“What’s on your mind, Mark?”

Mark is SWVG’s Chair. As the end of 2023 draws near, we asked him “What’s on your mind?”. This is what he wrote.

Just over 20 years ago, three splendid women decided to visit asylum seekers in Winchester Prison and SWVG was born. At the time the prison was an Immigration Removal Centre. Now it’s no longer used for this purpose. In the intervening years the only constant for us, their successors, has been continuous change.

In the face of this, SWVG has continually changed too. While we’ve been true to our founding principles of working one-to-one with asylum seekers and refugees, and seeking always to make a difference by supporting others in the field – “filling in the gaps” of other, more formal, provision – SWVG has grown and extended our reach enormously. 

Nowadays you can still get a Visitor – a friend who can help with everything from health to guidance over legal issues; but now there are also over 30 one-on-one English tutors to help you integrate in your new community. Wellbeing is a major challenge to people in limbo while they wait for a decision from the Home Office; with SWVG you can grow food and flowers in our allotment, join conversation groups or an art project, or you can volunteer with other community groups. Specialist Visitors cover families and schooling, accommodation, and liaison with universities supporting applicants to Sanctuary Scholarships and other places.

We’re still there for the people facing removal, struggling with an uncaring system, and we still welcome the very best of people who bring so much to the UK. We are always alert to new needs and try to assist to the best of our ability at all stages of the asylum journey. 

In the past year we estimate that about 400 people have chosen SWVG to help them. The level of support varies from fairly small interactions to major help. 

So, why worry? We’re bigger, but we’re still making a difference… 

Well up to a point. As I write this

  • a “legal aid desert” makes it really difficult to find solicitors qualified and willing to take on poor and desperate clients (remember our volunteers can’t offer legal advice unless they are qualified by the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC)
  • there are at least 7 people who have reached the holy grail of “Leave to Remain” who are in danger of sleeping rough in Southampton tonight  
  • they’re doubling up in the rooms at the hotels so that’s twice as many phones, sim cards, solicitors’ appointments, gym memberships, shoes, lessons, and clothes that we and our partners at CLEAR and Southampton Action need to find
  • the Supreme Court has ruled the Rwanda scheme illegal but the Government is still plans to enshrine its casual cruelty in law 
  • the Bibby Stockholm is open for business and some of the people we help are already there 
  • a far-right thug posted a video of himself confronting and baiting the staff and residents at one of Southampton’s hotels last month.

 

At last year’s AGM (when things seemed less fraught) we talked about two ways forward for our bigger and further-reaching SWVG could make the most of its potential – exploring a permanent presence in the city centre, and developing a professional spine to support the volunteer work. The trustees have, over the course of the year, explored both: trialling the new post of Development Administrator and consulting in some detail with a local body about sharing a city centre space to create a Community Welcome Hub. In the event they decided to pass on both of these. Faced with difficult times, the extreme demands (triumphantly met by a brilliant team of volunteers) of the new hotel opening to asylum seekers in Winchester, and an uncertain funding climate, they were felt to be a step too far.

OK, those didn’t work. What can and should we do now? What are we doing?

That Legal Aid desert 

We have a Legal Justice Fund to support people who are in need of legal help, and also to provide legal advice and updates for our volunteers who need to be kept up-to-date. 

A small team is working on several options, including

  • hiring a qualified immigration advisor (solicitor or OISC Level 2 qualified) on a part-time contract
  • paying for more legal support from local law firms
  • training current volunteers to become OISC Level 2 qualified
  • seeking pro-bono support from law firms
  • working with local universities to offer immigration advice services.

People sleeping on The Common tonight

We are working with the City Council and with other groups across the city to define new ways of working together, to try to overcome the problems created by the acute housing shortage in the city,  and its impacts on people with newly-achieved Leave to Remain.

A group of volunteers have agreed to be ready to make a spare room available over a very short term to tide people over.

With our own particular connections, we have also been working with hostel providers, and other emergency accommodation services.

Doubling the numbers

The strain on our resources and the difficulties of helping so many new people is perhaps most evident in the very busy front desk at our Friday drop-in session at the Avenue Multicultural Centre. We are training the welcome desk volunteers so they can find out what help people need, and streamline the way that we enable them to access this. We are increasing the number of team members, and recognising that often this is the best way that we can help. For many of the desk team, people arriving on Friday mornings are turning out to be old friends, and although they’re not spending as much time together as they would have done under the old visitor relationship, they are making a difference and creating real human contact with many more people.

Working with others and winning the argument, campaigning against organised cruelty

We’ve always been the staunch ally, supporting, filling in the gaps, and this of course goes back to our founding ethos. We work collaboratively with other charities to maximise our impact, including campaigning on issues related to the asylum system. 

We plan to take the lead again in Refugee Week 2024, using this opportunity to put forward positive images of the community – fun and care for each other, the positive side of the immigration debate. 

An example of our partnership working is the Avenue Multicultural Centre (AMC) story. Last summer it became apparent that the partners involved in running the AMC drop-in were unable to continue without considerable changes to how it runs, and to the ambitions we might have for the future. SWVG trustees, led by Vice Chair Catherine Hartley, have agreed that we will be the lead organisation, inviting partners to get involved under the SWVG umbrella. 

We are staunch, there when needed, and always ready to try a new way to do things.

Making the most of our potential 

The organisational challenges that we identified last year haven’t gone away. We still need to deal with the day-by-day organisational issues that come from ever stricter regulation, from our utter determination to keep people who are associated with SWVG safe, and from keeping up to date with all the latest changes that are going on around us. 

While we are lucky that volunteers spend a lot of time keeping on top of the latest stuff that comes with the asylum system, it’s too much to ask volunteers to become experts, especially about legal and business responsibilities rather than about getting on and helping asylum seekers and refugees, so we need to find a way of remaining flexible in a fast-changing world. And we mustn’t lose that important element that comes from our most precious resource – the volunteers who run and power our work. 

We also need to make better use of the talent on our doorsteps.

How do we tap into the skills and determination of the asylum seekers and refugees that we work with? 

We’re lucky to have a number of volunteers who bring lived experience of the system to our activities. Ranging from staffing reception to representing SWVG on external bodies, from being part of the Trustee board to running the food bank, empowering people who are going through the system enables us to tap into talented, useful and interesting people.

Coming next is combining volunteering with training and, in some cases, some form of qualification, so that those who wish have something to take with them into the next step of their lives, as well as providing experience for CVs, references etc. 

This might include: 

  • Reception – hospitality qualification 
  • Café – food handling
  • Crèche – child care
  • First Aid
  • Maintenance and cleaning

 

It is important that this training is done properly, with some form of qualification and a record of achievement as outcomes. It is also expected that all associates who are volunteering will be trained, not just those who are asylum seeker associates.

Why would we not rely on the good sense, capability and ingenuity of the people we are working with? After all, if you’ve travelled 3500 miles across the world, you’ve already done more than most. 

So, what would you like me to do about all this?

Everything described here only happens because somebody with imagination, commitment, a bit of time and the ability to work very hard has got involved in making it so. 

I can’t speak too highly of how impressive the volunteer team across all the activities we undertake are. If I’m talking about you – my sincerest thanks and congratulations. You’re part of something extremely special.

If you’re wondering whether this is for you, just look at all the things that are taking place and consider one to get involved with. 

  • Could you volunteer for the AMC desk? 
  • Could you help research the legal minefield? 
  • Could you take on getting OISC qualified, giving frontline advice from a legal perspective? 
  • Have you got a spare room that you could use for emergency accommodation? 
  • Could you help someone learning English with one-on-one lessons? 
  • Is there something we haven’t thought of that you can see would make a difference to the welcome we prepare for Southampton’s newest residents? 

 

If so, don’t wait. Contact me now, come to the AGM and volunteer, talk to the team at AMC on Friday. 

Spending time with people who are changing their lives, you might just change yours too!

Last Updated: 28/11/2023 – Next Update Due: