Despite what the right would have you believe, every time there’s an influx of refugees from a war-torn country, the UK is not overrun with people claiming asylum. In fact, the UK holds only about 1% of the total number of refugees the world over. UK refugees have to go through a gruelling process to achieve settled status, which often lasts years and leaves any failed claimants without money or a place to stay while they lodge appeals. Host is a Nottingham-based charity that provides support to those going through the asylum seeking process, making their lives just a little easier. Penny Reeve sat down with Host chair Roger Van Schaick to find out a little more...
What is the purpose of Host?
We support those seeking asylum in the UK through hosting, practical support and advocating for a just asylum system. With hosting, our guests are going through the process of gaining status, working with their solicitors, and advisors at the Nottingham Refugee Forum. Now, feeling safe and having a solid base is very important while going through this process, which is very difficult, especially if you’re sofa surfing or worse, sleeping rough. We mostly get referrals from the anti-destitution project at the Refugee Forum. Our job is to pair people seeking asylum up with volunteer hosts, who offer out a spare room from one day up to three months.
There must be so many people in need of help. How do you decide who to take on?
Together with the advisors at the Refugee Forum we decide through a selection process because there are people, for example, at the extreme end of PTSD who wouldn’t be suitable for hosting. We also need to know that there’s some prospect for guests to get status in the foreseeable future. We say three months maximum currently. Hopefully when we have more hosts we’ll be able to offer longer periods but the duration of processing has gotten worse as the asylum system has gotten more clogged up. When we started, three months to get an answer to a fresh claim was sort of realistic but it’s now years. We recently had some very good news that a former guest of ours finally got status. It took seven years and three attempts.
Can you give us a brief rundown of the asylum process?
Refugees claim asylum in this country when they first arrive. There’s an initial interview and then they’re dispersed to places where housing is cheap. Glasgow receives the most, but we get a reasonable number. Refugees often end up in a shared house in Home Office accommodation somewhere cheap like Hyson Green or the Meadows while their first claim is considered by the Home Office. At this time they will be getting around £5.60 per day to live on, which has to cover everything - food, clothing, toiletries. At some point there will be a substantive interview to assess their claim. It’s supposed to take a maximum of six months to hear about the claim but that’s a dream, it’s more than that. It varies from year to year, and with country of origin but overall around half of claims are rejected the first time around. At that point asylum seekers are evicted from their accommodation at fairly short notice and the money stops. They have a right to appeal or submit fresh evidence; a fresh claim. So that’s what our guests are doing, basically. If you look at the figures nationally about half of those second or third claims are successful, which suggests that the decision making process first time around is flawed.
Are there many appeals to initial rulings?
In our experience we quite often find it difficult to understand why a guest’s claim has been rejected, looking at it from a common sense point of view. We had a guest who was an Iranian Christian, and his prayer meeting had been shot up by the Iranian police. He had very serious bullet wounds, you could see them in his neck. He was lucky to survive. He made it to this country and his first claim failed. Happily, his second claim was successful. It depends on the technical legal process, not common sense. There’s a disposition on the part of the Home Office to disbelieve, there’s a bias towards saying no to be honest. So the ruling is quite often on a technicality, a person seeking asylum will have told a story once but if you’ve been recently traumatised trying to remember things accurately isn’t always easy. So the Home Office will say ‘well, you’re lying’ because these details don’t match. This is why it’s very important to have a good lawyer.
Are there many lawyers in Nottingham who undertake this kind of work?
Sadly not. There’s a huge bottleneck due to the fact that the number of lawyers who are either willing or able to do this sort of work is vanishingly small. It’s legal aid work: it’s very poorly rewarded and it’s difficult. It’s a lot easier to do house conveyancing rather than prove that somebody’s been tortured in some obscure Sudanese police cell.
The top three nationalities to take refuge in the UK are Iranian, Albanian and Eritrean. Considering recent news, this is quite surprising, is it not?
Around one percent of refugees from Afghanistan will end up in the UK. There are around 70,000 people seeking asylum in the system at the moment, being assessed, and of those, about 3,000 are Afghans. That doesn’t include those who have come over in this last wave. The people who we see on the television who have come over since the middle of August, they are kind of in the first class lounge of the asylum seeker. Those in the ARAP and ACRS schemes will have status when they arrive, so they won’t be going through - thankfully - the process I’ve just described.
Our job is to pair people seeking asylum up with volunteer hosts, who offer out a spare room from one day up to three months
Do you feel there's bad feeling towards refugees?
We don’t really see much negative feeling through Host. Through our social media we are talking to a sympathetic audience. You get the occasional hostile comment but we just ignore that. There’s been a lot of good feeling growing from the Afghan crisis. We’ve had almost fifty people enquiring about hosting since then. The impulse tends to be “I want to help the Afghan refugees,” but when you talk to people and explain that we don’t have any Afghan refugees but we have quite a few Iranians and Kurds and they’ve been here quite a few years, people are fine with that.
What other activities does Host get up to, for people who want to help but can’t host?
We have a clothes bank, located at the Refugee Forum. It’s purely for people in the anti-destitution project, in other words destitute asylum seekers. It’s going great guns at the moment. We also run a project called Side-by-Side which pairs volunteers with those seeking asylums who need accompaniment to appointments, just for moral support really, or a bit of navigation.
How did the pandemic affect Host?
It affected us badly. At the start of the pandemic a lot of hosts stopped hosting, for obvious reasons. Since then we have lost a lot of hosts either because of the pandemic or illness, relocation. There’s been a natural wastage and although some people have started to host again, we’re not back to previous figures.
As the Everyone In scheme ends, will there be more people seeking asylum who need to rely on Host again?
Absolutely.The Everyone In scheme actually didn’t include destitute asylum seekers because they have no recourse to public funds so the local authorities couldn’t really help. Nevertheless, during the pandemic the evictions that would normally take place for failed claimants staying in Home Office accommodation were suspended. Now that will end. There’s a trickle of people being evicted already but it’s difficult to get proper information about how many failed claimants will be evicted locally, when, and what will happen to them. We’ve been expecting a tsunami of people for months. Maybe it’ll be very gradual. We understand that there are currently 120 or so asylum seekers in Nottingham who may, in the foreseeable future face eviction. We have no way of meeting that demand, nor have the other organisations in the city who do similar things, like the Arimathea Trust.
So these people could all end up homeless again? That’s a bit of a crisis, isn’t it?
And how many host families do you have at the moment?
Four, although we've gotten more enquiries recently so we hope to be up to double figures soon.
Who tends to volunteer to host?
Anyone with a spare room can host. There’s a lot of empty nesters but there are families with children too. It’s generally a very positive experience, as it teaches the kids compassion and more besides.
We had a guest who was an Iranian Christian, and his prayer meeting had been shot up by the Iranian police. He had very serious bullet wounds, you could see them in his neck. He was lucky to survive
What’s the language barrier like?
You see the full range of English skills. There are those who speak brilliant English and those who speak none at all. At the handover meeting, we’ll be there, as well as an advisor from the Refugee Forum. An agreement will be signed and details will be discussed; what time guests can stay out til, what to do with keys, whether there are any pets, etc and if necessary we’ll have a translator present then. It’s obviously not practical to have a translator around all of the time but you get by.
Obviously there can be cultural sensitivities having hosts from different countries?
Absolutely, though these can often be quite trivial and you work through them as you go along. More importantly, we ask our guests to be sensitive to the refugee experience. We ask hosts not to interrogate. Some people will want to talk about their experience and some people don’t. You have to be sensitive to that.
What can a host expect from their experience?
Guests come to us after they’ve failed their first asylum claim, so they come to us at a low point, that’s the first thing to consider. The other is that these are independent adults, they don’t need looking after. They’ve already lived for a couple of years in Nottingham; they’ve got friends, they’ve got contacts, their own life. But you also have to be aware that they can’t work, there are very limited options for study. They’re in limbo, their future is uncertain.
Is there a support network for hosts themselves?
Absolutely. Host was set up to provide mutual support to hosts. There’s a phone number you can phone 24/7 and hosts can talk to other hosts through the charity. If you’re hosting, you need back-up and you need to know it’s not your responsibility to end the placement. If you invite someone into your home to stay and they stay too long, that puts you in an uncomfortable position. With Host, the host is in control of how long they want the placement to be and we end it. Or if there is ever any problem, we would end it. Hosts will never have to be in the morally uncomfortable position of making somebody homeless.
Do hosts keep in touch with their guests?
Oh yes. The process of hosting is asymmetric: you host the guests for a few weeks or months and they remember you for life. We regularly get messages from former guests.
I hear Host’s tenth anniversary is coming up in October! How will you be celebrating?
Well, we’ll be having a party! It’s on Friday 22 October at St John’s Church in Carrington. Hosts, former hosts and prospective hosts are invited. There will be some former guests there, plus live music and food. It’s partly a celebration and partly a chance for people to find out more about the hosting process. Everyone is welcome to drop by and say hello.
To find out more about Host or register interest in hosting yourself, visit the Host website
We have a favour to ask
LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?