Action Foundation are working with the Home Office and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) on a two-year pilot scheme ‘Action Access: Alternative to Detention.’ The project provides housing and support to up to 21 women who are seeking asylum and would otherwise be held in a detention centre.
Before the Covid-19 Lockdown, the Action Foundation Housing team made regular trips down to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedford to meet some of the women being held there, and assess those who may be suitable to come onto the pilot scheme.
Yarl’s Wood has gained a reputation over the years, with claims of hunger strikes and protests hitting the headlines. The Action Access pilot scheme is a real lifeline for these women, offering them a room in a safe and warm home, a support worker to help them and access to legal advice to resolve their immigration status. Crucially they are not under lock and key and have no restrictions on their liberty provided they engage with the support offered, live at the address provided and report to the Home Office monthly in line with the usual process for asylum seekers living in the community.
We caught up with Action Foundation’s Housing Services Manager Helen Cowgill after she visited for the first time since joining the charity.
How were you feeling about visiting Yarl’s Wood for the first time?
I didn’t really know what to expect. When I got there, it felt quite different to a prison where inmates know how long they will be there and count down the days until their release. Detainees don’t know how long they’re going to be detained for, and that uncertainty of not knowing when you’re going to leave or whether you will be sent back to your home country must be very difficult.
Going down really gave me a different perspective on it. Obviously you can’t put yourself in their shoes, but it gives you a little bit more of an insight being there.
What happens while you were there?
Prior to us going, the Home Office identify women who they believe may be eligible for the pilot and who may be interested to give them a bit of basic information about the service.
When we got there we were given the names, and over two days we had drop-in sessions, so if any of the women wanted more information they could come to the library and speak to us. A couple of women did and we were able to answer their questions.
We do the drop-in sessions with the support workers and it’s really useful for the women who do join the project to put a face to the name of who’s going to be working with them.
From the drop in sessions the women can fill in the application form, and there is a deadline to that.
Don’t all the women want to leave Yarl’s Wood?
My immediate thought was why would anyone NOT want to join the pilot offering an alternative to detention. But sometimes it’s the fear of the unknown.
They may have a partner or friends who are able to come and visit them there, whereas Newcastle is a long way away for them which is something they have to consider. They don’t know anyone in Newcastle. They may have had a life somewhere like London, so coming up for three hours on a train can seem quite daunting.
They may have hope that their situation is going to get sorted out quite quickly, and not want to change anything. They may already have legal representation that they really trust. They might have a legal aid solicitor that they’ve told their story to a number of times and given information to, and they don’t want to change that.
How are the women assessed?
The assessments are a mixture of questions from the Home Office – five questions which are largely about their housing situation and whether or not they’re destitute to ensure that they’re eligible for the project. The rest of the assessment the Home Office don’t get to see the answers to, and we make it really clear that we are independent and although we’re working together on the pilot, Action Foundation are independent of the legal process and the Home Office. I was given the advice to wear my bright orange Action Foundation lanyard, so that we couldn’t be mistaken for another agency such as Serco who are contracted by the Home Office to run the centre.
We use translators for the women who needed that service, and one of them spoke quite good English. It is a long assessment, but it is really important. You need to ensure they’re eligible for the service, but also that they understand about shared living, that they understand what to expect.
We’re asking them to make a huge decision, so it’s important that they feel informed. We don’t sugar coat it, we tell them how far it is, show them on the map where they’ve come from, where Yarl’s Wood is, where Newcastle/Gateshead are.
It’s all very well offering them a great service with lots of support, but it’s got to be the right decision for them. You’ve got to be honest about it. How would they feel about sharing a property with someone from a different religion or different nationality? Questions about their legal status, where they’re at. What legal representation they have or don’t have. What happens at the end of the process, particularly if the legal review of their grounds for status in the UK is very weak.
You need to get a broad picture of their situation so that they can make an informed and voluntary decision about whether to join the pilot.
Can you tell us about any of the women you met?
One of the women who we were speaking to had actually lived in the UK for 15 years and came over on a student visa, studied at university, had a job, got a UK driving licence, paid tax and national insurance, rented a flat, had a car.
It’s just being able to relate to her story – she had a life that’s quite similar to mine, yet it’s just been thrown upside down overnight simply because of her immigration status which led to her arrest.
What kind of mental health support is available to the women in Yarl’s Wood?
There is access to healthcare services, and they have befriending services as well. We met a couple of them and they seemed absolutely lovely, really supportive. They were talking to us about some of the training they received about working in a trauma-informed way. How PTSD can impact on how a woman tells her story. They said it was some of the best training they’d ever had which will be really useful for our support workers here at Action Foundation.
What happens after the women have been assessed?
Once we do our assessment, they have to do a health check – so we ask Yarl’s Wood if there are any health reasons why they may not be suitable without giving any detail, and if there are we then ask the women to sign a consent form so we can talk further about that.
The Home Office does a financial assessment to make sure they’re meeting the criteria (of not being able to financially support themselves) and also to ascertain whether or not they are able to get subsistence from the Home Office while they are here.
Once the assessment is out of the way and they’re deemed suitable, that’s our bit kind of over and it’s then into the Home Office and the legal side of things to make sure the bail conditions are met. We then need to get the address that they’re going to move to over to the Home Office so that they can sort out the bail conditions.
It seems like a long process while you’re there, but once that decision is made and bail is agreed, we want them to move to Newcastle as soon as possible so they’re not being detained longer than they should be.
How do they get to Newcastle?
One of the Yarl’s Wood befrienders (a charity that works in the centre providing emotional support) accompanies them to the train station, which is an hour’s journey, and puts them on the train and the women travel up as a group together. They get off the train in Newcastle and our support workers meet them on the platform.
It must be incredibly daunting getting on that train, not really knowing the place you’re going to. If at the assessment stage we feel that it would be helpful for the women to be accompanied to Newcastle by a Support Worker we will make arrangements to do that.
One of the women said she was really scared, she’d never been on a train journey before and was nervous. We had to explain that someone would make sure she was on the train, we’d find out which coach she was travelling in and that her support worker would be waiting at the station as she came off.
What happens once they arrive?
They were met off the train and taken to their properties, the heating was on, they had the basic essentials that they needed. They’re in three separate properties, but all quite close together. The support worker will go out and see them and get them all orientated with the bus routes.
They all bonded on the three-hour train journey to Newcastle, so they’re all going to church together at the weekend. The people who come up together tend to form an informal social support network.
They’re all from different countries, speak different languages, but all had a smattering of each that they could communicate – it’s lovely to see that bond form.
They check in at the Middlesbrough reporting centre once a month, and they’re expected to see their support worker once a week.
When the support workers take them into the house itself they’re often just shell shocked – that physical reaction or response of relief but also more unsettled feeling of not knowing where they are. Tears, exhaustion.
They’re full of questions like ‘Are there cameras?’, ‘Can we go out?’. They can’t quite believe they’re not locked up, they’re free. It takes a while for them to process. ‘Do I need to tell you that I’m going to the shops?’
One woman got quite tearful when she realised that she’d be free to come and go.
I’m really glad I went – it’s opened my eyes. It’s great to be working proactively with the Home Office and UNHCR to explore a more humane, empowering and effective way of supporting some very vulnerable women to resolve their immigration status in the UK whilst living in the community.
What’s happening at Yarl’s Wood during the Coronavirus Lockdown?
The Home Office released one-third of all immigration detainees from detention centres in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and so the population of Yarl’s Wood has since drastically reduced.
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