Migration Pulse

South Yorkshire Legal Support Group Launched

In 2010 nearly one in three appeals against negative initial asylum decisions were successful. In other words, thousands of people would have been liable to deportation – and renewed persecution - had initial UKBA decisions stood. Cuts in the funding of asylum advice services, and now, reductions in legal aid, threaten to limit the ability of asylum seekers to get justice. The newly-formed South Yorkshire Refugee Law and Justice (SYRLJ) group aims to help redress the balance.
July 6, 2011
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Stuart Crosthwaite

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).

South Yorkshire Refugee Law and JusticeWe 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.

Refugee Experience

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?”

Comments

Great work Stuart. It would be definitely to hear more about the number of clients, volunteers, etc. to get an idea of how you organised this from a logisitcal point of view. I'm thinking that this might be useful for others who are thinking of similar projects.

The secrets of success?! Well, we launched the idea with a respected, authoritative and inspiring speaker - Frances Webber - but I think the key was that we started with a good combination of people. As I said in the article, we hoped to mobilise and engage law students at one of the universities in Sheffield - they had the time to commit to the project. We were helped by the involvement of local immigration law experts (writers, solicitors, ex-solicitors). Having a number of asylum seekers and refugees there too was crucial - they could direct others to what they experienced as the gaps in existing legal support. Of the 60 people at the initial meeting, around 30 went on to become actively involved in South Yorkshire Refugee Law and Justice (SYRLJ), all as volunteers.

I think the fact that the group has created a partnership with the University of Sheffield law department is important - it means that there will be an ongoing channel for volunteers to reach the group. And through links with sympathetic lecturers, SYRLJ will be offering a specialist module on immigration law for students.

The number of clients being seen is still quite small - it takes time to properly train volunteers - and referrals are still by word-of-mouth, but SYRLJ plans to advertise its services publically in a couple of months.

Hope those pointers are of use. The closure of the Immigration Advisory Service makes the role of legal support groups even more important.

Thanks Stuart. This kind of work will be even more important in light of the news that IAS is going into administration.

http://www.migrantsrights.org.uk/news/2011/immigration-advisory-service-...

I just wanted to congratulate everyone involved in this project for a fantastic job in bringing the group to life. You have worked tirelessly to do this the right way, making sure principled foundations are laid, volunteers are trained, and the money is there to start delivering a service! It is wonderful news and I wholeheartedly support you.

I also endorse what Jan said and am so sad that this is the case. Voluntary organisations should not have to come up with the goods on advice provision but I am sure this new project will be inundated with people needing just that. I am an immigration solicitor and make these comments not at all out of self interest (honest!), but concern for the huge amount of people in Sheffield that need help that a shrinking legal aid sector can only try to accommodate.

I wrote an article with some concerns about this in women's asylum news this month:

http://www.asylumaid.org.uk/data/files/publications/167/WAN_July_2011.pdf

which I hope explains a little more about where I am coming from.

On a positive note - how lucky we are to live in a place where there are so many dedicated campaigners for the rights of migrants. That gives me hope and it is a pleasure to know and work with you all.

Thanks for your encouraging comments Carita. There is obviously a lot of common political ground between your work as a committed immigration solicitor, a campaigner against cuts in legal aid and the South Yorkshire Refugee Law and Justice Group (SYRLJ).

There are difficult issues too: as you say, "Voluntary organisations should not have to come up with the goods on advice provision". I know that this is a concern for everyone in the voluntary sector, particularly with the use of "Big Society" rhetoric to justify cuts in jobs and public services.

Organisers of the SYRLJ group are eager not to fall into this trap: as one of their organisers put it, "The only concern I have is any view that people might form that we think that gaps left by legal aid cuts can be plugged by volunteers. I don't think this, and the gaps that we are addressing are those in the existing legal aid system (at least as it was last Friday before the collapse of IAS), not new ones created by cuts." She went on to add "The community education aspect of SYRLJ is something I see as vital."

It would be good to discuss just how we carry out "community education" about the asylum/immigration system alongside practical advice, support and advocacy.

Any views/experiences about this out there?

I would like to get an appointment to discuss about several issues I've experienced since...
-Issues like health problems (victim of medications)...
-Victim of robbery...etc...

Your sincerely

J,Davis

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