Why Asylum Link Merseyside warrants our support

By Steve Atherton, Justice & Peace fieldworker

The impact of the biggest recorded movement of people is reaching across the world. Pope Francis's recent visit to Lesbos ended with three Muslim families being given new homes in the Vatican. The families were chosen in advance by the inspirational Sant'Egidio community in Rome, a group which has striven for social justice since 1968. Here in the north-west of England we are blessed to have several active groups working for the welfare of asylum-seekers and refugees.

The largest of these, Asylum Link Merseyside (ALM) on Overbury Street in Liverpool, is an example to all – and a model worthy of our support and admiration. ALM started in the 1990s as 'Kensington Welcome', an informal response by people moved to show compassion to the sudden arrival of lots of strangers in the city. By 2001 it had become clear that generalised good will was not enough and that the organisation needed a more professional structure. Now, in 2016, the situation is more troubling than ever owing to the number of armed conflicts that Pope Francis has called a "world war in instalments".

Ewan Roberts, manager of the ALM centre, says they operate on cups of tea and biscuits. According to the ALM website, "most services are accessed on a drop-in basis and the centre is open from Monday to Thursday, providing tea, coffee and a place to meet." Yet it is so much more than that. ALM offers specialised services such as access to case workers and legal advice, a general casework service for housing problems, access to GPs, and specialist advice on asylum law at OISC 3. (This is the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner and entails a detailed knowledge of immigration, asylum and nationality law.) More than 3,500 people used ALM’s services last year. At the moment, up to 250 hot meals are served daily – a near-miracle given the tiny kitchen.

For asylum-seekers, learning the English language is a priority once basic needs for accommodation and food have been met and there is an enthusiastic take-up for language classes, through either conversation groups or more formal ESOL classes. ALM provides a series of well-being programmes too, with subjects including healthy eating and cooking, allotments and gardening, and bike repair and cycling. Currently, about 75 per cent of asylum claims are rejected and people are expected to return to their country of origin. Those whose claim has failed but who are unable to return because of war or lack of government etc., are forced to live for many months in destitution. For these people, ALM keeps a store of basic toiletries to allow them to live with some level of dignity.

ALM's vision is to challenge discrimination and injustice in the treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees through befriending, advocacy, direct assistance and education. It aims to help asylum-seekers and refugees live in dignity, to feel at home and to take a full part in the life of their local communities. There are many ways we can help:

• Volunteering at ALM for a few hours a week
• Taking a parish group on a visit to ALM
• Inviting asylum-seekers/refugees as visitors to a parish, or organising days out for them
• Ordering food online to be delivered to St Anne's Centre

ALM needs:
• Fundraising activities and periodic cash collection tins in churches
• Donations of clothes and toiletries for women, children and babies; equipment for caring for babies, and toys for babies
• Food and toiletries are only given to asylum-seekers who are destitute, because they receive no state benefits and are not allowed to work. Particularly important are the following basic foods and toiletries:
Food: rice, pasta, tinned vegetables, tinned tomatoes, breakfast cereal, cooking oil, tea, coffee, sugar, peanut butter, long life/UHT milk, chocolate spread, tinned meats (chicken/beef), tinned fish (tuna/salmon) Toiletries: soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shower gel

Asylum Link Merseyside can be contacted at: St Anne's Centre, 7 Overbury Street, Liverpool, L7 3HJ; tel. 0151 709 1713; or info@asylumlink.org.uk and www.asylumlink.org.uk.