Author: Aamna Mohdin
A dozen or so people are gathered in a converted church hall in east London on an early December morning, waiting for the immigration advice service to open. The service is run by Praxis Community Projects, a charity that played a key role in uncovering the Windrush scandal.
The scandal, revealed in an award-winning series of Guardian articles over the past 18 months, laid bare the injustices inflicted on members of the Windrush Caribbean community – named after a ship that brought migrants to Britain in 1948. They lived legally in the UK for decades before being variously detained, deported, sacked, denied NHS care and made homeless and destitute after being unable to provide documents proving their right to be in the country.
However, the impact of the government’s hostile environmentimmigration system goes beyond Windrush, says Sally Daghlian, the chief executive of Praxis. As volunteers and staff give out biscuits and tea to those waiting to use the advice service, Daghlian stresses that Windrush is just a small part of a hidden problem. “What we’re seeing is that more and more people are becoming undocumented. And that has a really significant impact on their life.”
A Praxis client identified only as Amisha sought support from the charity in 2016. Born in Ivory Coast, Amisha moved to France when she was seven years old and later migrated to Britain, believing she had the right to live here as an EU national. She became homeless after she found out her French citizenship had been revoked. Ivory Coast meanwhile told her she was no longer an Ivorian national, leaving her in limbo.
“I went through a difficult time. I even collapsed on the street from the stress and panic and found myself in hospital,” says Amisha. She was staying in a hotel when she was moved to Praxis-supported accommodation and given legal support for her immigration case. Praxis also encouraged her to join its mothers’ support group, where she formed a strong bond with other women from different cultures, but with similar problems. “I don’t feel like I’m coming somewhere where they will judge me. No, I feel like I’m coming home,” she says.
As well as immigration advice, Praxis provides safe, temporary housing and support to migrants with no recourse to public funds, helps destitute migrants find long-term solutions and tries to foster a sense of belonging among its clients through group projects such as therapy, language classes, yoga and even a choir. The charity says this holistic approach is key to getting people back on their feet.
“Because they’ve been told they don’t belong here again and again, people might start feeling like they’re somehow responsible for their situation,” says Emma Gardiner, the charity’s group-work coordinator. “But by meeting other people who are experiencing the same thing and learning a bit more about the system and speaking up and having a voice, it means that people are able to start to understand that actually it’s not their fault they are in this situation.”
Joy came to Praxis in October 2016. The only proof of Joy’s indefinite leave to remain was a stamp in her passport, which expired in November 2015. As it wasn’t stamped in a current passport it was not regarded as proof of her right to work in the UK and she lost her job.
The hostile environment policy, now rebranded as the “compliant environment”, forces employers to check that their workers have a right to work in the UK. If they cannot prove they are here legally, they can be sacked. “It was the worst time of my life,” Joy says. “It was the worst feeling because I didn’t know where I stood. I was in my job for 13 years and I get a phone call that told me to [return] my uniform, keys and phone.”
Praxis, one of five charities benefiting from the 2018 Guardian and Observer appeal, helped Joy to get a biometric card, proving she had indefinite leave to remain. “If it wasn’t for Praxis, I don’t know where I’d be. I was lost … Mentally, they brought me back,” she says.
Bethan Lant, a Praxis casework manager, says the biggest challenge ahead is responding to the growing need for its service. “There are so few immigration advisers out there now. It’s a really difficult area, there isn’t a lot of funding for it,” she says.
But for those who get support, the outcomes have been transformative. Praxis had a Human Rights Day event with its clients. One was singing “Praxis is a good, good friend” and the audience were joining in. “That’s what we are, a friend to people,” says Lant.