South Yorkshire Legal Support Group Launched
Stuart is campaigner, writer and researcher in Sheffield. He is currently Secretary of the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) and has worked extensively with migrant communities in the area. He has published work on anti-deportation campaigns and social movements and researched and campaigned against cashless asylum support. He has used oral history methods to study aspects of South Yorkshire social and labour history, particularly the role of migrant communities in the steel industry and histories of solidarity between “host” and migrant communities in South Yorkshire.
The group was formed following a public meeting of 60 people in Sheffield in March 2010, organised by the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) and Student Action for Refugees (STAR).
We hoped that the meeting would mobilise law students in support of asylum seekers, as a previous campaign had engaged medical students in campaigns for equal access to healthcare for asylum seekers.
The meeting brought together law and politics students, practicing and retired solicitors, immigration law experts, advice workers, activists, asylum seekers and refugees from various refugee community organisations.
Drawing its inspiration from the Manuel Bravo Project, the Asylum Law and Justice group (as it was then called) aimed to compliment and support existing legal services for asylum seekers while raising public awareness about the asylum application process.
While recognising that Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) accreditation is required for certain types of legal advice, a lot could be done in the meantime. Prompted by the experience of asylum seekers and refugees, the group began training its volunteers to
- research country information evidence, used to support fresh claims and asylum appeals
- understand common themes in rejection of asylum claims, using case studies
- accompany asylum seekers to tribunal hearings
- help understand particular issues facing traumatised women in the asylum process
“Such a diverse and skilled group”
On June 23rd 2011 South Yorkshire Refugee Law and Justice (SYRLJ) group was officially launched, described by chair Gina Clayton as “such a diverse and skilled group, combining legal knowledge, and understanding, activism and personal experience of the asylum system”. She explained that the South Yorkshire Community Foundation provided enough funding to pay volunteer expenses and that SYRLJ hoped to be able to fund paid workers in the future.
A partnership with a local university’s law department has been created, to provide specialist training to law students and the group works with an anti-deportation campaigning group, the Sheffield Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers, to offer legal support.
SYRLJ plans to support volunteers in gaining OISC accreditation (up to level 3) which will allow wider legal support and advice to be provided. Already, the group is holding weekly surgeries at Northern Refugee Centre’s advice drop-in in Sheffield.
The Human Cost of Cuts
Of course, the formation of SYRLJ comes at a time when accessing advice and legal support is ever more difficult for asylum seekers. In South Yorkshire, cuts in funding to Northern Refugee Centre and Refugee Council in 2010/11 have reduced their overall capacity and their ability to effectively signpost and distinguish between clients who need specialist legal support and those with relatively straightforward queries.
Despite the Refugee Council’s introduction of a free OLTAS telephone helpline for asylum seekers and refugees, there are limits to the usefulness of a telephone advice service.
The human cost of reducing asylum seekers’ access to advice were graphically shown by the closure of Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ) and the subsequent suicide of Osman Rasul who was a client at RMJ.
SYRLJ have said that they want to “fill a gap where the legal aid system fails” and recent cuts to legal aid, documented by Migrants’ Rights Network will widen this gap.
As Harmit Athwal of the Institute for Race Relations asked when Osman Rasul killed himself in August 2010 “How many more will die as cuts to the legal aid budget hit those with the most to lose?”