While coming in contact with international students is a daily occurrence for many of us, meeting Asylum seekers is less common. Asylum seekers are people who have fled their home, who arrive in another country and remain in that country until a decision is made regarding their application to stay. Yet this can be a troubling experience for someone who has just arrived in the UK. Matthew Neil, the Volunteer Coordinator for Meet and Travel Together (MATT), is just one of the people who provide support for asylum seekers arriving in Leeds.
What is exactly is MATT and why does it exist?
MATT is a small Leeds-based project that aims to reduce stress and anxiety for Asylum seekers. Our main clientele are people who are required to travel to Leeds, unfamiliar with the country or city, to attend an interview with the Home Office. We meet them at the train station to provide a friendly face and someone to help guide them along the way. These interviews are extremely intimidating. They’re going to be required to recount all the reasons that have led them to come here such as civil war, religious or political persecution and extreme poverty. In the eyes of an asylum seeker under threat of deportation, this is potentially a life or death situation.
What was it that made you decide to take on the responsibility of helping to turn the UK into a place of refuge and why?
I decided to become active in the charitable community because I became more aware of all the adversity, trauma and strife that people are facing internationally. In particular, that experienced by those arriving in a new country having had their lives torn apart. Many asylum seekers have no English, limited finances and no contacts. Along with a wealth of people that I work with, we want to contribute to the UK becoming a place of sanctuary and welcome so that people can begin to rebuild their lives.
So, when asylum seekers do arrive in the UK, could you describe how they would come into the care of the charitable community?
When someone first arrives in the UK, they are sent to one of five initial accommodations where they would stay for two or three weeks. The one in Wakefield is called Angel Lodge and run by Refugee Council. A group called ‘City of Sanctuary’ have created programmes to keep people busy, varying from kids’ activities and sewing to English lessons. All this is done to bring an element of calm into their lives, as they’ve obviously had a harrowing journey. They’re only going to be there for two or three weeks and then they’ll be sent to another city that they’ve never been to before, known as a dispersal city. When this happens, Refugee Council will refer them to projects or drop-ins within those cities. If you could imagine being forced to leave the UK to be secreted to and dropped in the middle of Moscow, then moved to another city in Russia and then moved on to a third, under a constant threat of detainment and deportation, all the while being spoken to and handed paperwork in Russian, you can begin to understand what kind of distress these people are experiencing.
There are quite a lot of common misconceptions surrounding Asylum Seekers. What rights do they actually have upon arrival?
A lot of misconceptions surround the benefits system and their ability to work. The main thing is that people think they are allowed to access employment, which is untrue. Asylum Seekers are not allowed to work. They are required to live on a small state subsidy which is nowhere near what a UK citizen would receive if they found themselves unemployed. It can be as little as £5 per day which needs to cover food, transport and clothing among other costs. It varies from case to case, dependent on whether they have children. However, the amount is always very little.
How has recent government restructuring affected the asylum situation?
In the summer, the Home Office announced the abolition of the UK Border Agency, which was in charge of asylum issues. This abolition created a further backlog of interviews with the Home Office. As the number of cases grew, the Home Office became incapable of performing the interviews whilst at Angel Lodge, so the asylum seekers were sent to their dispersal cities and asked to then come back to Leeds anywhere between three weeks and four months later.
Could you give an example of the experiences of one of your service users?
Adelina was travelling from Newcastle to Leeds with two young children. She was extremely anxious about her travel and spoke no English whatsoever. She’d never been on a train before and had never been to Leeds. We got in touch with her a few days before and reassured her that someone would be there to take her to the interview and we decided to meet her after the interview as well. After a six hour interview she called our volunteer, though it would be thirty minutes before the volunteer would be able to get to her. She then said that wasn’t soon enough as her train was in ten minutes. The letters that the Home Office send are very severe. They are given tickets and told the specific trains that they have to be on. With no information in her own language and unfamiliar with UK transit, she didn’t understand what her ticket meant – all she knew was that her train was at 4.15 p.m., and that it was the only one she could get. Our volunteer tried to explain this to her, but having just spent six hours being cross-examined and with two children who were exhausted Adelina panicked and called a taxi. She took the taxi back to Newcastle, which cost her £120. She only had this money because of three weeks’ worth of child support back payment. This money was food for her and her children for the next two weeks and she was left with nothing to rely upon except the generosity of charitable support groups in Newcastle.
What changes do you think should be made to the asylum situation in the UK and why do you think the government is responsible to make them or should do anything about it in the first place?
There are two points I’d like to make. Firstly it is illegal to claim asylum in the UK, without having actually arrived here yet. There are also extra-territorial measures, where governments, including Australia and the UK, exert powers outside of their borders to stop asylum seekers arriving in the first place. There needs to be an investigation into the creation of a system where people can claim asylum in the UK without having to get here, otherwise they face extreme journeys encountering the dangers of human trafficking.
Secondly, the other options that need to be explored are the ‘Welcome Projects’, currently upheld by City of Sanctuary and volunteers. This is a greater system of integration when someone does arrive to seek asylum. It spends a few days in a person’s initial arrival showing them where they need to go and what services exist for them to use like the Leeds Asylum Seekers’ Support Network, which have longer term support for befriending someone or studying English. We find that when you show people a smiling face and welcome, they, in turn, want to be part of that community, contribute to its economy, or to create more charitable opportunities themselves. I think Parliament really needs to look at initiating people into a city when they arrive. It should be something that is in government policy and not up to the efforts of volunteers.
Should you wish to contact Matthew about volunteering or the charitable sector in Leeds, he is happy to be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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