Back in March, our chief Executive Denise spoke to the Legal Education Foundation about her experiences of the pandemic and lockdowns. She said, “The last year has shown that the core of the organisation works. It isn’t about a building. It is based on communication.”
Together, GMIAU staff took 3,097 calls on our phone advice line over the 9 months from March 2020, when it was opened to replace our drop-in service. We continue giving people one-off advice over this line as well as supporting hundreds of people with their immigration and asylum legal cases. We work to protect people from destitution and homelessness. And we support children and young people to feel less alone when they arrive in the UK seeking safety.
In our 2021 Report, published in June, we documented the effect of the pandemic on people with insecure immigration status in our communities in the North West. And we also spoke to a smaller community – the staff of GMIAU – about what the impact had been on them. Trainees, placement students, managers, caseworkers – here’s what they had to say.
Joe, Destitution Caseworker
In the records from our phone advice line, Joe’s name comes up a lot, particularly in the first months of the pandemic. The caseworkers answering the phone would often refer the caller on to Joe, because the main issue they were facing wasn’t their immigration status – it was destitution. Joe would help them to get asylum support accommodation or access public funds.
“It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster to be honest. There was a lot to get used to at the start and dealing with the increased workload and the learning to work remotely definitely overwhelmed me, but I got used to it and it seems normal now. At the start of the pandemic I was doing loads of asylum support work and things like change of conditions applications (to lift people’s No Recourse the Public Funds condition). People would be genuinely destitute and needed food bank vouchers issuing, or referring to other services.
One of the saddest cases that I’ve done this year was a woman who had lost her husband, a mental health nurse, due to Covid. We tried to get her granted indefinite leave to remain, which was the Home Office policy, but they just ignored us for months. She was getting more and more desperate, we did the change of conditions application, that was ignored for a long time. Eventually she was granted indefinite leave to remain. There were just months of pure unnecessary stress for her and her kids.”
Asli, Operations Manager
Asli, who manages referrals and the Refugee Family Reunion project, found it challenging when she came back from maternity leave in May 2020. She’d missed the transition and had to adapt immediately to remote working.
“It was stressful at first,” she said, but “after a few months it got okay.” There had been a significant increase in referrals – she gets at least 30 email referrals a day. With a new baby in the house, phone calls were difficult. “The environment is not the same. I can get bored without being able to speak to someone, change the scenery or just have a walk around the office.”
“Having face to face is important for people in a vulnerable position or going through the asylum process. They can see in person that you are sorry if you cannot help… You do not know if the messages have been passed over properly through multiple telephones, whereas this is not the case with face-to-face referrals.”
Maria, Social Worker and Service Manager
Like Asli, Maria also left for maternity leave and returned (in October) to find everything changed. “I had to figure out how everyone had coped and what systems they were using now. It was hard at first – I could hear the kids screaming downstairs and they knew I was up here. It’s better now though, because they’re in nursery.”
“Some things are really good”. Maria has been running training on the EU Settlement Scheme for local authorities and social workers. Using Zoom, she can “put training on that will reach loads of people, only takes a few weeks, and I don’t have to worry about booking venues or put a lunch on… The last one had people signing up from very far away: Glasgow, South East authorities, even the Isle of Wight.”
Isobel, Senior Caseworker
Isobel told us about the impact of lockdown and working from home on herself and her clients. “My clients are struggling to different degrees. Children are struggling more, especially those who are approaching 18 and who are worried about that.”
“I’m not very technologically savvy – it was quite difficult to get to grips with online interviewing, and having to explain it to people. But now it’s great. People are quite grateful to be able to have an interview in the privacy of their own home. People who struggle with childcare don’t have to bring their children to the office. The downside is that you’re a face on a screen. The relationship is more problematic, particularly with children.
I love working from home – I realised I could do all sorts of things. I started a sourdough, I cook a proper meal, I do a walk every single day. It just gives you more time for your life and that’s amazing. And I am way more efficient and organised now. But I really, really miss having a team around me.”
Mohamed, Social Work Placement Student
Mohamed’s experience is a first for GMIAU. He started and finished his social work placement during the pandemic, meaning he has always worked remotely. Despite this challenge he enjoyed his placement and was able to provide support to many who needed it. He told us how.
“Newly-arrived young people need a lot of support. They need someone to help them register with GPs, they need someone to register with education. At the moment, most of the support we do is by phone or video call. I came to the UK through the Gateway Protection Programme, a refugee resettlement programme. I understand what the young people are undergoing and the support that they need. Growing up in a refugee camp, I understand first-hand the barriers that newly-arrived people face in the UK – the cultural shock, new environment, and the immigration system.
With my GMIAU placement providing support to young people seeking asylum, my role is to help provide social and emotional support and to help them understand the system, signpost to other services and communities, to bridge the gap while waiting for their asylum decision. Some of the young people we support have negative attitudes towards social services. I know some end up staying home and not seeking services or help. For example, people living with HIV or TB, or victims of sexual abuse, need someone who understands their situation and encourages them to access services. I wanted to dispel misconception and clarify ambiguities so young people knew where to seek support. There are a lot of barriers between the newly-arrived people and social services.
The feedback that people give is the most amazing thing. For example, a woman that I was supporting last week – she’d just arrived, and she didn’t know where to start. In the same day, the woman got food. The next day, I registered her children with a school. She kept sending thank you messages – thank you, thank you, thank you. So I feel like I’m doing the right thing. I’m so proud of the social team in GMIAU.”
Suzie, Trainee Solicitor
Suzie is training with GMIAU through the Justice First Fellowship, which is run by the Legal Education foundation. She started her training in January 2021, so she met her new colleagues through a screen. “It is different through the screen – it isn’t quite the same. But everyone has been really welcoming, and I still feel a part of the team”.
Because she is on a training contract, in normal life she would be able to speak to her supervisor David anytime, and ask him any questions she had. They have adapted to lockdown by having a phone call at the end of each day: “I feel like I can ask questions and get help whenever I need.”
She was excited to get the traineeship at GMIAU. “The corporate route of law has never appealed to me. I’ve always wanted to help those who are really in need of legal support to access justice. I remember finding out that a meeting with a solicitor could cost a few hundred pounds – that creates a barrier to justice for so many. Being able to do the work without worrying about whether people can afford it is great.”