Saturday, 20 October 2012

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.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

"Invisible families": The difficult realities of kinship care in the UK

A Greater Manchester grandmother bringing up her grandchildren has highlighted concerns over what she believes is a lack of substantial state support for kinship carers.

Linzi, who cares for a relative’s two 10 year olds and is one of 200,000 kinship carers in the UK, claims that local authority support available for them is often confusing and not always easy to find.

Kinship carers, also known as family and friends carers, are the grandparents, other relatives and close contacts of children at risk of being taken into care who agree to look after them for a substantial amount of time.

Some, including Linzi, whose grandchildren are within the remit of Stockport Council, are now voicing their concerns that the amount of financial and other support they are entitled to is not always as substantial and as clear cut as what foster carers receive.

Foster carers are paid an effective wage paid by councils who consider foster care a self-employed, working role.  In Stockport, for example, they can receive up to £345 per week plus additional allowances for birthdays, Christmas and holidays per child. However, no standardised, equivalent payment system exists for kinship guardians.

Whilst foster carers are not eligible for child tax credits, which other guardians including kinship carers can receive, they are eligible for other payments such as working tax credits due to being recognised as self-employed by local authorities. They are also entitled to respite, carer and child trips and training courses.

The lack of a substantial, easy to understand nationwide policy for kinship carers has resulted in a situation of payments and services available at the discretion of individual local authorities. Most kinship carers get no help at all from their local authority. This has also led kinship carers to be informally referred to in the UK as “hidden” or “invisible” families.

This situation persists despite the fact that, according to the Grandparents Plus charity, these families are often in great need of state help.

The charity has published numerous reports to back up its campaign to ensure better and more standardised support systems be put in place for kinship carers. The reports have revealed that most kinship care families say they have experienced financial hardship due to bringing up relatives’ children, with two thirds reporting low household incomes. A large proportion has had to cut their working hours or give up their jobs entirely due to child care responsibilities. 85% of children in kinship care are also reported to have emotional difficulties when they move in with their carers.

Linzi, 50, who has cared for three of her grandchildren along with her husband, is amongst those attempting to raise awareness of kinship carers’ struggles in the UK to ensure that they all have access to substantial and easy-to-navigate support services within local authorities.

She said: “We do the same job as foster carers but we don’t always get the same support and what help we do get is generally means tested. We are also not entitled to parental leave despite having the same role in our children’s lives.

“I’ve had to give up my job to look after the children so I’m not entitled to JSA, income support and my partner and I don’t qualify for working tax credits because neither of us works the minimum 24 hours per week and as kinship carers we are not recognised by the government as self-employed carers like foster parents.

 “I get £129.15 a week kinship allowance which is the maximum that they will pay for my two children and £33.70 in child benefits. I also get annual child tax credits but that is all the income support our family gets. It’s just not enough to compensate for the changes that we’ve had to make such as buying a bigger house and taking out another mortgage to have room for us all. It costs a lot to raise a child, especially when it’s the second time around. I think there are many kinship carers out there who feel like they’ve been left in limbo when it comes to getting support from local authorities.

“I don’t think many kinship carers would say they would prefer their grandchildren to be placed in care but at the same time it is a very demanding task. I’ve already had my own children but now I’m in a situation where I’ll be 60 and my partner almost 70 when my grandchildren will probably be still living at home. It’s a lot of commitment at that age but being a kinship carer is something that is hardly talked about in public.

“Just because we are all family that should not imply that we can easily afford to look after them; that a link has been made between the two is ridiculous. The government has not taken into consideration that most kinship guardians don’t expect to find themselves looking after their grandchildren so haven’t put any money aside. It seems like emotional blackmail to me.”

Only 36% of carers are currently working despite almost 3 quarters being in employment before taking on the children.  Over 65% have been described as living in poverty, with around 41% of kinship carers predominantly dependent on welfare benefits.

Linzi said: “The amount of time it takes to look after the children means I’m unable to get regular employment yet I’m not treated as working by caring for them fulltime like foster carers can be. A lot of kinship carers really struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes you just feel like you’re really on your own.”

Sarah Wellard, policy and research manager for Grandparents Plus, said: “The whole entitlement system for kinship carers is a complete nightmare and varies widely from council to council.  Most kinship carers get no help at all, either practical or financial, from their local authority. Often they are given poor information and are sometimes misled.

“The whole system of support from local authorities is incredibly complicated, and where kinship carers do get support, this is usually discretionary  and means tested.

“We need whole system reform to ensure fairness in access to financial and practical support based on children’s needs. We also want to see carers able to get proper advice and information so that they are fully aware of what they are entitled to. Many are left in the dark about services, benefits and support that does exist out there for them.

“Some kinship carers are even hesitant to contact social services to ask for help out of fear their child will be taken away from them. The government must do more to reassure families around this issue.”

Grandparents Plus offers advice and information to kinship carers to help them access welfare benefits and support from their local authority. They also run a peer support network and provide details of local support groups and other relevant charities on their website To contact the charity call the confidential advice line on: 0300 123 7015 or email: