Refuge from Rape & Destitution national planning meeting. 31 Oct 2017

On 31 October Halloween was not to overshadow our meeting which brought together representatives of some of the organisations working on the issue of the deliberate policy of the destitution of asylum seekers. This policy can be traced back to New Labour’s introduction of an apartheid benefits system in 1997, which removed benefits from asylum seekers and set up the separate National Asylum Support Service (NASS) for subsistence payments, of approximately half the Job Seekers Allowance rate. The collusion of charities and NGOs with the Home Office in the discrimination and exclusion of asylum seekers dates back almost as far and continues to be shamefully exhibited today in homeless charity St Mungo’s collaboration in the deportation of asylum seekers and EU nationals. In force even longer, however, has been resistance to these unscrupulous policies.

October’s meeting presented the opportunity to make connections between those of us who are working to end the destitution of asylum seekers and was an important starting point in moving forward with the campaign. In attendance were representatives from London Catholic Worker (LCW), Baobab Women’s Project, Brighton Migrant Solidarity (BMS), Women of Colour in the Global Women’s Strike, All African Women’s Group (AAWG), Legal Action for Women (LAW), Black Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP), Women Against Rape (WAR), and the Women’s Labour Forum. One of the aims for the meeting was to begin to get an idea of what is currently being done to support destitute asylum seekers and by whom in order to establish the best ways to progress.

Catholic Worker was founded in New York in the 1930s and they now run 100 ‘houses of hospitality’ around the world. One of these is located in London and provides 19 asylum-seeking men with shelter, food and clothing. Long-term volunteers at the house support the men with their asylum cases, help them find better solicitors, and put them in touch with organisations who can advise them. A separate women’s hostel is in operation outside London. LCW’s members frequently take part in protests and hold two vigils a month outside the Home and Foreign Offices in solidarity with refugees. LCW receive calls daily from men and women in crisis and their main problem is their limited capacity. They are forced to respond to these people that they cannot house them, nor do they know of anyone else that can. This is a reminder that this essential form of support is in short supply.

Read here about the Refugee Week vigil we organised together.

Baobab is a much younger project, having been established only two years ago in Birmingham. They work in collaboration with other organisations in Birmingham and the Midlands such as Hope Project, Peace House night shelter, and Coventry Migrant Women to help destitute women find accommodation and refer them to other organisations, such as church project Brushstrokes, which provide food, clothing and toiletries. Baobab also support women in finding legal aid lawyers and chasing up those lawyers about their cases.

Read here Baobab’s report about how poor decision-making leads to destitution, which our discussion helped inspire.

Brighton Migrant Solidarity began as a campaigning group but has since developed to provide more direct support to destitute migrants – housing in particular. With their Thousand 4 1000 project, BMS crowdfund housing for people made destitute by immigration law. Few asylum seekers are dispersed to Brighton and the people BMS tend to encounter in need of support are men whose relationships with British nationals have ended and women fleeing domestic violence who are excluded from the asylum system and from women’s shelters.

The work of AAWG, in collaboration with LAW, BWRAP and WAR at Crossroads Women’s Centre, differs in its emphasis on self-help. Each fortnight as many as 110 women, 2/3 of whom are destitute, come together to discuss their immigration and asylum cases and to celebrate their victories. AAWG members use their own experiences to advise each other on the issues they raise in meetings in relation to their cases and experiences of destitution. In hearing of the victories of other members, women are empowered to fight – and win – on new fronts. Members also demonstrate solidarity by accompanying each other to court cases – a real source of encouragement and, often, an influential factor in judges’ decisions.

In addition to the general AAWG meetings, smaller sessions are held in which women use the self-help guide published by LAW and self-help tools written by WAR which give women valuable and applicable information on what they can do at different stages in their cases. The self-help guide was published in 2005 and tens of thousands of copies have since been distributed around the country. In sessions women read the guide together and relate their own cases to the criteria for asylum, answering the crucial questions of why they had to flee their country and cannot go back, and putting the progression of their case in chronological order. This serves as a case summary which enables women to understand and take ownership of their own cases, which they can then present themselves with confidence to lawyers and MPs when needed.

The essential principle of this work is that you must, first of all, understand your own case to have a chance of winning it. When you understand your case you can then take a lead role in pursuing it and ensuring you are given good legal representation. On the basis of collective self-help and confidentiality, women use their own experiences to help each other in an environment in which many find the connection and support needed to open up about traumatic experiences such as rape for the first time. AAWG members are encouraged to fight on their own behalf with the support of the collective behind them.

While some organisations may focus their energies more on legal casework, others dedicate more time to campaigning. The necessity of both is clear, as is having somewhere to go to get food, clothing and shelter, and one of the issues discussed in the meeting was a general tendency to separate these different modes of support. It was noted that destitution cannot be tackled by simply providing food and shelter – this must be supplemented by support with legal cases as it is often when cases are closed that asylum seekers are made destitute. In addition, while organisations based at Crossroads dedicate a lot of time to valuable casework, this leaves them with little time to engage in campaigning, which can often represent a shortcut to policy change. BMS demonstrated the importance of expanding their work from campaigning to their housing project, yet also acknowledged the urgent demand for legal support, the dearth of lawyers to provide this, and the importance of being in control of one’s own case, as emphasised by AAWG. This led AAWG to propose a workshop in Brighton on how they work on legal cases.

A precedent was set with New Labour’s punitive immigration policies in the 90’s which has proceeded to be rolled out as a universal policy of austerity which impacts all of us. As expressed by LAW, “we fight for people to have the right to be here because in fighting for others we are fighting for ourselves.” On this note, one crucial thing to come out of this initial meeting was the connections made with other organisations and, going forward, the importance of making connections with other groups of people forced into destitution by government policy. One representative from Labour highlighted the outrageous neglect of pensioners in the UK, which provides the worst state pension in Europe, leaving many people destitute and has resulted in the deaths of 43,000 pensioners this year.

Reflecting on the meeting, the women from Labour, who had succeeded in passing a motion in response to LAW’s campaign to end destitution at the time of the General Election, expressed their commitment to representing those affected by destitution in the Labour Party. They conceded a general ignorance of how destitution is impacting asylum seekers but also of how women are fiercely fighting this destitution themselves. As one representative put it: “the fellowship of the AAWG is something to be admired and emulated.”

In order to move forward with the campaign, WAR insisted on the importance of challenging the preference of charities to avoid challenging immigration controls due to a belief that politicising in this way would undermine their campaigns. WAR are adamant that immigration should not be seen as a toxic issue as, if the government is able to treat immigrants and asylum seekers with such contempt and brutality, then we are all made more vulnerable.

The first and fundamental demand of the Refuge from Rape and Destitution campaign is:

  • End all state planned destitution – asylum seekers should have the same benefits as UK nationals

We look forward to making connections with others who experience and are fighting enforced destitution and coming together to build momentum around this issue and confront the policy-makers who attempt to impoverish us into silence.

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