Setting up Asylum Guides

Tell us about the Early Action approach you have taken

We developed Asylum Guides to help people understand the asylum process, their rights within it, what to expect, how to prepare for each stage, and where to go for help. We mostly work with people before their ‘substantive interview’ with the Home Office (a long, detailed interview exploring reasons for seeking asylum). But, the information we provide (hosted on the Asylum Guides website) is tailored to be relevant at different points throughout their asylum journey. 

Asylum Guides are trained volunteers, matched up with people seeking asylum to provide legal information about the asylum process. They explain the asylum system in a way that is accessible and easy to understand to improve people’s legal literacy and preparedness. Briefing sessions include information on the asylum process structure; asylum support; substantive interview; finding and working with solicitors; asylum decision making, refusals, appeals, detention, and fresh claims; access to housing, benefits and work following a grant of leave to remain; and helpful organisations in the North West.

Asylum Guides is a flexible programme that develops alongside the needs of users. We can deliver the material in two ways; over a series of weeks or in one-off meetings. Likewise, we have developed our delivery model to incorporate group work and longer-term, one-to-one work. This approach caters to an area receiving high numbers of people into Initial Accommodation (who may be moved out of the area at short notice) and into dispersal accommodation (who may benefit from longer-term support as they move through their asylum claim). 

Asylum Guides group sessions are conducted in small groups based on languages. The sessions are led by volunteers who have lived experience of the asylum process, and are trained to deliver the Asylum Guides content in clients' preferred languages, encourage discussion and represent us as an independent, compassionate organisation with strong links to the rest of the UK's asylum support network.

Why was this needed?

The information we deliver and discuss with clients is designed to help people: avoid or get out of destitution by increasing understanding of the asylum support system and the mainstream welfare system; avoid unnecessary refusal and other complications by helping people access legal representation for their asylum claim as early as possible; exercise the right to a fair appeal hearing by explaining both the appeal process, the obligations of solicitors regarding asylum appeals, and how to assert rights and entitlements; and access many different kinds of support relating to asylum, trafficking, domestic abuse, age disputes etc. 

What has worked?

The resulting shared insight and knowledge, diversity, accessibility and sense of community are among the main reasons behind the success of the project here.

What impact has this had? 

1650 individuals have accessed Asylum Guides through 1-2-1 or group support in the last 3 years. 

When we first meet them, over 70% of clients say they have absolutely no understanding of either the next stage of the asylum process for them, the asylum process in general, asylum support, or all three when we first meet them. This is despite them usually having attended a Screening Interview and a meeting with Migrant Help. 

Over 60% of clients say they have complete understanding on one or all of those areas after benefiting from our service. 

Over 95% of clients experience an overall improvement in knowledge, understanding and confidence of and how to engage effectively with the asylum process.

In the Asylum Guides pilot, around 58% of participants were granted asylum. In comparison 24% of the 30,747 total asylum applications made in 2016 had been successful by the following year.

I see the way now. I am much happier

— Vulnerable male client from Bajun waiting for his Substantive Interview and looking for a solicitor. 

I would like to thank all the Refugee Action team for supporting me since the beginning, when I claimed asylum until now in everything from transportation, to finding a solicitor, to consultation on the asylum process

— A female client referred to us by the Liverpool Women’s Hospital, 20 weeks pregnant and homeless.

She attended an Asylum Guides overview session run by an Arabic-speaking volunteer. She had been advised by a solicitor to apply for asylum and had an appointment at the AIU in Croydon. Though, the solicitor did not register her case and she had no means of getting to Croydon. We arranged travel, a hotel and an escort from central London, provided by London-based charity, NELMA. Then, she registered for the Asylum Guides project. The same Arabic speaking volunteer conducted a 1-1 Asylum Guides briefing about her screening interview, asylum support, and travel arrangements. Following this, she felt confident in what to expect and say in her screening interview.

Following her screening interview, she was sent back to Initial Accommodation (S.98 support) in Liverpool. · We met with her again in a 1-1 Asylum Guides meeting to make sure she understood the next stage of the asylum process, consolidating and building on information discussed in the group session she originally attended. She was moved to dispersal accommodation in Manchester where we helped her connect to local support services. 

Before the session, what I knew about the asylum process was like a small door, but after the session it became a great gate through which I want to lead others like me

— Male client from El Salvador, waiting for a decision on his asylum claim and training to become an Asylum Guide volunteer

I hope many people can get the same help in the future. Many people misunderstand the process, so it would be very good for them to have the same support. Thank you again

— Male client from Sudan, supported by an asylum guide across 8 meetings and granted refugee status in February 2019

Case study 

Z attended an information session in February 2020 as a service user. She went on to become a volunteer with Asylum Guides and Info Groups project, delivering sessions in Arabic, English, French and Swahili. The combination of her experience in training and practice on the Asylum Guides project, and her own lived-experience before, during and following the asylum process makes her an outstanding Asylum Guide.

"My Journey with Refugee Action started when I was handed a leaflet while being in a food bank. For refugee, although in the UK studying for over 2 years, I still had little knowledge of the asylum process apart from the fact that there was no turning back for me. I came to a drop-in session as directed on the flyer to meet a warm welcoming community where I was made aware of the various stages and support that I could receive. The information was key; not only did they make me feel at home but also inspired me to help others in a similar situation. I registered as a volunteer while still being in the asylum process myself."

I did go through intense emotional time listening to various stories that felt similar to mine, although I had much support from wellbeing activities and training that kept me grounded. And as I have now been granted asylum, I still rely on the help and support provided by Refugee Action to settle in while continuing to help others who are for a fair chance.”

What impact has this had for the organisation?

By encouraging volunteers to take ownership of the project and help us embed Asylum Guides into their own communities we have seen a positive impact on how the project works and how effective it is. Volunteers  promote a welcoming, sociable atmosphere in which people can feel connected to support services via individuals who have shared their experiences.With volunteers leading more services, the project coordinator is able to spend more time directing complex queries, ensuring the sessions run smoothly and bringing the service to more people over a much larger area.

There is also a positive impact on our delivery partner organisations, British Red Cross and Asylum Link Merseyside. By increasing knowledge and understanding of the asylum process amongst our shared clients there is a reduction in demand for the casework services provided at drop-in’s. By attending our sessions, people get a lot of their initial questions answered (that they might otherwise take to caseworkers) and come to understand the casework issues they do face better, so communication with caseworkers is more efficient. In addition, the project often equips people with the knowledge and confidence to advocate for themselves. 

How did you know Asylum Guides was the right approach?

Over a number of years we experimented with the best way of engaging with people at the very early stage of their asylum journey. After testing different approaches, we developed the Asylum Guides and Info Groups model, first in Manchester, before piloting the model with two partner organisations, Refugee Women Connect and Brushstrokes. 

Understanding the impact for beneficiaries is central to the model; through regular collection of impact data and input from service users and volunteers, we have continuously adapted and improved the service. 

Volunteer led by a diverse team with lived experience of the asylum process

This may have been the single most impactful change made to the project in Merseyside. The original info groups project was set up like a lecture with paid or voluntary interpreters translating line-by-line. We changed that so volunteers now host their own sessions without the need for third-party interpretation. In addition, most of those volunteers have lived experience of the asylum process and can now bring their vast amounts of knowledge and insight to their work.The coordinator and some of our volunteers do not have that lived experience, and they do a fantastic job, too. They listen carefully to fellow volunteers and clients to learn about the combinations of barriers, needs and traumas that impact people’s lives. The diverse team with a lot of relatable experience creates a really welcoming environment for people to get some of the answers they need and we often find people trust us quite quickly and feel comfortable enough to bring to light sensitive issues, so we can help them access support. 

How is this different to what you were doing before?

Many of Refugee Action’s asylum services have focused on working with people at the later stages of their asylum claim, following a refusal and when people are experiencing homelessness and destitution. This work is critical and will always be necessary as long as the asylum system continues to cause crisis. However, we were concerned that so many people who face crises in the asylum system are unaware and ill prepared to deal with or avoid them, due to a lack of preventative work at the beginning of the asylum process. By developing Asylum Guides using an Early Action approach we hope to  begin to redress this balance both within our own services and across the refugee sector. 

What challenges have you faced?

We would like all new arrivals in Merseyside to have the opportunity to connect with an Asylum Guide. However, we know we are not reaching everybody. Some people only make contact with charity services when a problem arises, or they become aware that they might need more information. We try to get our service publicised by the accommodation provider but have concerns about how reliable this is. 

Maintaining contact or engagement with clients is another challenge. We encourage people to contact us when they move onto the next stage of the asylum process, i.e if they receive a decision, but many do not. We now take a more systematic approach to contacting clients at certain intervals to check in and see if there has been any change and routinely attend drop-in’s across the region to meet up with clients. However, these approaches are more time consuming and logistically complicated to organise with volunteers. 

What specific challenges has Covid brought?

We have seen a significant drop in the numbers of people accessing the service since lockdown began, because the project was modelled around a series of community hubs which are no longer open.

We have been making contact with new clients, but on a smaller scale; since lockdown began we have only worked with around 90 new clients - far fewer than when we were able to meet freely. 

However, whereas previously many of our clients only attended one or two sessions, our clients now tend to attend at least 3 or 4 sessions - sometimes more than 10 if we are advocating for specific issues. We also gave our volunteers phones which has streamlined contact in key languages; we use both phone calls and whatsapp to keep in touch with our clients, so having these phones makes that a lot easier.

As more people are being housed in hotels in isolated locations without access to clear information or legal support, the support we are providing has become even more important. We now liaise with solicitors, health services and Migrant Help more than we used to, often assisting clients with practical things over a longer period. 

What else do you want to achieve? 

The main thing we need to improve upon is reaching out to new clients during lockdown; it’s much harder to do this without meeting physically. 

We also want to re-establish our system of signposting and referral around the use of the Asylum Guide online map directory for clients who are comfortable online.

What practical advice would you give to other organisations?

Visit the Asylum Guides website! You will find free toolkits, videos and resources to help you set up the programme, train volunteers and deliver Asylum Guides. 

  • Encourage Asylum Guides volunteers to take initiative and ownership of the project. Give them the autonomy to bring their own creativity and experience to delivering sessions and communicating with clients. 
  • Wherever possible, recruit a diverse, multilingual team of people