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Update on Asylum Seekers Reporting to Home Office at Patchway Police Station under Covid-19: a View from Bristol Signing Support Group

As we work through a new lockdown, people are still being required to report in person at Patchway Police Station, which is also an Immigration Reporting Centre. Gaie Delap from Bristol Signing Support, a group of volunteers who accompany people when they go to sign, has written a report about the impact of this hostile system.

During the First Lockdown, people seeking asylum were relieved to hear from the Home Office (HO) that they were no longer required to report to home office at Patchway police station. In August 2020 reporting resumed. While the Government were exhorting everyone in the country to stay home and stay safe, this vulnerable group were required to travel, mostly on public transport, to report in person at Patchway. The HO’s stated justification for the process is to check up on their welfare and verify/update their details/circumstances. The former does not bear examining in a context where 400 people in Folkestone, Kent and 230 in Penally, Pembrokeshire  are crowded in old army huts.  Any individual updates could easily be achieved by a text or phone call.

In the COVID-19 signing regime, signers wait outside the Police Station whatever the weather. There is no shelter from cold, rain or wind. They give their names to the immigration enforcement officer and wait to be called into the office. The HO uses texts to schedule appointments and this avoids queues. While this speeds-up the process, there are fewer opportunities for us as supporters to check on any needs or concerns or merely have a friendly chat. To ask, how is your asylum claim going? Are you getting enough food? Is your accommodation OK? Do you need help with travel costs? And if they are new signers, have you registered with Bristol Refugee Rights? We detect a different HO culture at Patchway – staff are friendlier and although more willing to share information at the outset this changed in January with one HO officer telling volunteers we are not sharing numbers anymore. Each Wednesday between 60-80 people are expected, but not all show up. Although we do not witness detentions it does not mean they are not happening away from the reporting station.

With the closure of all face to face support centres, the incidence of people with mental health issues has increased, as access to free meals and social interaction has stopped. We are pleased to find that a much needed new referral path has opened at Bristol Mind, hopefully relieving pressure on the services run by The Haven and others in the city.

Although time for chat is limited, we heard from one signer that he had been surviving on a diet of tinned sardines. Another was famished, and many are existing on poor diets. We identified and collated a list of free food sources in Bristol and can signpost people to these. Another signer who arrived without a coat and wearing sandals, was put in touch with the ABC shop. As well as signposting, we offer a familiar friendly face, a rebuttal to the tropes of the ‘Hostile Environment’.

There is some good news – a recent court hearing upheld an asylum seeker’s claim to the right to work.  Several campaigns are working to end this blight, TWMF (These Walls Must Fall), Amnesty International, BDASC (Bristol Defend Asylum Seekers Campaign). There are campaigns to close the asylum seeker camps in disused army barrack at sites in Penally and Folkestone.

There is support from Bristol City Council and Bristol City of Sanctuary. The Bristol Signing Support team recently connected via a zoom workshop with groups in Huddersfield, Liverpool and elsewhere looking to set up signing support in their own areas.

We are inspired by the fortitude and resilience of the people we meet. We have met those who tell us that they have been signing for 20 years. It is a life lived in limbo, and constant anxiety, with basic human rights denied. Last week I observed with sadness the toll that this hostile system is having on a young man I know well, an intolerable toll which will continue unless we can change this system. If you would like to stand in solidarity with people having to sign, we are always looking for new volunteers who could spare 2 hours on a Wednesday morning. If you are interested or know someone who might be, then please look at our facebook page, or contact us via [email protected]

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