Winchester Action Group for Asylum Seekers (WAGAS) was founded when 16 Turkish Kurds fleeing persecution and seeking asylum were detained by the UK Government in Winchester prison, with no legal representation or medical attention. They staged a hunger strike, attracting much publicity. WAGAS supported them until their release in 1991, and went on to work with other asylum seekers in Haslar immigration detention centre, Portsmouth.
The British government placed 500 asylum seekers around 10 British prisons, including Winchester. Building on WAGAS, a Winchester Visitors Group (WVG) was set up.
The policy of detaining asylum seekers in UK prisons was phased out, and a new residential Immigration Centre opened in Yarl’s Wood, Bedfordshire. WVG agreed to pilot a befriending scheme for individuals and families living in Southampton while their cases were being heard, supporting them for a limited period with weekly meetings of about an hour. All visitors received training to help them with the psychological and legal aspects of asylum, plus support from a ‘buddy’, and were carefully matched with referrals.
Support groups were set up for visitors, meeting monthly to discuss confidential issues in a supportive environment.
By 2004 the group was supporting nearly 60 asylum seekers. When it became clear that homelessness was a major problem, ASSIST (Asylum Seekers Support in Southampton) was formed to give destitute clients weekly financial support, backed up by a fundraising sub-group making grant applications to charitable trusts, and a Money Allocation Group (MAG) to agree and scrutinise payments. WVG achieved charitable status, with trustees drawn from its committee members, and changed its title to SWVG (Southampton and Winchester Visitors Group).
SWVG employed its first part-time administrator.
An events sub-group was set up to raise funds and awareness.
Run by a management committee of members of CLEAR, Red Cross and the church, the Avenue Multi-cultural Centre (AMC) was launched at the Avenue St Andrew’s Church in Southampton, providing drop-in information services and a meeting point for refugees and asylum seekers every Friday.
SWVG launched its Legal Justice Project, funded by a grant from the Halley Stewart Trust. This enables us to engage leading immigration lawyer Jo Renshaw to act as our legal advisor, undertaking client reviews, fielding legal questions, and providing training for group members. It also funds some legal costs for clients.
We held our 10th Anniversary party, joined by clients, ex-clients and members. It was a joyful event. We also took part in the “It’s My Home Now” project, collecting stories and pictures from refugees and asylum seekers living in Southampton. These were published in a book and exhibited in Southampton and Winchester.
Funded by the Bromley Trust, our work was reviewed by consultants. Their report, Investing in the Future, was launched at a reception in the House of Lords, attended by SWVG Members, asylum seekers, funders and members of other groups and charities. We initiated an annual Strategic Planning day.
We launched new social events for clients, to supplement our annual New Year and Summer parties.
We set up a communications sub-group to re-launch the website, establish a presence on Facebook and Twitter, and produce leaflets and newsletters. We also re-launched our campaigns sub-group.
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