by Social Work Outlaw (@outlawsocial)
Our news bulletins are full of terrible stories of many people trying, sometimes in vain, to reach a place of safety in our country and other European states. In the main, these people are fleeing the horrors of war. I can only imagine what it must be like to come home from school and see a tank rolling up your street and your home town destroyed in the name of some twisted ideology.
Years ago I was lucky to experience working with refugees and asylum seekers in a large UK city. The team I was working in consisted of housing professionals and social care staff, with a few social workers completing specialist assessments.
I worked with people who had seen their application for asylum rejected by the UK government – often referred to as ‘failed asylum seekers’. They were receiving local authority support under a stipulation in the National Assistance Act 1948.
Every week, people would come to our service to collect vouchers in order to continue to be able to feed themselves and have somewhere to live. Many were placed in substandard accommodation. These were often old, crumbling and damp Victorian or Edwardian relics owned by faceless private landlords who were only too happy to exploit desperate people.
‘The psychological torture of fear’
Many of the people I worked with suffered with significant mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of trauma. Often their crime in their home country was standing up to the government or other sources of authority. Taking a principled stand had led to physical attacks, death threats and, in some cases, torture and the murder of family members. They were left with psychological torture of the fear of what was to come next and doubts over whether they and their family would still all be alive the following day.
My role was to assess whether people should continue to be supported by the local authority under the National Assistance Act 1948. I feel fortunate to have met a range of individuals with life stories that I will never forget, let alone imagine what they must have been like to live through.
Yes, there were some ‘economic migrants’ working on the black market trying to build a better life for themselves and their families. There were also some very scary individuals, such as an African war lord wanted for war crimes by the United Nations. The charges against him involved torture, mass murder and rape against girls and women. My blood ran cold when I looked into his eyes, there was just nothing there. I can clearly recall the day he was taken to a detention centre, as the UK Border Force officials were supported by armed police officers; it was pretty tense.
‘Losses I could never comprehend’
Yet for the most part I worked with people who had experienced losses that I could never comprehend. One man sticks out in my mind. He had been an activist in the late nineties in Zimbabwe and had become a political opponent of Robert Mugabe, leading many protest rallies. He showed me his left arm which had been cut off with a scythe by government henchmen as a warning to leave the country, which he did pretty damn quick.
He arrived in the UK with nothing but the belief that Great Britain has respect for free speech and strongly upholds human rights as part of the Human Rights Act. He required further surgeries to sort his arm out as it was still not fixed properly. This involved working with the NHS to settle who was going to pay for the treatment.
I’m happy to say that on review of the situation, my man was granted right to remain in the UK. He got the medical and psychological help required to rebuild and start again. As far as I am aware he is now working. Being an educated person, he was very skilled and went on to work in further education. He is now supporting and helping young people achieve and move on in life. It was a great outcome, as opposed to some of the other people I was able to meet and work with and get to know for a short time in their lives.
There are many other people I met along the way that I could mention, from a guy fleeing the US who was facing potential judicial execution to many young men fleeing Iraq and Afghanistan. They had seen their communities broken up and descend into a warzone, something that they had no control over or power to halt.
Many of the people that I worked with and spent time getting to know and help were frankly inspiring. The experience is something I’ll never forget and it enriched my social work skills tenfold by working with specialist interpreters to agencies such as the UN, Home Office and even on occasion the CIA.
There has been much negative press this summer regarding the plight of many of these people but it is vitally important to remember that everyone has a story to tell and a reason for coming here. Social workers can help people tell those stories.
Social Work Outlaw is an independent social worker and member of the British Association of Social Workers