Over the last few weeks West End Refugee Service has received an unprecedented number of offers of help and support from people who have seen the appalling images of asylum seekers’ suffering on their TV screens and the internet. Some were already acutely aware of the issues that asylum seekers face both globally and in the UK, and for them the harrowing images brought about a heightened indignation at the suffering of those fleeing persecution and war. For others it has been perhaps the first time that they were made aware of the desperate attempts of thousands of asylum seekers of all ages – babies and toddlers, children and adults – to reach a place of safety somewhere in the world.
All the callers and emailers, regardless of the level of previous knowledge and experience of asylum issues, have shared a common urgent desire and determination to help in some way and this has been fantastic. For those of us working in asylum support it has, despite all the horror and unbearable suffering of those trying to reach safety, brought encouragement and a resounding affirmation of the work that we have been doing for many years. In a year which has seen unprecedented negativity towards immigrants from central government and the introduction of a succession of draconian measures guaranteed to bring further misery and hardship to asylum seekers living in the UK, the amazing response from the general public has shown the great humanity and generosity of spirit towards their fellow human beings.
West End Refugee Service (WERS), a registered charity, has been supporting refugees and asylum seekers since 1999. During the last 16 years, WERS has seen numerous changes made both to the asylum process and to asylum support by the State. Despite all these changes, the clients’ need for one to one support is as great now as it ever was.
In the normal UK asylum process, asylum seekers whose applications to the Home Office are successful are granted refugee status, but those whose applications are refused are made destitute. The use of destitution as a lever to compel destitute asylum seekers to accept return is indefensible and should stop. Over the last 16 years WERS has seen the damaging effect that being homeless has on a human being. Many asylum seekers cannot be returned to their home country through no fault of their own and are left for long periods of time in a state of limbo, entirely dependent on charitable support. At any given time WERS will be supporting around 100 destitute asylum seekers with £15 a week from the hardship fund.
WERS would only be able to deliver a fraction of its services were it not for the invaluable input of its volunteers. The volunteer project began in 2000 and currently has over 50 volunteers who are involved in a variety of roles: befrienders, support workers, job mentors, listeners, clothing store assistants, gardeners and admin assistants.
’This has been one of the most rewarding schemes I have ever belonged to. We can donate money to favourite charities, which we know would collapse without people’s generosity – I believe the befriending scheme acts in the same way, by ‘donating’ people to support refugees, offering friendship and a sense of belonging.’ (WERS volunteer)
The WERS Befriending Scheme is unique in the region. Having a befriender can make a huge difference to someone – helping them feel less isolated and more able to cope with an uncertain future.
‘She has helped me to find my vision again for the future. She has encouraged me to try again with English and other courses.’
The value of the scheme is recognised by health visitors, education welfare officers, ESOL lecturers, housing support officers and other workers, all of whom make referrals to the scheme. The scheme has the Approved Provider Standard from the Mentoring and Befriending Foundation.
“The people I meet at WERS show me what really matters: security, shelter, freedom, respect, love of family and friends. WERS does all it can to bring these into the lives of persecuted people who have been denied them.”
Watch our videos at www.wers.org.uk.