Accompanying during COVID

I have been an ASSIST accompanier for several years, going with clients to places and appointments that they might be anxious about, or maybe they don't understand. The latter category might be showing them where the train station is and how to get a ticket; showing them where the library is, or a food bank to which they have been referred; going to make an appointment at a medical centre. The former might be going to a hospital appointment, the police station or to court.

But most of the accompaniments I have done have been to Vulcan House, the Home Office building where some people who are seeking asylum are required to report on a regular basis. It might be every two or four weeks, but I did once come across someone who had to report every day for a while. At the best of times it is intimidating. Sometimes there are minibuses parked outside with “Immigration Enforcement” in big letters on the side. Inside there is airport-style security to go through and then a waiting area with a wooden bench. The staff sit behind a glass screen. The person seeking asylum stands in front of that and generally needs to bend down to hear what is being said or to speak. Usually they just answer a few questions confirming things like address and phone number. Sometimes they are told that they will have to go to a separate room to be interviewed. What they don't know, and what the accompanier doesn’t know, is whether this is going to be a thirty or forty minute interview, or if they are going to be detained. This is what clients dread about these occasions. The accompanier is there to give moral support and also to inform ASSIST and anyone else the client has given contact details of. After the reporting is the walk into town and talking. Sometimes the talking might be over a coffee.

When we went into lockdown, reporting in person was suspended. The Home Office contacted people on their phones. I wondered at the time why this couldn't be standard practice if they needed to check on people. I continued to regularly meet the client I normally accompany. He was living alone and wasn't having much contact with people. He seemed grateful for these meetings in a supermarket car park. And I was pleased when he told me he had started some online volunteering, which he is still doing.

In June, 2021 reporting at Vulcan House started again. Before lockdown I used to go inside with the clients, sit and talk in the waiting area. But now I am not allowed into the building. I just have to wait outside. I've never had to wait long, but I do wonder if the client is not soon back out, how would I know what was happening?  An interview? Detention? Would the security people tell me if I were to ask?

In November I went with someone who was reporting for the first time. He was so anxious that he arrived an hour before his appointment and told me that he hadn't slept. He seemed very grateful to be taken for coffee afterwards and clearly needed to talk. I also accompanied someone who was being interviewed by the police. That was a frustrating day as the much-needed interpreter was many hours late. When he eventually arrived it turned out that he did not speak the client's language!

I met a client prior to him visiting a solicitor. He was really keen to be accompanied as his English isn’t great and he was just on edge and in need of support. We met and chatted outside Tesco before going to the solicitor. In the event the solicitor was great. She was young and clearly 'on side'. The client felt much better for the meeting and it’s hoped his appeal is now moving forward. I think that each small bit of support like this is hugely important. For me it’s just an easy thing to do. It takes little time and to be honest it makes you feel of use. For the client it’s a statement of solidarity and a recognition of not being adrift and alone.  An ASSIST volunteer accompanier.