Ben Hopkinson, Secretary of Northumberland County of Sanctuary reports on the continuing support to 280 people including 80 children. Most of these are still seeking sanctuary and some have leave to remain. The challenge of lockdown has led to new systems and some are so effective they will continue beyond the pandemic. The Covid 19 coordinating group which includes their key partner the British Red Cross, meets weekly on a Tuesday morning by Zoom. The group is now engaged with such a wide range of activities they are considering employing a development worker.
- The asylum accommodation provider, Mears contact the Red Cross about everyone who is newly arrived in Northumberland.
- Their key worker, speaks to the person by phone using a Red Cross interpreter or a Northumberland COS language expert as appropriate. She registers them with British Red Cross and ensures that they have access to legal advice and any other professional support they need.
- With the person’s agreement, they are referred to NCOS via an email with names, address, dates of birth of children, languages spoken, country of origin.
- The chair then allocates them to one of their language groups – Russian, Spanish, Albanian, Arabic, Farsi, Sorani, African languages, Asian and refers them to the appropriate volunteer language group co-ordinator(s).
- Any families with children are referred to a key contact in the Northumberland Education service for allocation of a school place, access to free school meals etc. NCoS continues to work closely with the Education Authority
- Each language group volunteer coordinator is supported by a language expert (someone who is themselves likely to be seeking asylum) The role of the language group is to keep in weekly telephone contact with the person or family at a social level (just as if they were meeting them at a drop in), refer any casework concerns back to the Red Cross and be a good, supportive friend.
- Everyone currently in contact with NCoS receives a weekly text from the chair who passes on key information including – Government advice on Covid 19, details about who to contact for housing repairs and the link for a weekly Zoom meeting open to everyone who can access it.
- Deliveries of consumer goods and other necessities were initially suspended to people but now reinstated with the relaxation of government guidelines. An amazing volunteer sources and safely delivers bicycles. An excellent partnership with the Being Woman charity enabled the delivery of food packs to Muslim people during Ramadan.
- The group is working with Being Woman on helping people (particularly families with school age children) obtain equipment and access to the internet.
- Language education is available via the weekly zoom link
- The Red Cross has developed a Zoom interview system for asylum advice which is working well.
- A review is taking place of the material goods which people need in an effort to get Mears to do more.
- They are also working on the beginnings of a sports programme, having had an offer of support from a football coach sponsored by the Red Cross
As the lockdown is easing, NCoS are beginning to plan how to reopen their drop-in sessions, as, despite Zoom, it is clear that face to face meeting, even at social distance, has many advantages. The lockdown has given the group time to reconsider how they will work this, and will be trialling ways when it becomes possible.