Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

current issue

February – March 2024 : The little things READ ONLINE


A long way from home

April 04 2014
Many migrants come for advice when they are on the brink of homelessness Many migrants come for advice when they are on the brink of homelessness
Migrants come to the UK full of hope. But it doesn't always turn out well

It is nearly opening time at the Hackney Migrant Centre and the baked potatoes aren’t ready. “I told you we should have done rice,”one volunteer worries. It may seem like a minor concern, but it says a lot about the commitment of people here to make sure their ‘guests’ are well looked after.

Many of those guests are already here, have signed in, and are waiting in a side room until the volunteer case workers, gathered in a huddle for their weekly pre-session meeting, come to greet them.

Helen Hibbert, Centre Manager, makes sure all the volunteers know who to talk to about hardship grants and detailed immigration advice, and then it’s all hands on deck. Within minutes, the room is full as advisors take up their places with migrant guests. The atmosphere is friendly yet serious and focussed. There is important work to be done in the next three hours.

Migrants – and the extent to which the UK should support them – are top of the agenda everywhere you turn these days. But with right-wing parties, who have low tolerance immigration policies, working hard to win votes, and newspapers running with scare stories about an expected “flood” of Bulgarians and Romanians following the relaxation of the rules on the so-called A8 country citizens' right to work in the UK, it can be hard to get to grips with the issue.

'Migrant' is really a catch-all term. All sorts of people come to the UK for a variety of reasons from countries around the world.

The smallest percentage – about 23,000 in total last year – have been forced to flee their home countries due to war or state persecution and claim asylum. About 10 times that number come to study, often paying hefty foreign student fees for the privilege, while a further 150,00 came to the UK to work last year. Others come to be reunited with family or loved ones, or simply believe they will have a better quality of life here in the UK.

Yet in the complex world of immigration regulations, plans go awry and some end up homeless. Some are unable to support themselves. And if their asylum claim has been refused, or they have over-stayed their visa, they will have no right to public funds or hostel beds. Help with voluntary return home is available from the Home Office in some circumstances, but a significant minority are unable or, if they have fled persecution, too afraid to return.

It is difficult to know how many may be affected. According to the latest statistics from the UK Government’s Rough Sleeper Count, 53 percent of some 2,414 rough sleepers in England in Autumn 2013 were migrants of some sort.

Agencies believe some will have been forced to sleep on the streets because they have nowhere else to go.

Tauy, a quiet man from Belarus with a PhD in biology, now in his 60s, is all too familiar with this story. A few years back he spent more than eight months on the streets in Liverpool after failing to get problems with his immigration status resolved.

A political activist, he fell foul of governments in both Russia and Belarus, both of whom disowned him. Though stateless, he was refused leave to remain, and spent eight months sleeping on the streets of Liverpool. Now he has refugee status for five years. It is not clear what the UK Government expect him to do after that.

At least it makes him eligible for the YMCA hostel he is staying in. “But now that’s closing too,” he explains ruefully. “I don’t know where I’ll be staying next month. It’s been so long since I lived somewhere I could call home.”

The sesssion has been running for just one hour when Helen Hibbert asks volunteer Jamal to turn new arrivals away – they are now full for the day. “Obviously we don’t want to turn people away, " she says. "But we’ve got to be realistic about what we can manage.” Many people come when they are have reached crisis point. The team here see many who are undocumented, perhaps without any access to benefits or housing. “They might be sofa-surfing or in a hostel. Many of the single men have experience of rough sleeping,” she says. There are several things that are making the situation particularly tough. “Many can no longer access legal aid, and without the help of a lawyer, they can’t resolve their situation. We see people who can’t get work because their employers are scared of employing them before they get their biometric identity card. Sometimes there can be issues if a woman has fled domestic violence but her immigration status is linked to her husband’s. We see occasional cases where someone has been trafficked. Or sometimes people arrive in the UK when they are still children and don’t even realise that they don’t have the right papers.”

In the main room, Lettice, an architect who has been volunteering for several months at the centre, is grabbing a quick bite to eat in-between giving advice. She says she was shocked at how hard it was for people to get help. “I’ve spoken to people who are getting by sleeping on public transport because they aren’t eligible for any kind of shelter. I’ve phoned round all the shelters that might accept them and found they are all full," she explains.

As lunch service finishes, the leftovers are left out in the corridor – today’s bread and some rather elderly bananas. George, a refused asylum seeker from Angola, helps himself.

Though he’s now been here for 20 years, he has been told he has no right to stay in the UK. “How can I go home?” he asks. “I fled terrible things there. And I was just a kid, a teenager. I’ve grown up here. There’s nothing for me in Angola now.” Instead he relies on friends, and goes to shelters or sleeps rough when he feels he’s outstayed his welcome. “The hardest thing is to keep taking without being able to give back,” he says. “It makes me lose my appetite when someone is always having to give me food. But sleeping rough – it’s just hell. It’s cold, it’s tough, it can be frightening. Though you meet really good human beings in that environment, people who are just going through really hard times.

“I find myself questioning everything then. It’s a beautiful country, England; a well-off country. And yet the churches are closed, houses are lying empty and there are people on the streets? It feels like it’s intentional, as if there is no desire to stop people being homeless. But I’ve still got hope, hope that something will change. And that’s what keeps me alive.”