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How does Birmingham support asylum seekers?

26th October 2012

In June, I wrote about my involvement with Birmingham’s social inclusion process. As part of this process, I have been asked to comment on how Birmingham welcomes – or not – asylum seekers.

The way that Birmingham deals with new arrivals is covered in the section of the Green Paper titled: 2.3 Develop welcome centres and do more to support new arrivals in the city. But are welcome centres really the answer?

Tsighe is a refugee from Eritrea who struggled to know what to do or how to get help when she got here.

There are several main issues that these people struggle with when they arrive in Birmingham.


Language is the most obvious problem, and it’s one that impacts on all aspects of life for a new arrival.

In a city where over 180 languages are spoken, we have a good supply of interpreting services, but the ones Gateway get asked for the most are from the less well-established communities: Pushto, Arabic and Farsi.

In our view, this is one the biggest causes of inequality. Not having access to an interpreter can mean people don’t get registered at doctors or schools, or access other vital support services.

Many, many of the people who use our service are leaving behind significant trauma. However, accessing mental health services in a country where you don’t speak the language is almost impossible.

Often, newly arrived people are sent to ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses, but we have found that this is often too advanced – and people need to overcome their lack of confidence to get to any kind of course anyway.


Poverty is a key issue, and the one that probably makes families most vulnerable. Parents may have difficulty providing food, clothing and basic equipment for their families. Those with medical needs may have to walk miles to appointments as they have no money for transport. The women we work with are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by landlords and others.

While new arrivals wait for their status to be decided, many don’t have access to public funds – meaning that their most basic needs aren’t even met – so there is an increasing need for food banks and other charitable support.

Birmingham’s welcome

So how can Birmingham make life better for new arrivals?

At Gateway we first deal with the short term basics – shelter, food, warmth and safety – and then our support goes much further, for longer. We help by giving practical support to function independently, and motivation to stick with it – all the things a well-informed best friend or family member would do.  And this is what Birmingham should be aiming to do as a city. To help new arrivals learn the language, become employable, to support their own family and to belong to their city.

We also know that connecting newly arrived communities with each other is really important. Training people to support their own communities means that they will have significant understanding of the issues future new arrivals have to overcome.

Health, Housing and Employment policy-makers need to listen to some of the issues people face when they move here BEFORE they decide the solution. Welcome centres are certainly one option, but we must be wary of creating more bureaucracy. I strongly feel that this is one policy that should be led by the people who work and live with the real issues. Those who experience daily the barriers to integrating and settling in a new city, country, culture and community. I urge Birmingham to allow this to happen – and to trust the people who really do know best.

Click here to download the Giving Hope Changing Lives Green Paper

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  1. Kerry Forward

    What is essential is that we have a central point or service in cities where families can access immediate advice about what is open to them and how they access it. This service should be well publicised and funded!

  2. Eleanor McGee

    I think the Wardlow Centre was intended to be the central point for refugees and asylum seekers in Birmingham. It is now closed. I met a man who used to work for the city council on refugees and aslum seekers, and he had just been made redundant so was helping refugees in voluntary capacity. There are a number of voluntary organisations providing a variety a services for this group, but they tend to have insufficient funding to meet all that need. I believe that as a city, we do care. Fr Jim Fleming was recently named as a “local hero” by the Birmingham Mail for his voluntary work with desititue asylum seekers.
    Mapping what support there is and identifiying gaps mgiht be a first step, but who is best placed to lead this?

  3. Jamie

    As someone who works with non-english speakers it would be my dream for there to be some sort of central interpreting repository. Some service that could be accessed via a Skype-like smartphone app or computer program. Enter a language and the application searches for currently available interpreters that are ‘on duty’ and initiates a call,. The interpreting is done on a ‘by-the-minute’ payment system. Ahh, such a dream.

    Having to ask to call people back, having gone through a procedure of releasing funds to pay for an interpreter, having the interpreter assigned and them actually making the call feels very unwieldy. Especially since a lot of calls are just requests for information. Interpreting as it stands is just not rapid response, flexible or affordable enough to use feasibly.