Plans for new legislation on asylum policy (see previous HIP, Hastings Community of Sanctuary joins new national coalition to build a fairer asylum system) involve profound changes to immigration law. The proposed removal of the right to asylum for anyone arriving ‘irregularly’ will clog up the courts for years to come, as those who are fleeing violence and persecution, have been trafficked or tortured, or face death if sent back, try to obtain a just hearing. 

Legal advisor OLIVIA CAVANAGH gives a glimpse of what the harsh legal process is already like for those seeking sanctuary; in particular, her young clients who have made the torturous journey to what they hope will be safety and a chance to live in peace.

CREDIT: Safwa Chowdhury, HCos Campaigns Team

I have worked as an immigration advisor since 2008, representing adult clients and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC), who are the most vulnerable of all. Some UASC clients are cared for in Hastings by the local authority and Hastings is one of the very few dispersal areas in the South-East for adults and families.

On starting a case, the first thing we do is take detailed statements – most often through an interpreter – on a client’s life in their home country, their reasons for fleeing, and their journey to the UK. Telling their stories can be difficult, but I hope it may also be cathartic: it is possibly the first time they have been able to explain their experiences to someone who is actively listening. 

The journey to the UK alone can be incredibly traumatic: unaccompanied minors from Darfur typically travel for a period of around three years from Sudan to the UK, often surviving slavery and torture in Libya, dangerous journeys by sea to Malta and Italy, and again across the English Channel to the UK by small boat or concealed in a vehicle. Many are only just into their teens at the start of their journeys, unprotected and alone in an acutely dangerous world.

There is no ‘typical’ day, but the sheer intensity of our work is relentless, with constant and unpredictable Home Office and court deadlines, overseeing the complex funding of cases, and the onerous record keeping. We normally run cases from the time a person claims asylum, at appeal (in the event that an application is refused), and until the case concludes, often years later, with a grant of leave to remain or, fortunately much less often, with a refused case that cannot be taken further. 

During this time, we can be one of the few points of contact for our clients so we assist with such things as accommodation and medical appointments on a voluntary basis. In Hastings we are very lucky to have the Links Project to support clients during their years of waiting. 

The Covid-19 pandemic added another layer of delay from the Home Office, which took an entire year to organise remote asylum interviews. They then suddenly set up as many interviews in two weeks as we would normally see in a year, adding greatly to the workload. The first lockdown also coincided with the busiest time I can remember due to the increase in small boats arriving along the south coast. Our waiting list jumped from the normal six referrals to 20. Luckily, clients adapted well to the online appointments necessitated by lockdown.

HO Refusal Letter
CREDIT: Olivia Cavanagh

We routinely bring in medical experts for physical and psychological-scarring reports, as well as country experts on current conditions. We follow case law and Home Office policy to represent our clients, which the Home Office itself often fails to apply. Caseloads are high due to the constant demand and the challenge of keeping our organisation financially viable. 

How we are funded is in fact central to the job and this alone can make us particularly despondent, and is the reason many representatives stop practising. Over the past decade, it has become significantly harder for people needing legal representation to obtain access to justice. The 2013 cuts to free legal aid restricted help within immigration law to children’s cases, asylum applications, some domestic violence cases, trafficking cases, challenges to immigration detention and judicial review applications. Sadly, all other categories, including free legal help for family reunion for refugees, is no longer offered.

Accessing funding from the government’s Legal Aid Agency (LAA) causes one of the biggest stresses of the job. Every phone call (whether answered or not) and email must be recorded. The LAA will not release payment until the Home Office has interviewed an applicant and acknowledged receipt of our representations in support of the application. This can be years after the case is started. 

We often work to a loss because the fees finally awarded are entirely insufficient to cover the real time it takes to do justice to someone’s case. There is a constant attempt from the LAA to claw money back; indeed, we live in genuine fear of the LAA and often under-record time for work done. In the last 15 years this funding regime has caused many long-existing, well-respected legal organisations to stop operating, in turn leading to a dearth of legal representatives. 

The inefficiency of the Home Office, stretching cases out unnecessarily for years, and routinely refusing clearly valid cases that go on to be allowed at appeal, represents a huge waste of public funds. For our clients, living their lives on hold often causes or exacerbates mental health issues and creates high levels of anxiety. 

They cannot return to their own country for at least five years once they are granted asylum; with up to three years getting here, another two or three in the asylum process – this can mean a decade before they have any chance of seeing their family again. 

Claiming asylum is not something anyone takes lightly. Once clients are finally granted leave to remain the most difficult time begins, as they are effectively cut loose from our service and must navigate their way alone to find accommodation and work; meanwhile our service needs to start on the next case…

Olivia Cavanagh is a member of Hastings Community of Sanctuary (HCoS) Campaigns Team. For more information, please visit the Hastings Community of Sanctuary webpage, where you can sign the Pledge of support and follow
@HastSanctuary on Twitter. See also Hastings Supports Refugees Facebook and togetherwithrefugees.org.uk


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