Central England Law Centre (CELC) is one of 11 partners contributing resources and skills to deliver ‘MiFriendly Cities’ – an Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) project aimed at supporting the integration and empowerment of migrants across Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton.
CELC provides families and individuals from migrant backgrounds with legal advice to help ascertain and gain legal status, citizenship, and support entitlements. The Team perform ‘Legal Health Checks’ for clients and distribute materials aimed at raising awareness of their services and practical advice and support. This leads to help with fee waivers for those eligible, legal status applications, accommodation, and benefit applications.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic CELC went into schools and promoted its services and key benefits to parents and staff through presentations. Unfortunately, this outreach work had to stop when lockdown measures forced schools to close due to coronavirus.
Re-engaging with Schools
With in-school presentations no longer possible, CELC took initiative and contacted over 500 schools across the West Midlands, to share more information about the support CELC could provide. This became even more critical as coronavirus measures impacted on many aspects of the lives of migrants in the region, not only across rights to public funds and employment issues for keyworkers, but the impact on people’s economic circumstances and home life.
In response, CELC produced special COVID-19 information packs to share the issues and nuances of lockdown measures and ongoing legal processes. These also explained the rights and benefits families and individuals could be entitled to.
Responses from schools have been encouraging, with heads of pastoral care sensing the potential of CELC’s intervention for pupils and their families. Schools passed on CELC’s information and contact details to parents they felt would benefit the most. Parents got in touch to find out more and complete Legal Health Checks with Bal Hayre from CELC, either online or over the telephone. So far, these information packs have generated 64 Legal Health Checks and raised awareness amongst larger schools that are now referring families directly.
Due to coronavirus, CELC knew that they might come across more complex issues when dealing with new clients. To ensure a wider understanding of how these families had been impacted by the lockdown, CELC expanded its Legal Health Checks to include more questions that captured their unique circumstances.
Above all Bal from CELC wanted to ensure he put new clients at ease.
‘I wanted to ensure the atmosphere of the remote Health Check was as warm and welcoming as the face to face sessions we were doing before lockdown, so I made sure we were available outside working hours, in the evenings, when clients could focus on the questions and information we needed to help them. We also reassured families that they were dealing with professional services and should expect to be kept informed of progress with applications throughout, that clients would see every submission made on their behalf, and that they would feel fully involved in the process.’
‘We used Skype and WhatsApp calls mostly, because clients liked to see who they were dealing with and put a friendly face to a name’.
How CELC Has Helped
With a growing need for its services, CELC has been able to help individuals and families in many ways, some of them unexpected.
Since the MiFriendly Cities project started, CELC has completed over 200 Legal Health Checks touching thousands of lives, produced extensive information explaining the rights migrants have to services and support, and contacted hundreds of schools and their pupils’ families.
One individual was using the Health Check to discuss a change to her access to Public Funds conditions, and when Bal was able to run through all the questions about her circumstances it was clear CELC could help this mother of four with much more. To date, CELC has supported her to gain citizenship for two of her children.
Another family who had commissioned a lawyer to help them with legal status applications in the UK, were horrified to learn, through CELC enquiries, that their lawyer had not filed their application, despite the thousands of pounds in fees that they had paid out to the law firm. CELC was able to prove that no applications had been started and milestones like biometrics submissions were missing. It exposed the law firm who subsequently paid back £8,000 to the family, allowing them to restart the application process with CELC support.
“(CELC’s) advice has truly supported many of our parents who may feel fearful/scared due to their present statuses… we really need this level of intense support to continue as it has been especially valuable during this current pandemic” – St Elizabeth’s Catholic Primary, Coventry
Bal finds the work demanding, but incredibly rewarding.
‘I’ve recently received three cards from clients thanking me and CELC for the support we have been able to provide them, under the MiFriendly Cities project. Without this support families are often in the dark and can struggle to successfully tackle the processes, costs and administration involved. We can explain legal rights and processes clearly and hand hold people through it.’
At the start of the pandemic, CELC put the creation of new online resources about ‘pathways to citizenship’ on hold to provide more support for migrants facing more pressing day to day issues. With that initial wave of support delivered, CELC has now been able to create a new Citizenship presentation, which will be distributed to schools in the West Midlands and forwarded on to parents as appropriate.
CELC is partnering with Birmingham City Council to promote this resource on the 15th October, holding a live MiFriendly Cities Webinar called ‘Pathways to Citizenship for Young People’. Not only will CELC showcase how it can help with legal advice and guidance, but school staff, social workers, youth workers, educators and third sector organisations will share more information about their own services.
CELC has also joined up with another MiFriendly Cities social innovator, Ake, who runs an organisation called ‘Migrants at Work’. ‘Migrant at Work’ addresses the impact of immigration law on migrant workers’ rights, offering free legal advice to migrant communities. In order to achieve these objectives, Ake established an outreach Social Innovation project supported by MiFriendly Cities called ‘WINK’ (What I Need to Know). ‘WINK’ teaches labour rights at the intersect between immigration and employment law to empower migrants in the community. The aim was to help migrants identify the signs of labour exploitation and challenge poor employment practices.
Ake has been running a weekly online surgery where Bal has been attending and providing advice, whilst discussing relevant immigration laws and speaking with participants on an individual basis. The surgery has helped individuals who encounter issues related to their right to work, their immigration status and benefits. They have been particularly busy over lockdown as employers furlough staff and ask other keyworkers to work in testing circumstances.
How could you help?
As the MiFriendly Cities project draws nearer to completion in 2021, CELC hopes to find new ways to reach out and offer its services to migrant communities. If you can provide support please contact the new MiFriendly Cities Legacy Officer, Ros Johnson, by emailing email@example.com.
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This project is co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund through the Urban Innovative Actions Initiative.