I am a retired schoolteacher and studied law with the Open University after my retirement. I graduated in 2017. I have worked with immigrant families and asylum seekers in the past.
I applied for this position with Lambeth Law Centre not least because a fellow law student was taken into detention in his final year of study. With no legal aid available, he managed his own case for leave to remain and failed. Before he could be deported, he committed suicide.
In preparation for the role, I participated in a five-day online training course towards OISC level 1 accreditation in Immigration law. I provided support to a highly experienced and overworked Immigration lawyer during her advice sessions at an Immigration Hub in Greenwich which operates a drop-in advice service. It is a welcome respite for families in real need, providing lunch and refreshments donated by local shops, prepared and served by the team of kitchen volunteers. On one day per week, outreach workers provide collaborative support in immigration advice, housing advice, support for survivors of domestic violence, advice for families facing destitution, help in accessing healthcare. A team of Hub volunteers identify the initial needs and priorities.
My role was to upload client details to the database and key points from the interviews. When an interview became intense and distressing, I would divert the children’s attention or play separately with them for a time. The Home Office may apply discretion within the Rules, and any room for doubt leads to inevitable refusal. If a client’s story seemed confused, I would go through points in detail with them separately for clarification. This work would be written up as a supporting statement in an application to the Home Office or in answer to a refusal under appeal.
Due to lack of funding and capacity, clients are given guidance to make their own applications to whatever extent possible. It was always a joy some months later when relieved and grateful people returned to update us on their success.
Legal aid is available only in certain circumstances; for asylum seekers, those fleeing domestic violence and victims of trafficking. Exceptional case funding is available for cases deemed to have merit where human rights or European rights would be breached if they did not have legal aid. Solicitors with a legal aid contract can apply for costs to run these cases but it does not cover the true expense and many will not take on the work.
Trafficked people are often unaware of the nature of the crime and their human rights. That they have been trafficked at all often emerged during careful and direct questioning about the perpetrator’s systematic behaviour and all the surrounding facts. One of the first women I met having escaped her abuser, was sleeping on a church floor. By day she was on the streets and had on one occasion been attacked by a group of youths. She was malnourished and suffered mental ill health. Over the months, she began to flourish with support from the outreach and local authority services. Others brought to the UK by ‘boyfriends’ with promise of marriage and a good life, had escaped situations of dreadful abuse. The support of other services was vital, and the safety of the woman and any children always the first consideration.
It is however, often difficult to prove that a person’s Article 8 rights will be abused if returned to their country of origin. At a rigorous Home Office interview, applicants are challenged on the detail of their asylum claim. The lawyer tried to prepare women beforehand in an attempt to prevent their re-traumatisation.
Under the ‘hostile environment’ policy, overstayers have no right to study, be legally employed or rent accommodation. Without recourse to public funds they are charged for hospital treatment. We learned of resulting health problems for women afraid to attend ante natal and maternity services. With persisting ill health and concerns about her child, one woman was referred to Doctors of the World; a medical charity supporting excluded people, including asylum seekers, undocumented migrants and homeless people, to access health care.
I feel that the ‘hostile environment’ policy is compounded by the UK’s long period of austerity. Law Centres and voluntary organisations battle with limited resources to give impoverished immigrant individuals and families in the UK, access to justice. Without legal aid or pro bono legal help, the chances of successfully navigating the Immigration Rules, the application or appeals process for leave to remain in this country, are somewhat remote. Clearly, local authority and charitable organisations struggle to cope with the enormity of the inherent injustice in the system.
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