Specialist advice for refugees and asylum seekers is emerging as a serious issue, as a Home Office dispersal programme takes shape. We report on a round table discussion over the practical problems

“I think Scotland wants to be more welcoming, but that has to include quality legal services from the start.” The comment was made during a multi-agency round table discussion on the provision of advice and support services to refugees and asylum seekers.

The Scottish Government believes that refugees and asylum seekers should be integrated into our communities from day one of arrival. The Home Office is seeking to widen asylum dispersal so that those seeking asylum here are not all concentrated, as at present, within the Glasgow area. Unaccompanied children are already being found homes by various local authorities. There was “a wonderful response” to the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme. But are the necessary support services available locally to provide for wider asylum dispersal, including access to specialist legal advice?

This was the focus of the round table, held during February, co-ordinated by the Law Society of Scotland and involving key bodies, including the Home Office. Hosted by the Scottish Refugee Council (SRC), the event addressed a series of questions around this theme as a precursor to a fuller conference since set for 23 June in Glasgow. One aim was to identify the topics that event should cover. The Chatham House rule applied at the meeting, but the Journal was invited to attend and record the key points that emerged.

As well as the three bodies already named and two practising immigration lawyers, those attending represented the Scottish Government and organisations including Migrant Help, Scottish Guardianship Service (a partnership between Aberlour Child Care Trust and SRC), British Red Cross, Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland – a range of organisations that reflects the diverse, and often multiple and serious,
needs of refugees and asylum seekers.

Chairing the meeting, Sarah Craig of the University of Glasgow and the Society’s Immigration & Asylum Committee explained the context. To date, Glasgow has been the only area of asylum dispersal in Scotland, and locally based agencies and immigration lawyers have built up in-depth expertise in meeting their needs. But the city’s services are under great pressure as a result, whether local authority or otherwise, and the Home Office is seeking other partners as it aims to relocate some of the client group across Scotland.

Into the desert

It quickly became clear that whatever the service, asylum seekers and refugees are likely to find it much more difficult to access help elsewhere in Scotland: even if there is some local provision, lack of understanding and experience of the complex issues brought by many individuals, abused asylum-seeking women for example, will make it very problematic for smaller groups trying to undertake such sensitive work. The term “advice desert” came up very frequently during the discussion, especially but not solely in relation to the lack of specialist legal advice outside the Central Belt.

Integration with a less diverse local population, language difficulties including interpreter services, transport links and social isolation are among other important issues that have to be faced, while for unaccompanied children, further expertise is required regarding trafficking, age disputes and welfare issues, as well as in child-sensitive practice itself.

Specialist legal advice was recognised as one of the key issues, and something that it is crucial to provide at the outset, given the Home Office’s timescales for applying for asylum and recognition as a refugee, or other form of protection. Credibility and consistency are vital elements in the assessment of protection claims: therefore, early and good quality asylum law advice are vital to promote the fullest possible disclosure from the start.

It is also a difficult issue to crack. Solicitors are discouraged from dabbling in unfamiliar areas of law; but what is the incentive to build up expertise at legal aid rates of pay? And with travel rates having been cut by the Scottish Legal Aid Board, it is uneconomic for the relatively few specialist practitioners to consult with distant clients – who in turn probably have neither the means nor the practical ability to make the opposite journey.

Could technology play a part, enabling client interviews to be carried out remotely? Only to an extent, it was said: those with experience of very vulnerable clients (who make up a sizeable proportion of the groups in question) maintained that only with face-to-face contact, perhaps over a number of sessions, can you build up the necessary relationship of trust. This is a particular issue with unaccompanied vulnerable children,
but one that affects many adults also, such as women asylum seekers or refugees who have suffered sexual violence.

Network initiative

One project that may provide a model is the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre, a collaborative partnership between Legal Services Agency (LSA), Rape Crisis Scotland and the University of Strathclyde to provide advice and support to women subjected to gender-based violence. Launched in April 2015 and part-funded by the Scottish Legal Aid Board, it offers a combination of a telephone helpline and drop-in advice at Rape Crisis premises, using qualified and student advisers. Following initial success in Glasgow and Lanarkshire, it is in the process of being expanded to Dundee and Inverness.

LSA and the SRC are also involved in training local authority workers, but finding other training providers would enable more people to acquire skills in this area.

That said, it is difficult for the reasons already canvassed to engage more legal firms in this work, and it was recognised that a solution would have to be found to the low rates of pay before this is likely to change – as was said, “the legal aid trends are jarring with dispersal as it’s being planned”. Language needs also pose challenges for telephone advice lines; imaginative use of remote communication tools would be required if interpretation and translation needs are to be addressed. Advising vulnerable children and women presents additional challenges in this respect: their experiences are often such that disclosure is a lengthy and traumatic process. It was recognised that the recently announced review of legal aid under Martyn Evans is timely, and the Law Society intends to make representations on the particular issues raised.

Joined-up approach

The importance of proper coordination and joined-up working at the Scottish and local authority levels was stressed throughout the meeting. Some had concerns that if the initial approach was only or mainly to local authorities, they may not have full knowledge of the specialist services provided nationally, and perhaps even by the voluntary sector in their own area. And from the councils’ point of view, with asylum dispersal now being considered alongside resettlement of Syrian refugees and the arrival of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, it is clearly preferable to have the full picture in one conversation, after which they can start
trying to weave together the services needed, whatever the legal status of the people they will receive.

It was emphasised that it isn’t just about housing: it is not enough to put someone in a nice house in a nice location if they have no one else to receive support from or form friendships with. One person observed: “I don’t think people realise the impact it has on individuals, being isolated: it increases their mental health problems especially if they don’t speak the language.” Without further support and integration, people (especially the young) are liable to gravitate straight back to Glasgow at the first opportunity.

At the advice level too, the need for an integrated approach became clear. “We don’t operate in a vacuum with other services,” one adviser explained, “so our department specialises in working with vulnerable women and children and we almost always have a women’s organisation or Scottish Guardianship Service or Freedom From Torture there, because of the characteristics of our particular clients. If they were moving into an area where those weren’t available it would be very difficult indeed. The other support services are simply essential.”

Health is a major issue – access to medical and psychological help is one of the two principal needs along with legal advice, those present agreed – and as was observed, if people have health needs that are not being met, that impacts on their resilience, and potentially on how credible their asylum and protection application is judged to be. That applies to both mental and physical health.

“Of course health and legal are separate needs, but sometimes when someone comes to our office we think there are health issues which have been missed”, one lawyer noted. “Or it’s taken some time for them to be expressed properly.” The view was expressed that if, as planned, people are still sent for an initial few weeks to Glasgow, there should be time to identify whether they have any particular special needs, for instance complex mental health issues, or experience of torture, and if there was a system for flagging these the Home Office could take them into account in deciding whether, or where, individuals could be dispersed. Again, Glasgow and Edinburgh are where the specialist psychological trauma services are located, though these services too are under pressure.

Solicitors have to deal with non-legal issues such as health quite frequently, it appears, and if such factors are not addressed during the planning of the dispersal programme, they – and other professionals – are very likely to encounter issues which impede their own ability to do their job.

Planning begins now

Apart from the dispersal of unaccompanied children, it will be some time before any further programme begins to take effect, and its introduction will be gradual. But now is the time to plan, for the longer term as well as the short to medium: for example, Syrians given leave to remain now under the refugee resettlement plan will need further advice in five years’ time, when their humanitarian protection comes up for renewal – and nearly all of Scotland’s local authorities have some refugees from that country.

One of the things the Syrian programme has led to is the creation of a lot of local support groups by interested members of the public around the country, including faith communities. While these provide local support rather than services, it was suggested that they should be regarded as part of the picture, perhaps enabling weekly or monthly regular drop-in asylum clinics where a range of services are available. The possibility was mooted that this could include specialist legal advice if there are enough clients to make the travel worthwhile.

Again, if people are not moved so far from Glasgow, it would be easier for them to access additional specialist help that they may need – though it would do less to reduce the pressure on Glasgow-based services.

A new and revised Scottish refugee integration strategy, “New Scots”, is planned for later this year. It includes the integration of asylum seekers, and a key part of that provision is legal advice and representation on asylum law and procedure. Drawing the discussion together, the chair recognised that “squaring the circle” of providing legal advice where people are likely to need it will not be easy; “However it’s important to think about and talk about how it can be done.” Because if the profession is not involved at the outset in talks surrounding the legal needs of asylum and other dispersal programmes, clients may find themselves in “high risk situations” of not receiving adequate advice – and solicitors in “dabbling” in an unfamiliar area of law. 

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