The number of asylum seekers in Colchester has risen dramatically since housing providers started taking over cheap HMO property, some of which had previously been used as student accommodation. There are now 20 such houses in Colchester. Two house families, one a single vulnerable woman, and the rest between 3 and 6 residents each. There are several other houses which will soon also be filled. The nationalities of the 60 people already registered with RA-C include: India, Vietnam, Grenada, St Vincent, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Ghana, Syria, Eritrea, Angola, Yemen, Albania, Pakistan, Ivory Coast, Kuwait, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. In the houses, the residents are grouped together randomly; a nice way to learn and mix, you might think, but it’s not always smooth sailing and without complications. Often the communication barrier causes significant problems, sometimes friction, and in some cases a real feeling of isolation.
The clients have a range of needs for us to attend to, most of which are fairly straightforward, like college enrolment, GP registration, urgent dentist appointments (this is difficult as nowhere in Colchester currently taking any new NHS patients, even for emergency treatment), information on vaccine access, legal aid lawyer referrals, and chasing up faulty aspen cards. However, some are much more complex, such as serious medical issues including type 1 diabetes, severe depression, chronic alcoholism, respiratory disease and, commonly, PTSD.
On the positive side, we are thrilled to be able to continue to offer these men access to the Big Garden group, including therapeutic group work, table tennis, and drumming. We’ve also just organised the first ‘forest session’: an adult version of forest school, to run on some Saturdays. Seeing the difference in them when they attend these sessions is incredible: this work is so important and so valued.These bonding activities, together with our amazing foodbank (staffed by a fairly new team of friendly office volunteers) have been integral to helping these men feel that life may become manageable whilst they sit out their long wait on their asylum claim.
In addition to the houses, we are now helping with a very large new cohort of asylum seekers in initial accommodation here in Colchester, who are being temporarily housed in a large hotel. These people have just arrived from the small boats in the channel, and we are currently working out what kind of support is being provided by the Home Office and how we will be able to support them. There are many concerns from us and others about the inappropriate location of the hotel and absence of any shops or distractions within walking distance. It is also uncertain how long they will be obliged to stay in this ‘temporary’ accommodation.
Although the fact that Colchester is now a dispersal town may seem a little overwhelming, given the numbers, we at RA-C see it as a huge positive. At least all the people in Colchester have support available to them. We know how damaging being an asylum seeker in the UK can be, and at least we are here to help in all the ways we do. In the office we truly feel it’s a privilege to be part of their journeys, and we always enjoy learning about those we meet. We will continue to individualise people, look at their specific needs and react accordingly; and take joy in getting to know each and every one that walks through our door at number 15. We are so lucky!