their repertoire of songs from all over the world at local events.

Until a few months ago the Red Leicester Choir didn't have any asylum seekers as part of the choir, but now they have. The voices of asylum seekers add a new depth when the choir sings songs of worldwide celebration, struggle and change.

Being part of a group like the Red Leicester Choir gives asylum seekers a chance to be involved in something that's already happening in the city, and it gives the group the opportunity to interact with asylum seekers in an environment where everyone is able to contribute and where immigration status just doesn't matter.

AM: What would you say are some of the main challenges that asylum seekers face in Leicester?

GB: For a large number it's destitution. Not allowing asylum seekers to work and then denying a large percentage of them access to any benefits and accommodation, including hostels for the homeless, has got to be an unacceptable way of treating people wherever they are from.

Many asylum seekers find themselves trapped in this situation for years and years, relying on hand-outs from charities for food to eat, and the good will of other asylum seeker friends for a sofa or floor to sleep on and, when even that is not available, going hungry and sleeping on the streets.

In other parts of the country, accommodation projects have been set up specifically to help people in this situation, either through shared houses, where properties are used to accommodate a number of people; hosting schemes, where people with a spare room make it available either short term or longer term; or night shelters, where larger buildings are used for temporary overnight accommodation. There have been attempts in the past to set up a similar, local project, but until recently they have struggled to gain support for the project and failed to get it running.

Two years ago we started looking closely at some of the more successful projects in places like Manchester and Coventry, talking to those involved and getting a better understanding of how to get a project established. We arranged meetings with people from various organizations including the British Red Cross and Refugee Action, the Diocese of Leicester and a couple of housing associations, the outcome being a joint project to set up and run a shared house for six destitute women, which is due to open later this year.

Accessing good quality legal advice locally is also a major problem. Successful asylum claims need experienced, thorough solicitors to ensure cases are prepared and delivered effectively, but unfortunately those experienced, thorough solicitors are few and far between.

Asylum cases that don't get good quality legal support—or as happens in a lot of cases, no legal support at all—usually lead to a refusal, followed by an appeal, then another refusal and so on, with the asylum seeker not willing to accept the decision because they know their case hasn't been heard properly because they didn't have adequate legal representation.

Isolation and the lack of something to do are big problems for asylum seekers. Those who cannot speak English cannot access ESOL courses for the first six months they are here and this completely limits their options day-to-day. Even those with good English have very limited access to courses or activities to productively spend the time during the many months of the asylum process, and those who come here as highly skilled professionals are not allowed to work and support themselves or contribute to this country, their skills becoming rusty and their confidence fading over the years.

As well as the negative effects on the self-esteem of the asylum seekers, this enforced inactivity is often interpreted by the media and the general public as justification for the stereotype that asylum seekers are really just scroungers who are here for the benefits, one of the many myths we have to constantly work to challenge.

AM: What effect do these restrictions have on asylum seekers?

GB: Having faced situations in their home countries that forced them to flee and seek a place of safety in another country, and survived, seeking asylum in this country can be the final straw.

Generally asylum seekers want an opportunity to tell their story and to be listened to, to have their experiences and their fears acknowledged, and to be allowed to start to rebuild their lives.

Unfortunately the often inadequate legal support provided means that in too many cases an incomplete story is given and then dismissed as not being plausible, questioning the honesty of the asylum seeker, casting doubt on their integrity throughout the long period of the asylum process.

Coming to terms with what has happened in the past and starting to move on is impossible during this time, when choices about where to live, who with, and how to pass the time each day are taken away, meaning lives are often put on hold for long periods of time.

Many asylum seekers suffer from anxiety, stress and depression at some point during their asylum claim. Insomnia is common, not surprising with so much time to think, about the lack of progress year after year, and about the uncertain future ahead. For some a period in hospital is necessary to help stabilize the situation. Others become media headlines when, unable to cope, they take their own lives.

AM: Why do you think these restrictions are there?

GB: In general people come into the U.K. for many different reasons. Most come to join other family members, to find work or to study. Most are difficult to restrict as many people from other parts of the world have the right to come here for various reasons.

Those claiming asylum are not allowed to work, have very limited opportunity to study, and are a very small percentage of those entering the country, and yet, as a group they have become a scapegoat targeted by the media and politicians alike.

Asylum seekers are here because they have been through traumatic times. They are relatively few in number and they have many day-to-day problems to deal with and so are not often in a position to challenge the negative myths and stereotypes that are so frequently repeated by those who should know better. There are now a growing number of organizations who are speaking out on their behalf, who challenge media misrepresentation, who campaign for changes in the law to remove some of these restrictions, and who reach out to asylum seekers to let them know we are here to support them.

Immigration into the U.K. needs to be controlled, and claiming asylum as a system is open to abuse, so there needs to be regulation and restrictions in place to minimize that abuse, but when those regulations and restrictions can have such a devastating impact on the lives of so many people, can they really be justified?

AM: If you could change anything about the way this country deals with asylum seekers, what would you change?

GB: Having an asylum system that is as complex and rigid as ours needs careful navigation by someone who understands it. Expecting an asylum seeker who has recently fled persecution in their home country to successfully find their way through it, often with limited English and a lack of effective legal support, is unrealistic and unsurprisingly leads to a very high percentage of initial refusals.

Effective legal representation from the start would stop the refusal-appeal, refusal-appeal cycle that can drag on for years. In the long run, if people have proper legal support from the start, most asylum cases will be completed within months instead of years, with an outcome that both sides can accept because the preparation and examination of the case has been thorough.

This would mean those asylum seekers who are refused will know they do not have a legitimate future in this country and must take steps to leave. For those who are accepted as having a well-founded fear of being persecuted, instead of years of enforced reliance on inadequate state support or handouts and a life in limbo, they would be in a position to very quickly start to rebuild their lives and start contributing to the economy of this country.

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