Oxfordshire has never been at the centre of UK refugee arrivals. It is far from major points of entry and rents are too high for the county to be widely used for housing. Over many years, as a small, local charity, Asylum Welcome has played a valued, person centred role in supporting the modest numbers of asylum seekers and refugees who have come, including those interned in a nearby, now closed, immigration detention centre.
Covid, the Afghan evacuation, the Ukrainian arrivals, The Borders Act, the huge and growing distinction between the “welcome” officially resettled refugees and unwelcome “illegal” asylum seekers, new Home Office practice regarding houses and hotels being requisitioned for asylum seekers; together these have changed our environment dramatically. Numbers of new local arrivals have multiplied; we have probably had more new clients in the last two years than the previous ten, and we know we are still missing many. Where we had eight staff and a hundred volunteers in 2020, we now have forty and over two hundred. If the nearby Detention Centre is reopened as planned, the work, though not the funding, will grow even more. None of this was anticipated in our 2020 strategic plan.
Collaboration with local authorities
What does this mean for the amazing patchwork of small local charities that support sanctuary seekers across the U.K.? There is a huge range in coverage, no two places or organisations are alike, and the approach of local authorities, schools, health, and other services is ultimately more important than anything that charities can do. For Asylum Welcome it means combining us responding directly with influencing, partnering, and collaborating.
As a dynamic local charity, we have tried to step up and respond to each new group of arrivals. We have usually acted faster than local authorities, leading the initial mobilisation of local responses, convening interested organisations, and then working with public bodies as they gear up and take over. This has often meant delivering first, with the fundraising, recruiting, and planning following.
Local authorities have, in a way not replicated everywhere, acted positively, often picking up the pieces from Home Office politics and lack of consultation. We have seen, and I hope helped, the six authorities across the county to work more closely together on refugee issues. This collaboration and the generosity of local organisations and people have meant that we have so far raised the money to pay the bills, even if we have needed to take risks and use our reserves to underwrite our spending initially.
There is a huge difference in resources available for services commissioned for the “welcome” refugees, as opposed to the asylum seekers. We deliver commissioned services for groups for whom public funds are available, and see real value added in delivering these services in a way that is true to our values. Our ongoing concern is that we can do so much less for those not on official schemes. We try and manage this dynamic by driving cost recovery on the commissioned work to pay for our infrastructure and seeking to cross subsidise as well as fundraise for the voluntary activity, both the services for asylum seekers and our equally important policy and influencing work.
The people who have really felt the pressure are our staff. They have had to deal with at least twice as many clients, doing their regular job while helping set up and deliver new services. As well as the obvious capacity issues, this affects people’s morale in a less obvious way. Colleagues are proud of the organisation’s responsive approach, but it can also leave them feeling frustrated at not being able to deliver well. You can’t serve a hundred new clients a week in the way you can ten, especially with only a small increase in funding.
We have been better at responding quickly than at adapting our model and defining realistic expectations. This causes frustration to clients and staff. Bringing in new staff quickly has been essential but affects the dynamics of the organisation, doubly so when many can only be on short term contracts given the uncertainty of the funding and official programme duration.
We are certainly creaking in places: premises, technology, people, management, quality assurance all need attention. We are trying to catch up with ourselves, we urgently need to better define what we can and can’t do and build capacity for that. Whether circumstances will allow this to happen remains to be seen. We need to prepare, but we can’t predict exactly what we are preparing for. Still, we start 2023 proud that we have put refugees’ interests first, lived our mission and values in an environment that is tough for everybody, especially the most marginalised. And we wonder what the year ahead will bring.