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Support for Asylum Seekers - Merseyside

Support for Asylum Seekers (S.A.S) is a project of Churches Together in the Merseyside Region (CTMR) which relieves destitution and homelessness among asylum seekers and rejected asylum seekers in Merseyside.

Origins

S.A.S was established in 1996 on the initiative of the Development Workers’ Group of Merseyside and Region Churches Ecumenical Assembly (MARCEA – the predecessor to CTMR) to respond to the needs of asylum seekers in Merseyside. It was launched at a consultation meeting in Liverpool 8 for representatives of churches and minority communities at which Chas Raws (then working part-time as North West Regional Development Officer for the United Nations Association), was confirmed as its co-ordinator, charged with appealing for funds from churches and charitable trusts and distributing them to asylum seekers in need who would be identified through churches, immigration lawyers, social workers and community nurses. He was supported in doing this by a steering group answerable to what was then the Department of International Affairs of MARCEA.

In 1995, the Conservative Government was proposing to remove all benefits from asylum seekers. (Until then they were included in the national benefits system.) Although the courts managed to reverse this legislation on the grounds that it could not be the intention of the government of a civilised country to make people destitute (which was indeed their intention), subsequent legislation - driven by the tabloid press, as was the original parliamentary campaign - has steadily worsened the situation of asylum seekers and the latest cuts in benefits and legal have reduced significant numbers to destitution.

The initial consultation was followed by ad hoc contact with solicitors, community organisations, social workers, GPs and health workers and particularly with two independent evangelical churches which were already giving practical support to asylum seekers who had joined their congregations.

How S.A.S works

S.A.S has now been operating for fifteen years. It provides weekly grants of £25 for a maximum period of 10 weeks for between 10 and 30 people at any one time and funding for emergency accommodation for a maximum of six months for about 15 people. It also provides meals and food parcels for about 70 people. No specific criteria were applied initially as the referrals were all from experienced professionals. In more recent years, destitution has been the basic criterion, proved by a letter of rejection and notice to quit accommodation provided by the UK Border Agency.

All of these activities are managed and administered by another charity, Asylum Link Merseyside, which grew out of a once-a-week afternoon drop-in centre in a church hall. It is now the only open access centre for asylum seekers in Merseyside providing friendship, advice, food and English language teaching as well as hosting regular services from NHS and other agencies and sign-posting to other sources of help. Until recently, it opened all day on weekdays but shortage of funds have forced it to put six of its eight staff on to 4/5ths time working and to close on Fridays. (It also depends on over 80 volunteers.) S.A.S itself only provides the financial resources for the relief grants, accommodation and food.

The constant changes in asylum regulations have continually put new obstacles in the way of asylum seekers. S.A.S funds have helped Asylum Link Merseyside to respond to these changes but the basic work remains the provision of resources to those without them.

Resources

The main leadership throughout has come from Chas Raws as Co-ordinator who is a very active local Quaker. He works from home and gives his time voluntarily worth, at a very conservative estimate, about £1,000 p.a. The initiative was taken in faith and the Merseyside church leaders all give moral support.

At first, by far the greatest number and largest donations were grants from charitable trusts. The first grant came from the John Moores Foundation, which is still a major contributor. In 2003, the Roman Catholic Archbishop began to give the proceeds of the Lent Alms collection to S.A.S. Now as well as charitable trusts, funds come from a few churches giving one-off donations annually, from groups and from individuals (including 20+ monthly standing orders). Annual income has grown from under £20,000 to over £50,000.

S.A.S is essentially a sinking fund so that what it can do depends entirely on income. It can exist for as long as there is money in the bank! Its minimal overheads are covered by CTMR. In managing the project, there is indirect reliance on the Asylum Link premises and volunteers. ALM’s offices for administration, casework and other activities occupy most of a 3/4-storey presbytery rented from the Catholic Archdiocese.

In relation to delivering its services, S.A.S. rents properties for asylum seekers to occupy. For example, it has recently begun to rent most of the parish house at St Michael’s RC Church, Horne Street, for accommodation for up to 8 women.

Connections with other organisations

The key partnership, as already indicated, is with Asylum Link. There are also connections with Merseyside Refugee Support Network and Merseyside Network for Change and the Co-ordinator is a trustee of both these organisations. Nationally, belonging to the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network and the steering group of the Churches’ Refugee Network is good for morale.

Outcomes

The outcomes are difficult to quantify. However, up to 2,000 asylum seekers have been helped out of destitution for a limited period and their helpers and advisers have been given a source of support.

Success factors

None of this would have been possible without the energy, commitment and local credibility of the Co-ordinator. Beyond this, the goodwill of individuals both directly as donors and within donor organisations (including churches) has been essential.

One of the main barriers is prejudice against asylum seekers fanned by the tabloid press.

Challenges and opportunities

On the one hand, there are signs that fundraising in general is becoming more difficult with the main threat to S.A.S coming from ALM’s current difficulties over fundraising; on the other, the global financial crisis and global wars, droughts and famines are leading to increased illegal immigration by desperate people.
  

Chas Raws