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Asylum seekers in Sheffield need more help than ever against the hostile environment

Now Then speaks to ASSIST Sheffield’s Andrew Key for a look at how the hostile environment manifests in Sheffield.

Protestors hold a sign saying "refugees welcome"
Ra Dragon

Now Then spoke to Andrew Key, a community events and grant worker at ASSIST Sheffield, to get a picture of how the hostile environment has affected people in Sheffield.

Can you explain who ASSIST Sheffield are, and what work they do?

ASSIST Sheffield is a charity that works with people who are seeking sanctuary in the city who have been refused in their initial claim for asylum. And thus been made destitute as a result of the policy of the hostile environment. So this means that they are ineligible for public funds, they're usually made homeless, they can't access secondary health care, they can't work, they can't access benefits. So they are in a situation where they become more or less living ghosts, they often have to sleep with friends, or family if they have any, but they become placed in a very precarious legal situation.

We provide accommodation, weekly payments, and sometimes bus passes, sometimes food bank referrals to people in this situation so that they can have somewhere to live and they won’t be street homeless, usually while they make an appeal for asylum. People are very rarely deported after an asylum claim is refused. It's quite expensive and time consuming and often illegal to deport people. Almost half of asylum claims that are refused are granted on appeal. It's a torturous bureaucratic system that is designed to refuse people who are eligible, basically. ASSIST has been around since 2003, it was originally started as a short term project. It stands for Asylum Seeker Support Initiative Short Term. But, as you know, things are getting worse. So it's been 20 years, and we're still busier than ever.

Would you say that, in the last few years you've had more people needing your services? Or do you think it's been a pretty steady pattern?

It varies. So, actually, COVID saw a decrease in the numbers of people using our particular services, because there was a freeze on Home Office evictions, a freeze on a lot of the asylum system. Because fewer people were being refused asylum, fewer people were coming to ASSIST for help. So actually, it's been kind of quieter in some ways over the last couple of years. But recently, things have started to become more intense again, and we're predicting that over the next few months with the increasing intensification of the hostile environment and other government policies, we're going to see an increase in people who are in need of our services, definitely over the next six months or so.

What do you think people who live in Sheffield can do, who would want to support ASSIST’s work and asylum seekers more broadly?

There are a number of ways to help. The main way to help is to give your time. We're often looking for volunteers. And our volunteers do all sorts of things - we have a very strong interpreter team that can speak various languages, we have people who accompany our clients to meetings at the Home Office so that they can have someone there that they feel comfortable with. And so, if they do get detained, it often means that someone knows what's happened and can report back. There are lots of ways you can get involved directly with the charity.

Donations are always very helpful, particularly to us but also South Yorkshire Refugee Law and Justice, which is a very small and quite stretched charity. Donations to them are really helpful and really important. And then there are also various kinds of campaigning groups in the north. These Walls Must Fall, for example. There’s also the Sheffield Anti-Raids network where various people are involved in more direct protests. Yes, a lot of the protests happen down south but there is a shift towards detention centres being placed in the north, as well as a new one that’s set to open in Yorkshire soon.

Currently, it looks like the nationality and borders bill is going to change things quite drastically. And, there seems to be a pattern of more regressive policies that are coming in. What kind of real world impact does that have on the day to day work that you do with ASSIST?

It makes things feel more intense. And I suppose it makes the work that I think everyone in the asylum sector in Sheffield does, feel under greater pressure. But, it also makes it feel more important. Sheffield was the UK's first city of sanctuary. And it has quite a strong and established asylum sector, full of people who are very committed to the work and believe in it.

I think the need is only going to increase for the services that we provide, and the experiences of people seeking sanctuary are only going to get harder and more stressful, and their lives are going to become more difficult with greater threats of deportation and detention. The Rwanda plan, even if it never becomes practical for the government, it creates this huge amount of stress and anxiety for our clients. These are people who have been through hugely traumatic experiences already to get to the UK from their home countries. An asylum system that is based on perpetuating and encouraging fear among its beneficiaries is an extremely troubling one. The increased hostility that we're seeing under the Tory government only makes our lives harder and the work feel more imperative.

You mentioned that ASSIST provides resources for people like accommodation and food. Do you also have to do a lot of work with people that is related to the trauma of how they have come to be here, how they can settle while they have to deal with complicated legal procedures?

At ASSIST, we're trained to work in trauma informed ways with clients. And we bear that in mind. But we're not a therapeutic organisation. We try to improve clients' material conditions and connect them to the wider community. There is an organisation of therapists, Solace, and they're based primarily in Leeds, but they do some work in Sheffield as well. We also have a partnership with the Mulberry Centre, which is a medical practice where we can refer clients to get support with their mental health. It’s something that we see is increasingly important. A lot of our clients in particular are young men who have had very traumatic experiences. And there is a question of men's mental health, in particular being something that we really need to try and ameliorate.

What do you feel is missing from this conversation around refugees and asylum seeking, and the legal procedures that are in place?

I think we live in a country that is generally quite compassionate towards people who are seeking sanctuary. And I think the media and the government rhetoric has really skewed things in a way that has been catastrophic in many ways. But I think there is a general goodwill and urge to help, which is completely played out by things like the Ukraine situation, where you see a huge outpouring of sympathy and solidarity. And I think there is something that is racialised in quite an interesting way. The way that the Ukraine situation gets a response compared to Afghanistan, or other crises have not.

Ukraine is an interesting example, because the government support for refugees from Ukraine has been quite different compared to the treatment of refugees from other countries. Do you think that it's a question of political will? Or do you think that there are more bureaucratic barriers in place that stop that happening for racialised communities?

I think it's a political question. And I think there is the capacity to provide a more welcoming asylum system in the UK. Even in terms of the language that we use, the phrase ‘asylum seeker’ is a fairly recent development brought in by the Tories in the 90s. Before this, we referred to people as political refugees, rather than this figure of the asylum seeker, which brings in the question of ‘deserving or undeserving’ ‘real or unreal’ asylum claims.

I think that climate change will have a big impact on things moving forward. There are going to be globally, more and more migrations of people, forced migrations of people, and it's a question of a deliberate political policy to exclude and demean people seeking sanctuary by the government, I don't think it is purely a civil service bureaucratic question, I think it's a conscious political decision.

As Andrew says, it’s more important than ever for everyone to come together and support asylum seekers in Sheffield:

Sheffield is a city that has a really committed and engaged asylum sector and the work that we're doing is hugely important and we're always looking for people to support us and to be involved and there are always opportunities to do that. And that it's crucial work that needs more attention now than it ever has done.

Andrew Key
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