Stronger Together: An Interview with Friends Without Borders

In the first of a two-part interview, Helen Salsbury talks with Michael Woolley, the Chair of Friends Without Borders (FWB), a Portsmouth-based charity providing support and advice to asylum seekers.

How did you first get involved with FWB?

‘I heard a talk about the situation of asylum seekers and the people who were being put in prison without trial apparently, and I felt strongly about that and wanted to do something about it and I volunteered to go and visit men in Haslar, which was [originally a prison, and was later converted to] an Immigration Removal Centre.’

Friends Without Borders used to be known as ‘The Haslar Visitors’ group. In time, Michael became their co-ordinator, based at All Saints church.

‘While I was there another charity [Portsmouth Area Refugee Support, PARS] running a drop-in for refugees moved to All Saints church and apparently prospered, [it] certainly had a lot of people and a lot of noise and activity.’

However, due to a lack of lottery funding, PARS had to close.

‘I thought that this was appalling, so I said to my colleague, “Do you think we could do it?”

She said, “Well, we could have a go,” and we put it to [our] trustees that we should take over this drop-in.’

‘We had no idea how to do it [but] gradually we learnt. We established a database, and we realised what needed to be done and we’d got things going when the Red Cross rang up and said, “We’re coming to help you.”’

The All Saints Drop-in Centre is now jointly run by the Red Cross and FWB. Working side by side, they provide support and advice to asylum seekers. The Haslar Immigration removal centre is now closed, although FWB remain concerned about the other ‘detention centres around the country [and the fact that] immigration detention is indefinite.’

Do all the asylum seekers in Portsmouth come to you?

‘Not quite all. We know there are some in Portsmouth which we never see. But I think we probably reach 80% in the drop-in.

‘We get the asylum seekers who are NASS supported [receiving government support via the National Asylum Support Service], we get the failed asylum seekers [refused asylum seekers, cut off from the welfare state, without housing or financial support] and then we get people who have gone through the whole process and won their claims and are now Refugees but need help with official looking letters and filling in forms [such as postal votes, etc].

‘Imagine if we went to live in Pakistan, you know and had everything in Urdu – and official looking letters arrive, you’d think, “What am I to do?”’

Michael is keen to emphasise that while much of the volunteer work in the Drop-in Centre is  pragmatic, focussed on helping people to navigate the day to day difficulties of seeking asylum in the UK, it’s important not to forget the traumatic experiences that force people to seek international protection. Volunteers at the centre frequently have to talk to people about their experiences to support their application for asylum.

‘You can put your foot in it. Somebody was talking to me about coming across the Mediterranean and I just got carried away really. I said “Oh did you, that’s interesting” and I hear other people doing the same. I hear outsiders coming in and saying “Ooh, how interesting, tell me about this,” and I think, you know, we’re not a tourist attraction, we’re not here to provide tourist information.

‘And this man said to me “I don’t want to talk about it,” just like that and shut me down and I – actually, we’ve repaired the relationship. It was a moment when I didn’t really know him, and it – for a while it sort of made a barrier between us –  and then later something else happened and he decided that I was a nice man.’

What does the drop-in centre provide and how?

The drop-in centre provides a range of services and a welcoming space, including:

  • legal advice through the ‘Access to Justice,’ project, which provides day-to-day advice and support through case workers
  • a monthly immigration consultancy with local councillor Stephen Morgan and/or his representatives
  • English lessons
  • a children’s corner
  • a local hairdresser who gives haircuts
  • food and drink
  • and a place to meet

Although the Red Cross has some paid workers, the majority of these services are provided by volunteers.

Michael told me, ‘Three years ago, we [FWB] reorganised to become an all volunteer charity. We’ve got twenty to twenty-five volunteers who we see pretty regularly [plus] all sorts of people round the fringe. [For example] we’ve got one man who wrote the database four years ago.’

Both the Red Cross and FWB provide subsistence support to asylum seekers who have been cut off from NASS support following the failure of their initial appeal for asylum, while they work on fresh appeals.

Michael told me a little about how this worked.

 ‘When they are cut off from NASS support, we support them [in conjunction with the Red Cross]. Well, “support” is a joke, really. We can’t give them accommodation – we are looking into accommodation at the moment – we can give them money.’

‘Between the Red Cross and FWB these asylum seekers are provided with £20 a week to live on. The Red Cross do the triage at the beginning. They pay £10 a week [for] ten weeks. We pay £20 a week to the people we deal with, who are the longer term people, and we also pay a £10 top up to their [the Red Cross] clients.

‘And this is costing us a great deal. I hope when you put your [article] out, you will say that we are desperate for supporters.’

Michael tells me that a third of FWB’s funding comes from regular supporters, with other one-off donations coming in on an ad hoc basis, and some legacy money. People also fundraise for FWB in the local community.

‘We have people doing sponsored walks and what have you. We are unusual [in] that we don’t go for the big grant making trusts.’

Immigration consultancy with Stephen Morgan

FWB strikes me as an organisation that works in an open, friendly way, and is constantly adapting to its users’ needs. Michael explained how the immigration consultancy was set up with Portsmouth South MP, Stephen Morgan, as a result of an encounter with Stephen’s case workers.

‘I went down and had a chat and said, “Come and see the office, and see what we do.”

‘We went round, and I showed them the children’s corner, showed them people learning English, and just chatting as we went by. I said, “What we really need is for you to come and run an immigration consultancy.”

‘And they said, “Yes.”

‘So that was great, and, we fixed a time, we decided two of them would come and we would provide 10 clients, and they would do it every month. We had the problem of small children running around screaming in the drop-in, and we found a woman who said, “I want to work with children” and it ended up with her setting up a children’s corner where she organised games and activities.’

Stronger Together

Michael is keen to encourage volunteers to take the lead in this sort of way.

‘I suppose I’m looking for self-starters,’ he told me. Talking about his volunteer case-workers, he added, ‘You need to pick up a lot on the job.

‘We have a staff meeting every month and those are little training sessions [and an opportunity for]  swapping information because basically I don’t want to be a one-man band. I want to think a group of us are organising Friends Without Borders together.

‘It’s stronger if it’s a group activity.’

Next week in part 2, Michael tells me more about Access to Justice, and about the realities of being an asylum seeker in Portsmouth. 

Get involved:

Learn more about Friends Without Borders and follow them on Facebook for ways to support them and get involved.

Make a donation to FWB.

Find out about ways to volunteer for FWB:

Want to find out the truth about asylum? Have a look at this useful guide from the Refugee Council’s website.


This story is part of our ongoing series from our #ReclaimTheNews team, a group of local residents trained in investigative journalism in partnership with The Centre for Investigative Journalism. The group now forms S&C’s Community Reporting team. Check back regularly for more news from the team and help us to spread the word by sharing their articles with your friends and networks.