On the 1st of April 2011, the Bridging Project, an educational advice and support centre for migrants at Oxford Cherwell Valley College, closed. The project worked with around 60 students from countries as diverse as Eritrea, East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, Brazil, Albania, Spain and France, around 20 of whom are in the process of seeking asylum. It provided a bridge for migrants into mainstream education and society, fostering exactly the kind of “local identity” and “feeling of belonging” promoted by David Cameron in a recent speech at the Munich Security Conference. In the last 6 months, however, the centre has seen its staff reduced from 6 to nil as pockets of funding, from the college, social services and Connexions, were gradually cut. An Eritrean student, 17, described his reaction upon hearing the news: “it’s like someone cutting off one of your hands.” The Elements course – a basic literacy and numeracy programme which prepares students for mainstream courses - will still be running, he tells me, waving one hand, but he adds, unsuccessfully miming the action of trying to climb with it, that “one hand can’t do nothing without the support of the other”. An Afghan student interrupts to tell me that he too feels unsure about his future, unsure about who to go to for advice: “an English teacher cannot help you with these things”. When I ask what his plans are he tells me that he might drop out. He fears that without the backing of the Bridging Project “[the college] won’t take me seriously for mechanics now”. “And”, he adds, “I mean I’m just going to miss him [Bridging Project worker]”.For Barbara, an ex-Bridging Project employee, the closure has been a similarly devastating prospect: “that door will just close. People will be knocking and there will be nobody to answer it”.
For many years the Bridging Project has provided a holistic form of educational support both inside and outside the College, acting as a practical assistance and advocacy platform for students such as these. Like most migrant support organizations, its work went well beyond its official mandate and, as Faraz, an ex-full-time Bridging Project support worker, explains, “we have multiple hats”. In addition to tasks surrounding access, assessment and attainment, the Project responded to appeals from asylum seeking students regarding related needs such as arranging doctor appointments, court hearings, housing troubles, referrals to other services and informal counselling. It also organized a range of recreational and extra-curricular activities which, in the words of one student, “brings us all altogether”. During our discussion this sense of solidarity is manifest, and it is clear that the Bridging Project, referred to as a “nurturing environment” by staff and a ‘home-like” and “really friendly” place by students, has played a key role in plugging many young asylum seekers into education and fostering their wider inclusion. The importance of both this practical and relational support cannot be underestimated, given the insecurity which characterises the lives of many young asylum seekers.
Many of the students who will be hardest hit by the closure of the Bridging Project live in shared housing and fear rejected asylum applications and deportation as they edge towards 18. As they make this transition they face new challenges, living a precarious existence in which friends disappear off the local map and appear a few weeks later in the form of a text message from the other side of the world. This sense of limbo is greatly exacerbated by the fact that their support is subject to unpredictable policy and legal developments which pre-date the recent wave of cuts. Saeeda, Director of Asylum Welcome, an Oxford NGO, laments that these developments have consequences which would simply not be countenanced for British young people. To illustrate her point, she describes one episode in the summer of 2010, where many young asylum seekers were ‘de-accommodated’, in effect making them homeless and forcing them to ‘sofa surf’ or sleep rough for several months. In this time she observed the deterioration of their mental health and described “a huge number of self-harmers”. Accommodation was eventually reinstated after a legal case (R(SO) v. London Borough of Barking and Dagenham) found that the local authority has a duty to accommodate former relevant children until the age of 21. However, the damage had been done. Saeeda described how trust had been eroded between social services and the young people, some of whom refused to take up accommodation again for fear that it may only be temporary. Matt, also of Asylum Welcome, referred to the re-accommodation starkly as a “stay of execution”. This de-accommodation episode is emblematic of a wider sense of insecurity stemming from sudden changes in policy and legislation which place already vulnerable asylum seekers in situations of increased distress, foster mistrust of the system and force them to adopt ad hoc coping strategies. The closure of the Bridging Project should be read within this context as contributing to increased insecurity and a culture of closed doors.
Those that turned to the Bridging Project when they found themselves evicted from their homes are uncertain where to turn now, yet most are responding to the current crisis with a familiar sense of pragmatism and disillusionment. As I spoke to the students, many were clutching envelopes stuffed with hurried applications for courses for the coming year; others are only just finding out about the closure, and reconsidering their future options: “it will be so, so much harder now”. Students echoed the practical problems raised by staff regarding the capacity of existing organizations to absorb their mandate- “nobody else can do their job”- as well as Faraz’s concerns over the loss of experience and “level of built up trust”. For Barbara, the main dilemma is ‘who’: “who will do the assessments, who will offer advice and guidance, who to pass this on to?” Existing Oxford-based service providers have already emphasised being overburdened. In October 2010, Refugee Resource, the main provider of counselling for asylum seekers in Oxford, reported that some clients were having problems making appointments with GPs, and that they had recently lost two of their councillors. Asylum Welcome has also lost a full-time youth advisor position, previously funded by Connexions through the County Council, which provided vital immigration support to young asylum seekers aged between 13 and19. The invaluable work realized by organizations like the Bridging Project thus clearly cannot simply be assimilated into other services. Nor can it be shouldered by uncoordinated volunteers acting under the ‘Big Society’ mandate. Inclusion means access to fundamental rights, such as education, which the state has a duty to provide under international law.
The funding cuts will thus hit young asylum seekers the same way as they are hitting several other marginalised groups across the country, by tearing down bridges to inclusion. As Petra Brady has already suggested, this reality sits uncomfortably with David Cameron’s ‘Big Society inclusion’, and the costs of this hypocrisy will be manifold. For in addition to the sudden loss of practical support, the undermining of relationships of trust and solidarity will also cause exclusion, both in terms of bonds between staff and students, and those developed through the many social events organized by the Project. A weekly football club may seem like an easy target to cut, yet for many young asylum seekers without fraternal or parental support, these regular activities are a kind of lifeline. Given the nature of these vital yet often unquantifiable services, the ignorance demonstrated in the implementation of these cuts is unforgivable. The example of the Bridging Project suggests that the cuts will deepen the insecurity of young asylum seekers, both emotionally and physically, closing door after door at a time when there are very few open windows.