Birmingham-based Mist – Midlands Immigration Support Team – is a new co-op aiming to restore essential services for migrant families in urgent need of help.
It is being set up by former employees of ASIRT (the Asylum Support and Immigration Resource Team) who lost their jobs following a dispute over pay and union recognition.
Mist’s wide-ranging remit will include free immigration advice and guidance to vulnerable migrants and their families, as well as advocating on their behalf to central government, local authorities, housing providers and others to ensure their rights and entitlements are fulfilled.
Alistair Robinson, one of the ASIRT team who lost their previous jobs last December, has been appointed chair of the new venture. The former case worker is now working elsewhere but remains committed to providing a much-needed resource in an increasingly hostile environment.
“Following the closure of ASIRT, there is a huge gap in services offering free immigration advice and support in the West Midlands,” he says. “It’s had a massive impact. At the time of closure, we had 500 families on the books, that’s around 800 people.”
The unexpected closure of the service followed a request for a pay rise and a move by Robinson and his former colleagues to join United Voices of the World, a grassroots union for low-income and migrant workers.
“In March 2022, ASIRT landed a grant for an advice project that would see us receive £180,000 over three years, so we were financially secure,” Robinson recalls. “We had eight on the team and three of us were union members, but because we had under 20 staff we had to go for voluntary union recognition. We went on strike in December asking for a pay increase in line with inflation.
“This was dismissed with no negotiation and then the closure was announced and we were all made redundant. It has been a rough time, but Mist is a really positive project. It’s working well so far and we are really hopeful. We have already exceeded our initial expectations.”
Supporters of the new co-op include the Birmingham Trades Council and Co-operatives UK. Its title, says Robinson, reflects more accurately the work it will undertake.
“We wanted to call it something that fitted with the work that we did. Despite ASIRT’s title, we didn’t actually work with asylum seekers; they are generally funded by legal aid and we were not legal aid-funded. We would do some projects signposting asylum services seekers but not actual asylum applications.”
It is still early days, but Robinson says the team is optimistic.
“We are not in the operational stage yet. We do want to scale up, but at the moment it’s just two staff providing advice. We have got seed money for the project and a lot of support from the trade union movement and the local community. We had a really successful fundraiser party and raised £3,500 so there’s a website being built. There is also some scheduled training this month for public authorities on no recourse to public funds (NRPF) and how migrants can be supported.”
NRPF is a government policy which is a source of extreme hardship for hundreds of thousands of migrants. The condition attached to temporary visas stops people from accessing most state benefits and services, including universal credit, child benefit and social housing.
According to the latest statistics from Citizens Advice, this absence of a welfare safety net currently affects almost 1.4 million people, including around 175,000 children. Most of them are migrants and asylum seekers.
“People with no recourse to funds are obviously very susceptible to being trapped in poverty,” says Robinson.
“There are huge problems with people getting into debt because they are having to take out loans to pay for applications to the Home Office – and visa hikes increase levels of homelessness or inability to leave abusive domestic situations, plus there is an increase in destitution for those not able to claim access to benefits or unable to work.”
Post-Brexit, this already desperate situation has, he says, grown worse, as the EU funded many migrant projects in the UK. Some groups have been left without any support at all. He also warns that the “increasingly combative narrative” from a range of figures including prime minister Rishi Sunak and home secretary Suella Braverman is adding to the crisis.
“We will be supporting people living through a very hostile environment and helping them get the access to the work they need to assimilate into society, reduce homelessness and protect their overall health and wellbeing. We are also having to keep an eye on the far right movement who feed off lines put out by the government.”
The board is hopeful the new co-op will be fully up and running by early 2024. Its membership will comprise staff and supporters from the local community and there are plans for a stakeholder forum to ensure everyone is listened to at all levels and areas of engagement.
“We are also exploring having members from partner organisations in this sector like Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid, Central England Law Centre, and Freedom From Torture,” adds Robinson.
The 10-strong board has been meeting since January. Co-operatives UK has offered help with legal structure and governance and other issues like registration with the Financial Conduct Authority.
“We have started offering training and are hoping to get an advice project going. That’s the next stage. We are now setting up the technical side – the website, database and IT systems – and have started applying for further funding in order to start employing more people.”
Robinson says the co-operative movement “is very much part” of his background and politics.
“One of my greatest inspirations is the unemployed workers movement in Argentina which sprang up in 2001 when they had a huge debt crisis. A lot of the workplaces were abandoned and workers organised to form grassroots co-operatives.
“When I suggested a co-operative model to the others, that soon became the only route that was possible for us. I have been really pleased and humbled by the people who have got involved with me and the board from the partner organisations who used to work with us. There’s a huge amount of support for us from the Birmingham and West Midlands community.
“I am very excited by it all. It’s been incredibly nourishing being with like-minded people.”