‘Asylum Seekers are Welcome in Portsmouth’: An Interview with Malcolm Little Pt I

Paris Ali-Pilling interviews Malcolm Little, Refugee Support Service Manager for the British Red Cross (BRC) Portsmouth based Hants & Surrey service. In part one of a two-part series, Malcolm explains what the British Red Cross does, what measures the charity put in place to work with refugees and asylum seekers and how Covid-19 and the UK wide lockdown affected their client’s mental health. Transcribed by Angela Cheverton

Paris: Can you tell me about your organisation and what it does.

Malcolm: The British Red Cross is celebrating its 150th year, so we’ve been around a while. We have been particularly busy during Covid-19 because supporting people in crisis is what we do. In fact, not many people know that the Red Cross not only does emergency response, for example helping people whose house has been burned down at three o’clock in the morning (alongside the emergency services), to assisting those lacking the immediate means to be independent when they leave hospital, to the provision of medical loans, wheelchairs, zimmer frames etc, to supporting people trying to trace their lost family members abroad as a result of persecution or natural disaster, to the service I manage in Hampshire and Surrey, supporting refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants.

During Covid-19 the British Red Cross has helped around 166,000 people, including the most vulnerable in society, with essential support. In my service this may include delivering prescriptions, food, but also from our point of view providing vital remote casework over the phone. We’ve been able to do a lot of our interaction with vulnerable migrants over the phone with interpreters. Nationally, we’ve also dispersed more than £600,000 in hardship related funds, as well as a lot of additional direct support to refugees and asylum seekers to manage their personal destitution.

So, we’ve helped to orientate people, as well as provide welfare support right through this crisis; another 10,000 or so people nationally have also contacted our national support line.  All of that is additional to our business as usual service provision, which has been ongoing. We’d like to feel that we provide enduring kindness, and in terms of Refugee Support the BRC is by far the largest independent supporter of vulnerable migrants nationally. So, we can advocate on their behalf, with evidence-based information that we’ve picked up locally and nationally, and that’s quite powerful. We don’t lobby, but we do have relevant operational experience and evidence, giving senior BRC staff important influence that maybe other local charities don’t have. During Covid-19 for example, the BRC has engaged with the authorities on a number of issues, including the need for cash provision and acceptable conditions for vulnerable migrants placed in contingency accommodation, as well as connected safeguarding concerns.

When lockdown started what measures did you put in place to continue to work with your refugee and asylum seeker clients?

What did stop was our twice weekly drop-in which we run at All Saints Church with a Portsmouth charity called Friends Without Borders. With that ceasing a lot of the associated project work (for example our ESOL (English for Speakers Other Languages), men and women’s groups) became more difficult to manage remotely, with refreshments and the sort of welfare and networking support that you get in a physical drop-in. So we had to make sure that we contacted everybody to communicate the changes and the alternative arrangements our team made.

That wasn’t difficult to do because we do have the means to readily access our clients; our mostly volunteer caseworkers have kept going with the many welfare calls, they’ve done it brilliantly and we are really proud of them. I am absolutely sure that a number of people have seen increased social isolation during this period, which is regrettable and minimised, but still inevitable for some. Many people have been scared of the virus and very nervous about the impact, particularly those already disorientated, with young children and not speaking much English.

Now we’ve communicated to people very clearly, in a number of languages (we have good interpreter services), and we’ve also done this in concert with Portsmouth City of Sanctuary and the Hive, and others in partnership. We’ve managed to procure, again through partnering and sponsorship, data sets and smart books for a number of vulnerable migrants to at least have some improved electronic access and Gift in kind donations. We’ve been fortunate to receive our share of generous national donations, and then distributing to Portsmouth clients.

I think that Covid-19 has been uniquely challenging for everybody, but I also believe that with our partners, and our excellent volunteers and staff, we have maintained contact with all of our existing clients, plus around 20 new clients a month since Covid-19 started. You’ve got to bear in mind that asylum seekers are present in Portsmouth, and we are by far the largest South East ‘dispersal’ city alongside Hastings and Southampton, although the turnover of dispersals has largely stopped during the period.

That’s meant that there’s been less new dispersal and drop-in work, but we have had to support a number of homeless and other no recourse to public funds (NRPF) vulnerable migrants in close concert as much as possible with the local authority. As the process begins to release people back into a difficult end of Covid-19 transitional situation we will continue to plan and casework proactively.

Covid-19 is a unique challenge and wasn’t something many had accurate contingency plans in place for. Our general resilience, values, adaptability and volunteer management has helped, however.  I don’t think many people anticipated this sort of lockdown with a new virus, and we don’t yet know for sure how we’re going to transition out of it entirely. Until a vaccine is available, a lot of people are going to remain nervous. Many of our volunteers are in vulnerable categories themselves, including staff members. So, to use our British Red Cross building in Portsmouth we’ve had to conduct a very thorough risk assessment and put in place a number of important mitigating measures.

Can I just pick you up on ‘dispersal city’, what does that actually mean?

The Home Office have contracted a number of accommodation providers nationally. The accommodation provider for the South of England is an organisation called Clear Springs Ready Homes. They search for and establish a number of suitable HMO properties with local landlords, to accommodate asylum seekers waiting for a Home Office decision on their asylum claim.

The term ‘dispersed’ means that asylum seekers are literally dispersed (mostly on a no choice basis), pretty much anywhere in the UK, as long as the local authority has an agreed arrangement to be a dispersal city or town going back a number of years. Portsmouth is a leading one currently, although in the last year Home Office plans have matured to look at other local authorities in the south east; this is to rebalance numbers compared to other parts of the UK, where admittedly relatively cheaper accommodation is easier to source.

Picking up from what you were saying about social isolation, how has the pandemic affected the mental health of your clients? Has it changed the way you work with them?

We don’t have as much personal one to one connection with many unless it’s a real emergency because sorting out the most critical casework and paperwork can still be done remotely, albeit with interpreter support too. One to one has been quite rare, and only done when safe to. We have dropped off emergency supplies and prescriptions with some, but we’re talking relatively small numbers. For the majority, I cannot believe that this has been anything other than damaging to overall mental health and wellbeing, as it has been for some members of the general population. These things invariably hit vulnerable cohorts more than most.

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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