Asylum Seekers / Refugees

Derby Refugee Advice Centre : an essential gearbox for those seeking sanctuary.


Hannah Stirland inducts a new volunteer into DRAC

Making progress in the UK for Asylum seekers and refugees can feel like a constant battle with conflicting, interlocked, meshed and crunched cogs, frustrating the free-wheeling machine that should guide them through the landscape of bureaucracy. Each turn and manoeuvre results in anguish, “grinding teeth”,  stalling and a slow-slide away from the hopes that they had of being in this country, to the scary prospect of a grim, dark, poverty that threatens to dash this life opportunity.

Derby Refugee Advice Centre (DRAC) is one of the few agencies in the City, including the British Red Cross, who act as a “gearbox”, working tirelessly to unstick the “tangled teeth”,  and facilitate routes through problems, and allow their clients to take their next steps to a productive time in the UK.

I have written previously about the broader activities that DRAC do to help their clients with understanding more about British culture, promoting a sense of belonging,  and helping them break out into the community to stave off the many hours of boredom.

Recently, I spent a day in DRAC shadowing some of the volunteers who help their clients each Tuesday and Thursday with whatever problems they may be encountering. In total DRAC has 27 volunteers supporting a range of activities with about half a dozen who are experienced advisors. Language is a major barrier, and with people visiting from just over 50 different nationalities, it is one that DRAC has overcome, practically. Between volunteers, and friends of clients, they manage to arrange interpreting on a personal basis rather through a telephone language line.  They have access to many tongues, including some exotic ones, including Arabic, Farsi, Tigrinya, Tigre, Amharic, French, Chinese, Albanian, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Swahili, Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian, Kurdish, Sorani and Russian.


Clients benefitting from the generous Costco donation via the British Red Cross


In addition to food, clothes and other household essentials are given out

In addition to the long hours of emptiness, the limited Home Office funds means that Asylum seekers are always very close to poverty. DRAC are supported by the British Red Cross with regular fresh produce from Costco which helps provide a boost to their meagre diets. Also donations of toiletries, clothes and other household essentials allows DRAC to support their clients in a very direct and individual way.  Whilst they are waiting for ‘leave to remain’ ( formal refugee status) they are housed in  accommodation managed by G4S on behalf of the local Council. Although G4S would maintain that the properties are well kept, the DRAC advisors have to handle queries and provide the link to G4S staff to get issues sorted out – sometimes this can be just be a language or cultural issue – sometimes it’s mice!


When refugee status is achieved then the problems really start! The individual has 28 days to sort themselves out a new property, and “get into the system”.  Theoretically, when “leave to remain” is given, the person should be allocated a National Insurance number – the codified life-blood – but it doesn’t always happen.  Almost from the start, the individual is teetering in limbo – no NI number, no job, no Job seekers Allowance, no house, no nothing. You would expect that this would be standard issue but it becomes a routine problem for the DRAC advisors to solve.


Obtaining a bank account can sometimes be straight forward – but different banks require different forms, and without a bank account people can’t get paid, and if you can’t get paid, you can’t get a job and before long one enters an interminable circle. Many phone calls, and negotiations, normally sorts the conundrum.

On many occasions the clients get seemingly random letters from the Home Office, Border Agency, local Council etc which,  for a native speaker, can be technically complicated , and confusing, and delicately worded for legal reasons, but not in the interests of clarity. The advisor is confronted by a surprise document,  quickly trying to digest the meaning and implications, work with the client to establish the background, decide on a course of action, who to speak to…..and then comes the need for the core skill of patience, determination, and resilience as one is passed up, down and around the institution.  Quite how it is expected that the client would be able to navigate this complexity  unaided is beyond comprehension.


It seems with increasing conflicts and tyrannies throughout the world the need for this “gearbox” will never wane…and a smiling face, welcoming humanitarian hand and safe space, is so important when Derby is polarised on how much it should be accommodating asylum seekers and refugees.


DRAC also provides English language training for their clients

The recent plan for the UK to accept 20,000 additional refugees from Syria will place extra burden on the system but, in this case, in a different way to the existing population. All people accepted via the Vulnerable People Re-location scheme will be assessed medically and/or psychologically to confirm that they have conditions requiring special attention. This will place additional challenges on the Healthcare system , fostering, education ( as many children may have special educational needs), housing etc. Such a project can’t depend on a system that is rigid, and monolithic, and one which relies on “gearboxes” like DRAC to broker their way through it.

A “Migration Summit” was held in Derby Cathedral on the 2nd October, called “Welcoming the Stranger” led by the Bishop of Derby.  In addition to a few informative speeches by Pop Gill and Asif Afzal from Derby City Council and Pauline Latham, a local MP, the majority of the time was spent on 6 break-out sessions sited within the Cathedral itself. I think the objective was to discuss “issues” however apart from the acoustics being against an easy conversation, it was not clear what this actually achieved and seemed simply to be “preaching to the converted”; I doubt any new ideas, plans, or “light” was shed on anything.

If the City wants to make a step change in the help given to asylum seekers and refugees, then unqualified support is necessary from the Council, but sadly this authority is too wrapped up in politicking over budgets. Thankfully, there are enough people in Derby, and a good number volunteer at DRAC, whose humanitarian vision pierces personal aspiration, gain and bureaucracy and focuses on the individual in need – simply because they are there, and they are desperate.

They succeed despite the established institutions not because of them – perhaps some of the politicians should truly reflect on this, personally. People who are seeking sanctuary here need good, solid, practical, real-life help, not wise words, personal PR, tokenistic gestures, frivolous gimmicks, or platitudes.  Perhaps it’s as simple as “bottling” the spirit of DRAC and reproducing it elsewhere?

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