‘I thought, is this how it ends?’

‘I thought, is this how it ends?’

Denise McDowell tells Fiona Bawdon that after the initial shock of the pandemic, it was GMIAU’s long history of surviving different crises that helped it weather the unique challenges of Covid-19

Photo: Richard Gray

In February this year, Denise McDowell came across the strategic plan she had written in early 2020 for the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, the organisation where she has been director since 2008

With remarkable prescience, the plan included mention of coronavirus – and Denise had stated confidently that GMIAU was aware of the threat and well prepared to cope, as its office had hot water and was stocked up with soap and paper towels (this was at the stage when official advice was that thorough handwashing would be enough to stop the spread).

A year on, it’s clear how ill prepared GMIAU along with the rest of the world actually was for the havoc the virus would wreak. Denise says there were times in the earliest days when she thought the enormity of the challenge would prove too much.

‘We knew that it was a crisis situation, but we knew we didn’t really understand it. We knew we were going to shut the door to our building; that we would have to work from home. But it felt like something bigger and different from anything we had experienced before,’ she says.

Everything stopped – the courts; Home Office decision-making. That meant, at a stroke, GMIAU lost the 50% of its income it derived from legal aid. ‘In an instant, that was cut. It felt really daunting.’ Another challenge was that, since its foundation 30 years ago, GMIAU has been a location-based service, where clients are seen face to face, and staff work in the office five days a week, rather than remotely from home.

Along with every other not-for-profit legal advice agency, GMIAU has had its share of funding crises over the years, but she feared this one as unsurvivable. ‘There was a point when it just felt completely and utterly overwhelming. I thought, is this how it ends?’

Ultimately, it was this difficult history which equipped Denise and her colleagues to weather the unprecedented Covid-19 storm. ‘We have had to cope with lots of challenges over the years, so one thing we know about ourselves is we are adaptable. We don’t give up. We are very resilient to have coped with what we have had to cope with over the last 10 years.’

To begin with staff had to use their personal mobile phones; doing interviews by Facetime. None of them had heard of Zoom. There were some tears of frustration over dodgy internet connections, but no one blinked. Denise says: ‘Everyone stepped up. Nothing was too difficult.’ In two weeks, GMIAU went from a standing start to operating almost much at full strength.

Denise quickly recognised the impact the crisis would have on GMIAU clients – particularly those who were already isolated, newly arrived in the UK, or with existing health conditions. Even in normal times, the immigration system increases vulnerability, by taking away rights to accommodation or the ability to feed a family; adding the pandemic to the mix was an alarming prospect.

Staff began contacting clients to reassure them: ‘We are still here. This is how you contact me.’ GMIAU’s main phone number became an emergency Covid-19 line, where callers could get advice, and be helped through the process. There were calls from people who pre-pandemic had been working and managing fine. Denise remembers a call she took from a mother who’d been plunged into crisis after losing her job. Like so many other migrants, she was blocked by the Home Office from having recourse to public funds. Denise recalls the woman saying: ‘I have nothing now. I have no savings because I’ve never earned enough to save. I have no food in my cupboards. Friends are helping, but it’s a horrible situation.’

The caller rejected Denise’s suggestion of approaching social services for emergency support (saying: ‘I have tried that before. I never want to go through that humiliation again’), but was then directed to the Home Office’s ‘change of conditions’ process, so she could apply to have her NRPF condition lifted, to be given access to the welfare safety net.

The daily calls it was receiving gave GMIAU vital intelligence about what information people needed, leading to a series of bulletins on its website, covering topics like: applying for a Home Office fee waiver; updates on what was happening in the courts and Home Office; and, how do you claim asylum in the midst of a pandemic.

Early support from funders, including the Community Justice Fund – of which TLEF is a partner – was critical. Denise recalls: ‘Funders told us, “we understand this is an unprecedented situation. We are listening. We want to know what you need.” That’s what made me sleep at night. It felt like solidarity. That we really were in this together.’ CJF funding ‘allowed me to get on with what needed to be done, without worrying whether I was going to have to make people redundant,’ she adds.

Manchester is one of the areas hardest hit by the pandemic, and has been subject to some of the harshest lockdown conditions throughout. Despite this, thanks to GMIAU’s team spirt and flexibility from funders, Denise says: ‘ We have come to the end of this financial year and we are absolutely fine. That didn’t seem possible a year ago, and it fills me with hope for next year.’

The legacy of the pandemic may even be in part be positive for future GMIAU clients. Denise says there will no longer be a presumption they will attend the office for appointments. ‘We’ve realised we can save people bus fares. For people claiming asylum, the north west is a big dispersal area and they are being accommodated further and further away from their legal representatives.’

One surprise has been how many clients have smartphones and how adept they are at using them (and locating free wifi). Denise says: ‘A phone is a vital asset. Many would rather go without food than without their phone. It is their lifeline – how they keep in touch with family back home, what they use for translation.’ Even clients who lack the skills themselves are resourceful enough to get the help they need: one colleague found herself talking to a Tesco security guard, after a client sought his help to send a picture of a Home Office letter.

As we reach the anniversary of the start of lockdown, Denise reflects that the pandemic she feared might end GMIAU has actually revealed its strengths. ‘The last year has shown that the core of the organisation works. It isn’t about a building. It is based on communication. Even though the pandemic is not over, there’s a sense we understand it now. It’s familiar to us and we have the people who will work together to ensure the fabric of what we have will survive next year as well.’

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