Covid-19 Community Reporter Paris Ali-Pilling interviews Malcolm Little, Refugee Support Service Manager for the British Red Cross Portsmouth based Hants & Surrey service. In part two of a two-part series, Malcolm explains the financial impact to refugees and asylum seekers, the main challenges facing them in the immigration system and the improvements he would like to see in the future. Read part I here. Transcribed by Angela Cheverton.
Paris: You briefly mentioned finances in part one, what financial impact has the pandemic had on your clients in regard to those with no recourse to public funds (NRPF)?
Malcolm: Asylum seekers are here legally seeking the UK’s protection. They get an asylum support allowance of £39.60 per person per week, although some will not be able to access this in cash form (we’d also hoped the Home Office would increase support rates by £20 per week, in line with the Universal Credit payment increase made to in response to additional costs people face as a result of covid).
Yet other vulnerable migrants will have NRPF [no recourse to public funds] conditions and no cash at all, but still be required to Report to Fareham Police station (sensibly this requirement has ceased during the lock-down). During the pandemic those with children will have noticed increased family food costs, and not just because they’re no longer getting free school meals. Others with NRPF previously may have found that temporary local authority accommodation provision has been good for them.
But that will likely come to an end at some point and it won’t be a pleasant experience for everyone. I don’t know exactly how all of this would have affected the city’s migrant population because we’ve not yet surveyed these people in detail, but anecdotally it will have been very tough. Some who were sofa-surfing will have felt pressure to move on because of the social isolation and other issues.
Have you noticed that there’s specific impacts on the children of families of your clients?
Those that have school places would have missed their school buddies for sure. And they would have felt it hard. If you’re in a small apartment without a garden, then it would have been more difficult. With partners we’ve done what we can as discussed already to provide some IT support, artistic resources and other means to help them to educate and give their children improved access, but without getting into libraries and schools, it will have been really challenging. We don’t have a huge number of school aged migrant children in Portsmouth, but for those we do have, it can’t have been easy.
What are the main challenges facing migrant families, trying to work through the immigration system, how would you like to see it improved?
Well, there are a couple of things here. A number of people believe, as do I, that asylum seekers who have been here six months waiting for a Home Office decision, should be given permission to work. So, if you come here to legitimately claim asylum and protection, it makes humanitarian and logical sense to allow employment, because it would massively improve mental health and resilience, and it means that they can offer something back and pay taxes (which they want to do).
The economy will be boosted if everybody and anybody that’s fit and able to be working can do so. I think it should also be easier for those with NRPF, to have that condition lifted, to include the means to work. Likewise, those granted permission or leave to remain, meaning they’ve claimed asylum and received a positive decision to stay and work, should be given longer to remain in their accommodation before eviction: up to three months at least, instead of the current 28 days, or less in reality.
I also believe that the people shouldn’t have to report to a Fareham police station either weekly or fortnightly, depending on the condition set for that individual. The Home Office do know where most reportees are accommodated. So, I feel that its an unnecessary and very stressful trip out of the city, and it partly and wrongly conflates the Police’s excellent community role with Immigration Enforcement.
They have to report into Fareham? There’s no other way for them?
The former police station at Southsea used for that purpose has closed down. We knew of vulnerable Portsmouth migrants without cash walking up the M275 to report to Fareham Police station. After their first trip they can get a travel voucher if they ask, but its still sub-optimal in 2020.
They have now suspended Reporting during Covid-19, but it may be re-imposed again. I also think that the Home Office’s own immigration offices in Portsmouth could be used to perform that function. It would save people money, and stress, and I think after Covid-19 we’ve got to review these sorts of arrangements, and be kinder and more humanitarian where we genuinely can be.
Is there anything else you’d like to say that we haven’t covered?
I really welcome what your paper is doing, performing a good role that absolutely should continue. When it comes to the tragic loss of the young person recently on a beach near Calais, I think that was devastating. It’s not right that desperate individuals believe they have no choice but to make a seriously dangerous journey to find protection and I’d love to see that discussed and emphasised more. You must be at an absolutely desperate point in your life to consider undertaking that journey, and it’s got to be understood more fully the reasons why people go to those lengths.
There are no easy answers I know that, but at a time where more than 1% of the global population is displaced, humanitarian nations have got to work together to prevent that sort of tragedy. I know that the one individual is always focused on and there are many, many others crossing the Mediterranean and elsewhere that have died that we don’t even know about, but I’d love a bigger, balanced conversation about what it is that’s driving people to make such a perilous journey across a busy English Channel, particularly in stormy weather, and it won’t necessarily stop when we hit winter.
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.