Victoria Waller’s interview with Denise McDowell, Director of the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (www.gmiau.org)


 

 

 

  1. Can you describe the work that GMIAU does?

 

We are a not for profit, voluntary organisation that provides legal immigration advice, representation and support for people who are in need in the north west of England. We have a team of solicitors and immigration case workers who represent people through the asylum process as well as in human rights cases including deportation.

 

In addition to legal advice, we also have a number of staff who provide extra support to children and people such as women who are at risk. We have a refugee family reunion project to reunite people who have obtained refugee status with their immediate family members that they have left behind.

 

The other aspect of the work that we do is about trying to influence and a make difference in a policy sense. This year we have several key priorities. The first one is about advocating and lobbying for the children coming from Calais (who were in the ‘Jungle’) to the UK. We argued for better provision for the children as they were arriving and for increased numbers so we were disappointed with the numbers who actually have come. We are continuing to still do what work we can to try and support those children who are still there.

 

Our second priority centres on refugee family reunion and for a better, easier application process for refugees to bring immediate family members here. It is also to recognise the human rights argument about the close relatives who may be affected directly and for them to be included in the application. For example, if a family have looked after an elderly parent at home that elderly relative would not be included in the reunion rules because the rules focus only on the spouse and the children. The elderly parent may be stuck on their own.

 

The third priority that we are gearing up for is around the provisions in the Immigration Act 2016 which limits support to families, namely asylum support. This is the amount of money that families are given to provide accommodation and interim support whilst the case is ongoing. Families can’t be made destitute and children can’t be made destitute under the Children Act 1989 but the provisions in the Immigration Act 2016 try to undermine this, so it will be interesting to see what happens. We will be lobbying hard on that one. It can never be acceptable for any child (and it shouldn’t be acceptable for any adult) to be made destitute in this country and that is the bottom line. Whether it is the Home Office that supports them or the Local Authority it’s got to be one or the other, it can’t be that there’s no support and that’s what the provisions will try to do.

 

  1. What changes have you seen in Manchester in the past 5 years in relation to those accessing your services?

 

I have worked at the GMIAU for 9 years. When I first started, there were a significant number of other voluntary organisations including law centres who had immigration legal aid contracts. When we couldn’t take on more cases due to being at capacity there were other organisations to refer people to. In the last 5 years, we’ve seen all those voluntary organisations either close or be unable to provide immigration advice at the level they could previously.

 

We are the only not for profit immigration organisation in Manchester with a legal aid contract. The two law centres left aside from GMLC are the ones in Rochdale and Bury and they both have an immigration legal aid contract as well as the Bolton CAB. The only other provision would be private law firms who have a legal aid contract for immigration work and there are fewer of them and they work in a very different way to us.

 

The challenges and the threats to the organisation over the last few years have been really significant because obviously legal aid is public provision and it’s there to ensure that people can access legal representation to get good quality representation. Cuts to legal aid as well as the areas now deemed out of scope of legal aid have had a significant impact. As an example, 5 years ago a person with refugee status would have been able to secure legal aid in order to make the application to bring a spouse and any children under 18 to the UK under the immigration rules but this was one of the areas that was cut from legal aid. There is no provision for that now which is why we have set up a service to try and help in this situation.

 

The demand in the last 5 years has maintained its level in that the level of demand is overwhelming and it’s always been overwhelming. The weight of demand is huge and my fear is that what has happened in the last 5 years is that as people have been unable to secure legal representation or been able to challenge the decisions that have been made against them, we have more gross injustices against people and more people have just disappeared. This is a way of dealing with the feeling that they can’t challenge the decision against them. There are greater numbers of people who are destitute because they are not in the asylum process, not entitled to work, not entitled to claim benefits. This is why ASHA is such an important service because without it there would be more people on the streets.

 

ASHA stands for Asylum Support and Housing and is now part of GMIAU. It was an independent organisation for 10 years and then found it couldn’t easily sustain itself so it was agreed that GMIAU would take it over. For 2 years now it has been one of GMIAU’s services. As we are very closely linked with the Greater Manchester Law Centre, ASHA is one of the services that is run from the law centre.

 

In reality, it is about us all working together to try and build something after all the cuts to legal aid and advice services over the last few years. It’s a concerted effort from many of us to try and make the law centre a success.

 

 

  1. What drives you to keep an organisation like GMIAU going? 

 

An absolute commitment to making sure that people who are in the immigration system have got access to good quality legal representation because we know that the odds are stacked against them, that by and large they will be disbelieved, that the system is hostile to individuals as well as the process of immigration. It’s a very political issue.

 

We are very clear on our view that immigration is positive. The country, the region, is better for its immigration. We are better as a country for promoting the protection of human rights and for fostering our relationship with other people, our neighbours, our community. That’s why we exist and we are absolutely fundamental to the region that we sit in.

 

 

  1. What changes would you like to see to improve the situation for your service users? 

 

What will have to change to improve the situation for people who need representation is a really big political shift.

 

This would have to be a political shift at the governmental and the public perception level because in the era of Brexit, a lot of the way that people voted was driven by an anti-immigrant sentiment. We have seen the rise of xenophobia, islamophobia and hate crimes fuelled by negative government policy which I suppose arguably also reflects the public sentiment. Obviously not the majority but it does reflect some.

 

The laws, the immigration acts should be much more geared towards the way in we can support people but they aren’t. If they were there wouldn’t be the culture of disbelief and hostility that we have currently in the process.

 

It is the government’s intention to create a hostile environment for immigration – if we could stop that there would be a positive move forward for everyone.

 

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