‘Plugging Gaps in the System’: Covid-19 and Friends Without Borders

Covid-19 Community Reporter Paris Ali-Pilling spoke to Michael Woolley, Chairman of Friends Without Borders (FWB), a Portsmouth-based charity providing support and advice to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Portsmouth, about how the pandemic has affected the organisation and the people it serves.

Mental health services overall have seen a rise in reports of mental health problems in the general population during the pandemic, but how is this affecting asylum seekers and refugees? Asylum seekers in detention centres have experienced increased fears and stress due to potential outbreaks, with one asylum seeker taking legal action against the government following an outbreak in his accommodation – despite assurances from the Government he was not at risk there.

I asked Michael of Portsmouth’s Friends Without Borders about the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on the people FWB work with. He told me, ‘I have one man who gets counselling twice a week from the NHS, so it’s pretty bona fide counselling. And he was getting that before… He is asking whether the drop-in is going to open.’

The drop-in Michael is referring to is the All Saints drop-in,  which is run by FWB. It’s a safe social space where migrants, refugees and asylum seekers can access professional advice and meet new people. Prior to the pandemic and lockdown, the drop-in service was provided twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays 10am – 1pm. However, since lockdown was announced, the service is closed for the safety of the volunteers and clients.

I asked Michael if Friends Without Borders had been able to engage with their clients in other ways now the drop-in was no longer running. Michael said, ‘Not as much as I’d like. I have contact with them fairly regularly because I pay about 30 of our clients an allowance.’

‘When Covid came along, we quickly identified the people who were regularly claiming [from FWB’s Destitution Fund].  We went back over our records for the last six months and drew up a list between us of all the people who were claiming and phoned them up and asked what their position was. I quickly got the list together and asked them all if they either had bank accounts themselves, which some of them did, or if they had a trusted friend who had a bank account, and to those people we pay them £25 a week by a transfer.’

FWB created the Destitution Fund to support people whose first claim for asylum was denied, at which point each person can either choose to make another claim or go back to their home country. If they choose to make another claim, Michael told me, they ‘don’t get any support from the Home Office, and there is something like 30 of those who we are paying in cash at the drop-in.’

Before the pandemic, the Destitution Fund was paid in cash at the drop-in sessions, however with those cancelled until further notice, Michael has kept the money transfers to the same two days as the drop-ins, but the whole process is done virtually.

‘I ask them to let me know each week if they need it, I send a remark on a WhatsApp group and send a reminder to them that if they want their payment tomorrow they should contact me by five o’clock that day if they need the money. And I get a little shower of “yes please Michael” coming my way’.

Refugees can claim asylum support from the Government if they are ‘homeless or do not have money to buy food’, a weekly payment of £37.75 for each person in the household to help them pay for food, clothing and toiletries. This payment is made through a debit card known as an ASPEN card each week. Some of the families Michael works with are either waiting for a debit ASPEN card to arrive or the card they have is not working.

‘We gave [£50] twice to one family and [£50] once to another family that were desperate and what have you. So, we gave out £150 [in total] just …plugging gaps in the system and also ringing up [the Home Office] for them and making a fuss… In fact, everything did work eventually, two or three days later. But if you’ve got three or four children and you’re stuck, somebody coming along and giving you £50 is a life saver’.

FWB’s Access to Justice project  was created in 2014 to provide refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Portsmouth free ‘access to good quality legal advice at the earliest opportunity.’ The project [is] still working on current cases, but the volunteer solicitor working with FWB recently passed away.  Although his assistant still volunteers for FWB, Michael and the board are urgently looking for a new volunteer to get the service back up and running.  On the day we spoke, Michael told me that in the previous two days he had received three phone calls from people enquiring about the Access to Justice project and had to tell them, ‘No, sorry we don’t do that anymore.’

‘We desperately need somebody. It would be excellent for somebody with some sort of legal background who was prepared to do a smallish exam’.

FWB are seeking a volunteer with a legal background who is already accredited to level 2 of the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner [OISC], or who is willing to take the exam and volunteer for the charity.

‘Somebody who could help, who is interested in helping Access to Justice would be a huge bonus for us,’ Michael said.

I asked Michael what changes FWB would like to see in the current process for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. ‘Abandon the health service surcharge,’ he said. The immigration health surcharge was introduced by the Coalition in 2014, and is applied to most visa applications to the UK. It requires an additional payment of £400 (£300 for students and young people) on top of their visa fees, which enables them to access NHS services.

One other change that Michael would like to see changed is the current process of people being given ‘discretionary leave to remain’ in the UK, which is expensive and time-limited for potential migrants. ‘A lot of people are being given discretionary leave to remain and my heart always sinks when somebody comes along full of joy, waving a card and saying I’ve got permission to stay and it turns out to be discretionary leave to remain. Discretionary leave lasts for two and a half years. At the end of two and a half years, you have to renew it and it costs £1,000. It doesn’t just cost you a £1,000 but it costs £1,000 for you and any dependants you have’.

Although FWB has faced additional challenges during the pandemic, the charity has also successfully bid for funding from Hampshire and Isle of Wight Community Foundation (HIWCF) to support people seeking asylum in the city.

‘I thought well, with all these parents with children at home while there’s no day-care… maybe we could get them computers.’

Michael asked the Foundation for £6,000 to buy 15 computers for children in the families FWB supports to use. However, when the funding came through, FWB managed to buy 25 Chromebooks and wifi-access for the families with the same budget.

‘We’d estimated it would cost about £400 a computer but Chromebooks only cost… I think, £230. Some people didn’t have wi-fi so we had to buy a little wi-fi box…People were very grateful.’

‘We help where we can, and these were people who we thought we should help’.


Find out more about Friends Without Borders and how to support their work at their website, on Facebook and Twitter.

Want to get involved in our new Covid-19 reporting project?

Paris Ali-Pilling would like to interview local migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Portsmouth and the organisations and groups who support them, about how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected them. If you would like to share your experiences, or represent a group or organisation like this, please get in touch with him at: promotion@starandcrescent.org.uk

S&C has been awarded funding from the European Journalism Centre Covid-19 Support Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on diverse communities and sectors in Portsmouth:

  • voluntary sector, including charities, community groups and social enterprises
  • small businesses and self-employed people
  • BAME communities
  • people with disabilities

We have also been awarded funding from the Public Interest News Foundation Emergency Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on migrants, and asylum seekers and refugees.

If you are interested in sharing your experiences in any of these areas, get in touch with us over on Facebook and Twitter, or email us at submissions@starandcrescent.org.uk 

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