Celia Sands at SLRA’s Streatham HQ. Photo by James Hopkirk

The South London Refugee Association has been helping refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants since the early 1990s. Over the last seven months I’ve spent time at their Balham drop in centre and Streatham HQ, meeting their clients and helping to produce My Life in South London for Refugee Week in the process. I talked to Director Celia Sands about what the charity does and how Government cuts are affecting her clients…

How long have you been working for SLRA?

I’ve been here for a year and a half now. I came from working in the voluntary sector and for local authorities, mostly with children and families. I’d worked with refugees and migrants before, but working specifically in this sector was new to me. What’s really struck me is just how – even compared to some of the most disadvantaged groups in London, in terms of living conditions and income – working in this sector we’re seeing the most marginalised people of all. There simply isn’t a safety net for them to fall through. That’s the difference.

So how do you help?

Usually with really practical things – housing, immigration status, trying to find work, debt, education and training.

People’s legal situation will change over time, as they go through the asylum process. It can be very complicated, and it means they then have different rights in terms of access to employment, benefits and housing. We try to help them with that.

There are also people who we call vulnerable migrants – people who may have come here legitimately to work or study but have for whatever reason overstayed their visa. Women who have come to the UK and stayed on the strength of their partner’s right to live or study or work, but the relationship’s broken down so they’re on their own, often with children who may have been born here.

What happens to those children?

We get young people who reach the age of 18 and realise when they apply for a passport that actually they don’t have British citizenship because of their parents’ status. People come to us who are desperate to regularise the status for themselves, and especially for their children.

We’ve seen more and more people in this situation over the last few years. The right to Legal Aid to get immigration advice has been taken away as part of the cuts. For them they’re in a Catch 22. Their status is irregular but they can’t afford to pay for a solicitor to help them sort things out.

All those with irregular status are pushed to the margins. They won’t in most cases be eligible for benefits, contrary to the usual picture that’s painted in the media of people coming here and instantly getting houses and vast amounts of money for doing nothing. In our experience it’s very much the opposite. These people are struggling just to survive.

Do they find themselves in a situation where they can neither work nor claim benefits?

Yes, exactly that. And sometimes, even when you do have a right to work, if you’re a mum with three children on your own, your right to employment doesn’t actually mean very much. We all know how expensive childcare, transport and housing are in London. To meet those costs is an enormous struggle and often not possible at all. [Earlier in the project I talked to a mother living in a one-room bedsit in Vauxhall with five children and the friend who had let them stay there – I wrote about it here]

Who are your clients? Where do they come from?

There’s a huge variation. Of the young people we see, the majority are young men between the ages of 13 and 24. That’s because it’s mostly young men who can survive the journey to get here. Many of those we see come from Afghanistan but increasingly from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Many of those young people are given a short period of leave to remain, which will take them up to the age of 17. At which point they would either be returned to their country of origin or they have to make another application for leave to remain. That process can go on for years and years, so we see a lot of young men who’ve been in the country maybe since they were 13 or 14. They’re now 20 and they still have no idea what their future will be.

People are often surprised to learn that some of our young people who’ve had all their schooling here, who look like any young South Londoner, are liable to be detained at any moment and sent back to a country where they’ve got nobody.

It’s a horribly drawn out process with very little security. It can go on for 10 years or more. That’s no way to spend your years from 14 to 24.

What happens to them in this period of limbo?

If they arrive when they’re under 18 then they’ll be entitled to education, so they’ll go to school.

But once they hit 17, 18?

It depends where they are in the process. It’s very complicated, but there are some who for years are not allowed to work. Generally, if they’ve had some support up to the age of 18, that will carry on – but that’s changing.

In the UK, every young person who’s been in care is entitled to support. When they turn 18, they don’t get the same level of support they were getting, but they have a key worker to keep an eye on them. They’re entitled to a bit of financial support as well. It’s the minimum, the very minimum, that you would expect a parent to give an 18-year-old.

Now [with the introduction of the Immigration Act earlier this year], for an asylum seeker who arrives alone as a child, when they get to 18, that’s it. No more support.

What’s that going to mean for an organisation like yours?

It’s boggling. It’s almost overwhelming for us already. Most of the young people we see are in that situation, so are currently still receiving some form of support. Sometimes they’ve been through horrible traumas at the age of 13 or 14, so are receiving mental health support. In theory that can all go now. They’ll just be destitute and homeless.

For the young people themselves it’s a disaster. For [SLRA] we have to ask, what can we actually do for them now?

What other impacts have you seen from the cuts?

Mental health provision is a huge one. For young people and adults. There’s less and less voluntary sector provision but also statutory mental health services. There’s very little for anybody, and the threshold is very, very high. People just aren’t getting the help they need.

Social Services are also overwhelmed, so their thresholds for need and when they can intervene are hugely high as well now.

With small voluntary services like ours, what are we supposed to do? It feels like we’re all just pushing people away. And that’s not just in this sector, I think it’s something that you’ll hear again and again [in all areas of social care]. I never thought I’d be saying to parents with small children that we’ve had some donations of Oyster cards, so they can just stay on the night bus for the night.

I don’t know whether it’s because organisations have stopped wanting to help because it’s too difficult or whether it’s because they just can’t. It is just that thing of people being ‘not for us, not for us’. In our sector it’s the Home Office and local authorities where we find this. ‘You’re not our responsibility’.

Has SLRA itself been hit by the cuts?

We’ve actually had a good year bringing funding in, but a lot of that has been about replacing lost funding. Up until March we received funding from Merton Council. As with all local authorities, the last few years have been a process of looking at the voluntary organisations they’re supporting and chopping, chopping, chopping. Merton Council was very supportive of us, so we were one of the last organisations to carry on getting a bit of money.

We also receive a bit of money from Merton for our core costs, and that’s the really difficult thing to fundraise for. People like funding projects, but nobody wants to pay for my role or the rent.

In the past, for organisations like ours, you’d know that you’d get at least a small council grant each year to cover those sorts of basics. Without that, it puts organisations like ours at a huge risk because everything can go very quickly. Proportionally, the amount of time and effort that has to go into fundraising increases.

For voluntary organisations across the board, a lot of them lost their funding in the last few years. So some of the smaller community organisations who would also help some of those vulnerable migrants… they’ve gone over the last few years.

What do you see happening in the next five years?

I think people are always surprisingly resourceful but there’s a limit to that. We think maybe we don’t see homeless families on the streets but that’s because they’re on the bus. Or women having to live with their children in a room with a man who’s let them stay there for a few nights. That’s very, very risky for people who are vulnerable anyway.

We’re not necessarily seeing these people on the streets yet but we’ll see more and more of that. We’ll see more and more desperate people who’ll have to find food somewhere, a place to stay somewhere.

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