The Southampton and Winchester Visitors Group (SWVG) originated in 2000 from a small number of members visiting asylum seekers in Winchester Prison. In 2004 the focus shifted to asylum seekers arriving in Southampton under the Home Office’s dispersal programme.
Today we are a group of 64 volunteers (visitors) from Southampton and Winchester. Our volunteers are comprised of people from all walks of life including some current students and academics from the University of Southampton, for example, Prof Derek McGhee, Social Sciences, and Prof John Mellor (retired) Chemistry. Our most important activity remains providing relief from need, hardship and distress amongst destitute asylum seekers and refugees in Southampton. We do this through our Assist Scheme which provides temporary rented accommodation of £70 max. per week, as well as either a weekly subsistence payment of £25 or a sofa allowance of £10-20 for those staying with friends. It requires about 70% of our expenditure and has benefited about 40 clients per year in each of the last 6 years, needing on average about £1,500 per client. In 2011/12 we spent £67,123 on rent and subsistence to help 39 clients, as well as £2,223 on urgent needs of clients not regularly receiving ASSIST. Our accounts are closely monitored by our Money Allocation Group which includes a professional accountant.
In conjunction with this Scheme, we have a central commitment to befriending clients, whose previous experience of trauma frequently requires weekly contact with their visitors. Our 48 trained and experienced visitors establish ongoing one-to-one relationships with often severely depressed people which sometimes continue for months or years. Visitors provide friendship and a ‘listening ear’ plus practical advice and links to legal and health services, as well as connections with community and faith organisations. Since 2004 we have built up around 200 person-years of combined experience of the asylum system. Visitors receive support from a personal back-up, a monthly support meeting, bi-monthly general meetings and a monthly newsletter.
Our Legal Justice Project (LJP) was set up in March 2009 with a three year grant from the Sir Halley Stewart Trust. It provides advice from an experienced, award- winning immigration solicitor in Oxford on both individual cases and general legal issues affecting asylum seekers. We help clients with costs of travel to solicitors and courts, translation and evidence recovery; while the project also runs training workshops for SWVG volunteers on relevant legal matters. The LJP has become even more essential following the closure of Refugee and Migrant Justice and the loss of many Legal Aid solicitors doing immigration work, thus denying asylum seekers routes to fundamental justice. In Southampton there is now just one firm working on asylum cases.
Every week we have a presence at a drop-in centre in the Avenue St Andrews Church in Southampton. Over a cup of tea and cake crucial advice is provided on asylum claims and available support services by both ourselves and by other relevant organisations such as the British Red Cross and CLEAR (City Life Education and Action for Refugees). In addition, the centre provides a stimulating programme of workshops in IT, arts and crafts, music and English, while also encouraging participation in sports (football, tennis, swimming, martial arts) and external activities (Tools for Self-Reliance, a Community Garden Scheme).
Education has become an important concern. In September 2012 three more clients commenced university courses. One now studying engineering had been in the UK for over 10 years waiting for his Leave to Remain. In the latter period he studied A-level mathematics with a volunteer tutor. Two further students have scholarships, one a prestigious Helena Kennedy Studentship. Of these one had received appalling treatment before fleeing to the UK. Many receive funds from SWVG to pay for travel to college or to be able to buy a second-hand bicycle, while others receive small grants for books.
Campaigning continues to be important and one in which we involve our clients. We have contacts with the local media and Members of Parliament, both represented at our House of Lords reception (please see below), and we continue to give talks at a diversity of local meetings. Links with national organisations such as Asylum Aid and the Refugee Council strengthen our campaigns on a range of issues, including improved legal representation, greater support for asylum seekers in initial interviews, the unsatisfactory treatment of pregnant asylum seekers by the UKBA, and poverty among asylum children. We are also exploring the possibility of campaigning for Southampton to become a recognised member of a national movement called Cities of Sanctuary which begun in 2005 and already involves 35 cities, a movement which aims to raise the status of, and public sympathy for, asylum seekers.
Links with other local organisations are crucial to support for our clients. These include frequent contacts with Ready Homes (providers of NASS accommodation), Homeless Health, St Mary’s GP Surgery & mental health teams (we are part funded by Southampton City NHS), the British Red Cross, CLEAR, local colleges, interpreters, local MPs and churches and mosques. We are represented on the Southampton Local Dispersal Management Group and the No Accommodation Network (NACCOM).
Over the next five years we anticipate that we will need approximately £350,000 to maintain the ASSIST and befriending programmes; £30,000 for the Legal Justice Project and £20,000 for educational support. Our present situation is that Income in 2011/2012 was £84,408 and expenditure was £102,376. For 2012/2013 we are budgeting for an income of £78,000 and an expenditure of £85,000. Donations before and after the University of Southampton’s Philharmonic choir performances, at the Guildhall in Southampton or at Winchester Cathedral would be enormously helpful to us carrying on our work.
The quality of our provision has been recognised by a recent report, “Investing in the Future”, produced by two independent consultants paid for by the Bromley Trust as a mark of its high esteem for SWVG, it having funded us for six years. The report was showcased in November 2012 in the House of Lords at a reception attended by Members both of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, together with potential funders and representatives of other asylum/refugee groups in England. The Report’s main conclusion is that “SWVG does a quite outstanding job of delivering its core purpose of ‘providing for the relief of need, hardship and distress….amongst refugees (and) asylum seekers”.
Please visit our website for more information.