At one of the highest proportional rates in the country, Derby City alone houses around 1300 asylum seekers at the time of writing this report, with the number of refugees much higher with no definitive figure. People arrive in Derbyshire having fled persecution, war and natural disaster in their home countries, undertaking a perilous and dangerous journey. They are often penniless, traumatised and lacking the necessary paperwork and language skills. Alone, away from family and friends, in a foreign land and culture, they are given just £9 a week to live off if housed in one of Derby’s catered refugee contingency hotels. As such, the British Red Cross has described the destitution within the refugee and asylum seeker community in Derby as “chronic, recurrent and transitional.”
This is where the very active charitable sector around refugee services in Derby steps in to offer help. A range of organisations within Derby offer refugees and asylum seekers material support, practical advice and community hubs to aid their integration. This includes pillars of Derby’s cultural life such as Derby Museum, Theatre and College. Two amazing organisations working within this sector, who Foundation Derbyshire are proud to support, are Derbyshire Refugee Solidarity (DRS) and Upbeat Communities. Both Derby-based organisations started small but have grown to offer vital support to hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers.
Derbyshire Refugee Solidarity
Since starting out in 2015 collecting donations for refugee camps in France, DRS has grown into an organisation of over 15 nationalities offering community, friendship and material support to new arrivals in Derby. Steve Cooke, Chair of DRS, stresses, in his welcoming speech to new arrivals, the importance of DRS as a safe space for refugees to call home. He believes making these individuals aware that they are welcome and valued within our community is essential in the face of the unwelcoming bureaucracy, harassment and negative media portrayal new arrivals face daily. If all else fails, DRS aims to be a welcoming environment, a place to grab a tea or coffee, chat with friendly faces and feel part of a community. To this end much of DRS’ work is community focused, offering day trips, a football team, music group and access to an allotment. Furthermore, DRS offers practical and administrative support; including advice on how to create a CV and open a bank account, as well as a one off provision of clothes for new arrivals. One of DRS’ most sought after aspects of support, is their provision of bikes to new arrivals. The importance of these bikes to refugees and asylum seekers’ physical and mental health, as well as their significance in new arrivals’ ability to travel around the city, cannot be overstated.
These bikes are so sought after that there is currently a waiting list of over 100 names. Unfortunately, this pressure has resulted in administrative and logistical difficulties for a small organisation like DRS, resulting in a temporary suspension of their provisioning of bikes. This is reflective of a wider challenge facing DRS, as the numbers coming through their doors have drastically increased following Derby’s refugee hotels doubling of their capacity, placing two to a room. DRS are regularly seeing 10-20 new faces every Thursday, taking the total through the doors to above 120 per day. The pressure of these sheer numbers has placed a heavy strain on DRS’ operations, as their much needed bike repair area in the hall at St. Anne’s Church has become more and more cramped. Space is in as short supply as funding for DRS as they try and keep up with this vast increase in demand. The strain of this pressure resulted in DRS closing its doors for the first time in its history in September 2023, as they took a much deserved break, regrouped and re-strategised for the future. They have since reopened, but the pressure on their essential, much sought after, services has not subsided.
Upbeat Communities opened in 2005 and has been steadily growing ever since. Like DRS, they are heavily community focused, believing that “one of the best resources a refugee can have to help them settle in their new home is a good social network.” Whilst supplying a whole range of material support to those in need from clothing and toiletries, they remain committed to addressing the “hidden need” of community and friendship. To this end they offer a whole range of social activities from sports, arts, cultural visits and community meals, making the most of the diverse skillset within the Upbeat community.
One of their most sought after services are the regular English classes, as is the case at DRS. The importance in improving their English language skills, is widely recognised by refugees as central to their integration and rebuilding of their lives. However, due to cultural differences which can mean that some women do not feel comfortable interacting with men in a social setting, women’s’ ability to improve their language skills can be neglected. Recognising this, Upbeat offer a women’s only English class, as part of their Upbeat Women project. They aim to provide a women’s only space for them to feel safe and relaxed outside of their homes. The provision of a safe space for these women to integrate, build a community and improve their English is a vital service, even more so as often women are arriving in Derby later to join their husbands or families. Therefore, often men are further along their journey of integration and women can easily be left behind, isolated within their homes. Upbeat Women is helping to make sure this is not the case.
Another truly remarkable service Upbeat offers is their ‘Host Derby’ program, which provides “temporary accommodation for destitute asylum seekers with host families.” This program was set up in order to redress the situation of homelessness within the refugee community in Derby. Refugees can end up on the street as a result of Home Office accommodation and financial support being removed for a range of reasons. A heart-breaking example is when asylum seekers are given a positive decision, granting them refugee status, only for their access to accommodation and support to be quickly removed as a result. These individuals quickly come down off the high of the decision to realise they are destitute with no means of supporting themselves. This is where Host Derby aims to plug the gap, offering temporary accommodation with a focus on the individuals exit strategy into other forms of accommodation as soon as possible. Host Derby is currently receives referrals every week from the British Red Cross and other organisations but lack available hosts. A lot of the individuals which Host Derby cannot currently help will end up sleeping rough. Therefore, Host Derby is desperate for more of the remarkable and inspiring characters who volunteer to host in the program in order to help keep as many asylum seekers and refugees off the street as possible. Keeping this vitally important program running, as well as all the other amazing work Upbeat does, is a difficult process post-Covid. Funding for charities such as Upbeat is more difficult to come by and the cost of living crisis is having a tangible impact on the ability of individuals to donate. These reasons and others, have led CEO Andrew Jackson to conclude it is one the most difficult periods for the sector in his 17 years’ experience.
Challenges for the Future
A problem neither organisation seems to face is an abundance of dedicated, empathetic and friendly volunteers. Both boast of the diversity of their volunteer base. At DRS over half of their volunteers are refugees or asylum seekers themselves, providing their invaluable first-hand experience and language skills. Similarly at Upbeat over 40% of their 60+ volunteers are people who have been helped by Upbeat. Lauren Parton, Volunteer Coordinator at Upbeat, laments the unfortunate loss of many of these remarkable volunteers with lived experience to the indiscriminate relocation because of the dispersal policy currently in place. Despite this wealth of diverse talent, both organisations are always on the lookout for more volunteers, particularly younger people. As such, Upbeat has begun engaging with Derby University students through their Careers Fair and are already reaping the benefits.
The abundance of remarkable people, whether the staff, volunteers or refugees and asylum seekers themselves, is one of the first things you will notice when walking through their doors. The diversity of people within their four walls, yet the feeling of true community and friendship is a special experience at both organisations. The importance of their work and the pride it evokes in oneself to live in Derbyshire cannot be overstated. That being said, as ever in the charitable sector, the challenges they are facing, to meet the ever-growing demand within their financial constraints is a cause for concern. There is so much more they feel they can do and their desire to help these resilient individuals rebuild their lives is inspiring and to be strongly commended. The charitable sector is an indispensable part of refugee support services in Derbyshire. Without Upbeat and DRS, and many other organizations like them, both refugees and as a result the wider community of Derbyshire would be significantly impoverished.