This blog post was written by Lisa Matthews, Right to Remain coordinator.
This week, we returned to one of our most frequent destinations – Manchester. Manchester has a remarkably active and vibrant asylum/migrant support and campaigning scene, and it’s always great to hear what’s happening locally and share what we’ve learnt from groups in other regions of the UK. (‘Manchester’ even has its own category on our blog, it pops up so much!)
This training was part of a series we are able to put on thanks to generous funding from the Allen Lane Foundation. You might have read about another session in this series, in Sheffield last month, where we talked about Yorkshire solidari-tea!
In these training sessions, we look at how the asylum and immigration system works, the barriers stopping people getting their right to remain, and practical mutual aid and self-help solutions to common problems faced by people trying to establish their rights.
While the ethos of the sessions is thinking about solutions and taking positive steps – together – it is important to spend time exploring the problems themselves. Sometimes, when we run these sessions with people who don’t need to navigate this system because they are British or have secure immigration status, and are new to the labyrinthine world of asylum and immigration injustice, people think we are exaggerating the problems faced by those seeking the right to remain in the UK. But in a recent session we ran with the brilliant Scottish Detainee Visitors, one asylum-seeking attendee looked at the diagram on the floor and said, “Yes, that’s my life, that’s exactly what it is like”. It can be devastating to be told you are doing things right.
When we are developing new training exercises, we sometimes try them out on people not involved in our world of migrant rights to see if they make sense. When I tested out the ‘putting together the pieces of the asylum process puzzle’ on my dad (lucky him), he commented
“It’s like snakes and ladders. But with just snakes”
One of the snakes: disbelief
With the groups in Manchester, we were exploring the common problems people come up against in their asylum interviews. We talked about problems with interpretation, with hostile questioning, the pressure to give dates for events long in the past, and the culture of disbelief that is all too often the starting point for Home Office decision-makers. There was a silent chorus of nods about these barriers to justice, almost all of the attendees having experienced them first-hand.
“Not looking in their eyes!” suggested one member. On first hearing, this might not seem like a barrier to protection. But when someone’s body language, such as not looking the Home Office interviewer in the eyes, is used as a reason to discredit their story, the obstacle becomes more obvious. The man went on to explain “In my culture, you cannot talk to someone in authority and look directly into their eyes. But the Home Office, they say this means you are lying!”. “Yes, yes, this is true for many African countries” chimed in other attendees. This one small example highlights the gulf between people’s lived experience in their country of origin – the essential social, cultural and political context without which their story of persecution will rarely make sense – and many of those making life-and-death decisions on their cases.
Finding the ladders: you cannot get through this alone
We spend a lot of time talking about this, but that’s because it’s the bottom-line of our work: the importance of working together, in mutual support, to get through the asylum and immigration system, to be less harmed by the experience, and the need to come together to change the system for the better.
In Manchester, we talked about how it’s essential not to rely on one or two group leaders as that can’t work forever for them, or for you. That system will always break down, and that could happen when you need it most. We discussed skilling-up ‘cells’ of the group in different areas of legal information or local support networks, or reaching out to new allies in the region, or practical things like helping each other speak to lawyers or look after the children at crucial times.
All of these principles, all of these tips learned from across the years and across the UK, with brilliant recent examples of practical solidarity from our network of community groups, will be included in the new version of our Toolkit – a guide to navigating the bewildering asylum and immigration system, and taking action for your right to stay.
We’re currently crowdfunding in order to be able to produce this essential resource, and at the time of writing we’re 40% of the way to reaching our £10,000 target (we’ve raised over £4,100 in just 12 days). We’ve been overwhelmed by everyone’s support – their donations, and the lovely words people have said about our work. With this amount of money raised, we will be able to produce a brand new online Toolkit, but we need to raise more in order to be able to produce the hardcopy versions – the books – that community groups value so much. If you are able to contribute, or can pass the appeal on to someone who can, we would be very grateful.
We can’t wait to go back to run our next training session in Manchester – and we hope we will be laden down with many copies of the brand new crowdfunded Toolkit!