For 25 years a group of volunteers have been helping asylum seekers and refugees in dire straits – and are now offering spaces in their own caravan hostel.
Formed in 1994 Haslar Visitors Group launched as a network of volunteers visiting immigrants detained in Haslar jail in Gosport.
It sprang into life when Denmead man John Bingham heard about a Congolese man being detained in the prison.
Soon it developed and by 2004 the group, now called Friends Without Borders following the closure of Haslar Immigration Removal Centre, opened offices in All Saints’ Church on Commercial Road and in 2004 with a drop-in centre.
More than 30 volunteers run charity for 200 asylum seekers
Run by more than 30 volunteers, it is open on a Monday and Thursday and offers English lessons, haircuts, food collected from supermarkets by the Red Cross, and a toy-filled children’s corner. It offers help to the 200 asylum seekers dispersed into Portsmouth.
Now providing legal advice for people appealing removal from Britain via its Access to Justice scheme, the group wants to open a hostel - a big expansion from the caravan it currently offers accommodating three people.
The drop-ins are popular and provide a safe meeting place for asylum seekers dispersed in Portsmouth while their cases are heard.
The centre also helps people who have been refused asylum. Although not living here illegally until the Home Office contacts them about deportation, they receive no help from the government. Friends Without Borders gives them £20 per week and offers out their caravan.
Most people using the centre come from the Middle East and Africa. Many have fled violence, persecution or torture in their countries and have nothing when they come to Britain.
Supporting a Ugandan man in Portsmouth persecuted for being gay
John ‘Bosco’ Nyombi, now a trustee and treasurer, fled Uganda in 2001 following persecution for being gay. In Britain he had been detained for five months when he saw the Haslar Visitors’ Group’s telephone number on posters in the detention centre.
Many detainees were afraid to call the number and speak to people they did not know, but he made the call.
‘When you’re in that situation you just have to try,’ he told The News. ‘We knew from the posters that if you wanted to talk to someone you could call this number, and we didn’t have anyone to talk to in the whole country.’
At the time, he had a pair of trousers and a shirt to his name. ‘They found me something to wear, a blanket, some money for phone calls - and most of all someone I could talk to outside,’ he said.
The group helped him with his bail application. But after years of legal difficulties, John was deported in 2008. He said: ‘I was arrested, handcuffed and beaten-up on my way to the airport.’
By the time he reached Uganda, his story had made the British and Ugandan papers and he had to go into hiding.
In the UK, a legal fight was launched to bring him back. The High Court found that John should not have been deported and he was flown back to the UK - and arrested again. He was eventually released and won his refugee status.
‘It was a roller coaster,’ said John. ‘I was trying so hard just to save my life.’
‘We work with wonderful people’
Deputy chairman Coleen Le runs the Monday drop-in - and is driven to make a difference.
She said: ‘There’s no end of stories of people overcoming their adversity. And we work with wonderful people from all walks of life, such as teachers and social workers.’
But after 25 years of helping those in need, Friends Without Borders is facing ever more troubling difficulties.
Buffer against hostile environment
The Home Office has adopted a hostile environment policy introduced by then-home secretary Theresa May.
‘We’re always at the mercy of the Home Office,’ chairman Michael Woolley says.
‘In the very early days of the centre, lots of people were arrested in a casual way. Now it’s more systematised and organised - and almost crueller, with the government’s hostile environment policy telling immigrants they’re not welcome,’ Michael said.
Coleen tells the story of a woman who had settled with her two children here. She was relocated to Cardiff and had to move her children from their Portsmouth school. ‘People find a community and then suddenly have it ripped away for no good reason,’ says Le.
To help amid cuts to legal spending, Friends Without Borders launched the Access to Justice project in 2014, run by Frances Pilling and Dr Charles Leddy-Owen. The project aims to offer legal advice to individuals who can’t access a solicitor’s help and the two advisers are qualified to advise up to the appeal stage.
‘We have provided a small but effective buffer against the government’s appalling “hostile environment” policy,’ said Dr Leddy-Owen, a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Portsmouth.
Victim of human trafficking helped with application
The project has recently helped a young woman, who had been the victim of human trafficking, in her application for further leave to remain.
‘That was particularly satisfying,’ Dr Leddy-Owen said. ‘It is also very rewarding when we prevent the break-up of families - by, for example, successfully preventing a father of young children from being removed from the UK.’
Fundraising is needed for Friends Without Borders
But to keep going the registered charity needs donations.
John Nyombi who directly benefited from the group, said:‘The biggest challenge is money.
‘As a charity, we’re dependent upon donations, and support for refugees isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
‘It’s surprisingly hard to raise money for people who are destitute.’
As someone with firsthand experience of the organisation’s life-changing work, he remains hopeful.
He said: ‘The work they do is so brilliant. Forget about the money - it’s amazing to have someone who listens, with a smile on their face, someone to talk to without fear who can tell you what’s going on, who can introduce you to the community.
‘Friends Without Borders helps people who have nothing, and the best way to help those people is to show them that the UK can welcome without fear. Just that small gesture can mean so much.’
200 asylum seekers dispersed to Portsmouth
Space for three people in the hostel caravan
Allowances of £20 per week given by Friends Without Borders to failed asylum seekers
Affiliated with over 80 charities
Over 30 volunteers
Current asylum seeker’s allowance is set at £37.75 per week