The social workers defending the rights of refugees

Social workers and trainees in Liverpool are playing a key role in the support offered by a leading asylum seeker support service

A poster from Saturday's refugees welcome march. Picture: Photography/RexShutterstock

As a complex-needs social worker, Durani Rapozo specialises in handling complicated cases. Yet, it was the simplicity of the boy’s question that struck him most.

“He asked me why this country couldn’t take people fleeing Libya, when Britain was bombing Libya not that long ago,” he recalls.

“It struck me hearing a 14-year-old child talking sense about issues that aren’t often portrayed well in the wider public or media. We should be proud to be seen as a place of sanctuary. We are dealing with individuals, mothers, teachers who are seeking sanctuary because they face persecution.”

Durani is telling the story as part of a conference presentation on the work of Asylum Link Merseyside. The charity, which is part of Liverpool’s ‘city of sanctuary’ movement, is dedicated to assisting asylum seekers and refugees.

Asylum Link offers a range of support in its drop-in centre and HQ, a converted church in Liverpool’s Edge Hill area. The centre, which is supported by more than 90 volunteers, runs English classes and social events. It serves lunch to around 100 people a day. It also offers free second-hand furniture, clothing and food parcels to those in need. And it provides individual casework support to help people navigate the confusing web of legislation and UK Border Agency policy that determines their rights to assistance.

A confusing web of legislation

Practice guidance
The partnership between Asylum Link, MerseyCare and training providers has developed over the past 10 years Emad Lilo, an Asylum Link trustee, practice educator and MerseyCare’s head of improvement, has played a key role in building the initiative and acts as a link between the partners. The students, under Lilo’s supervision, have used their experiences to develop a draft guidance document to support other practitioners working in this field.

Thanks to a partnership between Asylum Link, MerseyCare NHS mental health trust and local universities, social work students are playing a key role in this casework by taking on placements at the centre.

Amanda and Karl are two social work trainees who have worked at Asylum Link. The pair tell the conference about some of the key challenges of casework.

One is supporting people to apply for help with accommodation or subsistence costs (£36.62 per week for a single adult) under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. Another is supporting applications for section 4 of the Act, which allows for the provision of support to refused asylum seekers who are destitute and unable to return home for some reason. If your section 4 application is successful, you get a payment card to buy food and essential toiletries to the value of £35.69 per person per week.

‘The system can be dehumanising’

Amanda tells delegates that section 4 applications are one of the “toughest areas” of casework due to the strict criteria imposed by the Home Office. She’s also seen people face a “waiting game” of months until they know whether or not they have been successful, a situation which can add to their distress.

“These are people’s lives. The system and policy in this country can be dehumanising. People get dispersed around the UK, they can only use certain Asdas or certain Tescos [with their payment card] and as soon as that card is used, you have a stigma. The social policy acts to serve a certain purpose – as a deterrent. The system can exploit people by taking their liberty away.”

Karl says he’s noticed how the system itself can have damaging effects on individuals. He recalls working with a man who have never used drinks or drugs before but ended up turning to them after finding the process of making an asylum claim so daunting.

“There needs to be a change, because on a day-to-day basis his story isn’t unique…The process is a very stressful time for asylum seekers. Their future is in the hands of the Home Office who will constantly judge whether they are telling the truth or not.”

Assisting people to fight for their liberty is at the heart of the caseworkers’ roles at Asylum Link. As well as the initial applications, they’ll support people to appeal unsuccessful claims. They’ll also look to assist with any housing problems their clients face and offer to help with access to GPs and other healthcare. Handling such challenges, says Amanda, is a perfect opportunity to promote the social work value of anti-oppressive practice.

The role inevitably involves tapping into other local resources. Asylum Link works closely with local branches of Refugee Action, the British Red Cross and Migrant Help to help secure everything from interpreters to emergency financial support for people. The charity also works with statutory services including councils, the Home Office, the police, GPs, MerseyCare and other health providers. As an independent agency Asylum Link will also challenge statutory agencies’ decisions where necessary.

A tale of two cases

As is so often the situation when complex cases are involved, the success of ‘multi-agency working’ varies. The conference hears about two cases. In one, a man faced accommodation problems after his release from an immigration detention centre. Asylum Link offered a “safe space” for him to tell his story (“I had that space to sit with him. We built up that trust. It was heartbreaking,” his caseworker recalls). After taking on the case they worked with the Home Office and Serco (who run the detention centre) to resolve the problems. It was a positive outcome in a field of work when they’re often hard to come by.

The second case was very different. A family seeking asylum after fleeing their home country had been left homeless after having an application for accommodation refused by the Home Office. Asylum Link appealed the decision. They were worried about what would happen with the family’s children. The caseworker also contacted social services, who suggested taking the family to the police station. The police said it “wasn’t their issue” and needed to be handled by social services.

Asylum Link eventually found the family emergency accommodation for one night. Various other twists and turns to the case resulted in social services eventually assessing the family, which in turn resulted in them being accommodated. The experience, to quote the caseworker who supported the family, “wasn’t the best”.

Asylum Link is feeling the knock-on effects of the growing pressure on social services to gatekeep the support they offer, Durani says. As a voluntary service, Asylum Link can sometimes be seen as a resource to replace, rather than complement, social services support. There is also, he says, a lack of expertise among some statutory services in dealing with asylum seekers. The situation has led to instances where councils have refused to even assess people.

“I have had to threaten social services with court action to make them do assessments, arguing their duties under the Children Act and human rights and community care legislation. Rules should not get bent to keep the costs down,” he says.

“There are many great social workers but there are some where I find them behaving like immigration officers and directly contradicting our social work values. Our role as social workers is to care for people. We cannot bend the values that shape the social work profession.”

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