‘We knew this was a scandal’- Praxis Community Projects on lessons from Windrush

Praxis Community Projects are a long-standing NACCOM member providing casework, housing, legal advice and peer support to migrants at risk or at a point of crisis in London, including those facing destitution and homelessness. Until recently, they would not have considered themselves a campaigning organisation. Yet, in the last six months that has changed as Praxis played an instrumental role in uncovering the ‘hostile environment’ on an unprecedented scale. How did it happen? We asked Praxis’ communications Manager, Laura Stahnke to talk us through it.

‘Since 2014, Praxis caseworkers were seeing that long term residents were finding themselves shut out of services and told by the Home Office that they had no right to be here as they didn’t have the correct documentation – documentation that wasn’t previously required to prove their rights to services. The hostile environment works not just through the Home Office and border control, but through banks, doctors, landlords and until recently teachers… So we could see that the burden of proof [for legality] was getting bigger and bigger’.

Praxis’ work with undocumented and destitute migrants has become a key part of its activities because of the growing evidence of need, and the huge challenges to help people resolve their status. To raise awareness about the problem, Praxis began working alongside others who had also identified issues facing long-term residents, including those now referred to as Windrush, in particular –JCWI, Runnymede Trust and the Refugee and Migrant Centre in Wolverhampton, supported by IMiX, the migration sector’s communications hub. Last month, this newly formed coalition heard they had been shortlisted for the Third Sector Awards for ‘Best Charity Partnership’ and PR Weekly Awards for ‘Best Cause-Led Campaign’ with the winners to be announced later this autumn.

One of the most crucial aspects of the campaign was the evidencing of the problem. Since 2014, Praxis caseworkers had recorded a steady increase in the number of people facing problems because of Home Office policies. Laura explains; ‘We worked with more than 120 cases of people who were long term residents who all of sudden could not work, could not rent properties, could not access benefits…. Because we are a front line service, this knowledge of what was happening on the ground was really vital. We could say these were not just isolated events but part of a wider pattern. Without the work of charities providing this evidence, exposing the scandal would have been impossible.’

One person whose story played a particularly important role in uncovering the scandal was Sylvester Marshall (also known as Albert Thompson). Sylvester first came to Praxis in July 2017, via a partnership project with St Mungos, after he became homeless and had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Despite paying taxes and working for decades in the country, Sylvester was refused free treatment for his condition because he could not prove that he was lawfully in the UK, and he was asked to pay £54,000 to get the radiotherapy he needed.

In November 2017, Praxis referred him to an immigration solicitor to challenge this decision, but as the problem went on, by the following February, with Sylvester’s permission, Laura decided to approach Amelia Gentleman at the Guardian.

‘I noticed she had written some articles about long term residents, so I called her up and presented some case studies and evidence of this growing trend of problems for long-term residents.’

As Amelia was particularly interested in people who had been refused healthcare treatment, over the following fortnight, Laura spoke to Sylvester and helped him prepare to share his story. ‘He was a previous cancer survivor and knew how important it was that cancer is treated quickly. So his focus was on getting treatment and he thought maybe the media would help. One of the things I was very aware of was around expectations, so I said it was fine to be optimistic but we weren’t sure what would happen. But he always had this attitude of ‘maybe something good will come out of it’.

Sylvester agreed to speak to Amelia, and Laura arranged to see the questions in advance so they could identify what Sylvester would and would not be happy to talk about. ‘We decided at this point not to use his real name because he still had a live case, so after that he became known as Albert Thompson.’ At the interview for the Guardian, and subsequent interviews that took place with national and international media outlets, Laura made sure Sylvester was always supported. This meant he did not have to answer inappropriate questions and only talked about what he felt comfortable with.

Momentum quickly grew, and Laura recalls; ‘We knew that this was unjust and we knew this was a scandal but we weren’t expecting this kind of response.’ In the weeks that followed, Praxis supported individuals to talk about their experiences, but the team also found that their own learning and expertise was valued by the media as well, in a way that they had not seen before. Within weeks of Sylvester’s story being shared, Sally Daghlian OBE, the charity’s CEO, was being interviewed for news outlets such as Al Jazeera, BBC, Reuters and the Daily Mail, explaining how the Windrush Scandal was affecting thousands of lawful residents’ lives and calling for a fast, free and fair solution from the Home Office.

This was indicative of both how quickly the story had garnered international attention and the value of insight from front-line services on the need for change. Sally said; ‘Praxis has always been involved in creating systemic change, but has not had the communications capacity to engage in campaigning, so we are trying to build that. Windrush demonstrates the significant changes that can be achieved when you can share stories that highlight the impact of cruel policies on individuals, make positive proposals for change and have different voices coming together’.

When considering the outcomes of the campaign, alongside the news in April that Sylvester would at last receive cancer treatment and be granted indefinite leave to remain, Laura notes that it ‘is very positive’ that people in general now seem more aware of the hostile environment and its impact.

But the need for justice – not only for the Windrush generation but those affected by the hostile environment in other ways – goes on. To this end, the team at Praxis are keeping a close eye on the Home Office response to those affected by the scandal, and Laura says they are looking to raise awareness about the impact of hostile policies on other marginalised groups in the coming months.

Want to find out more? Get tickets here to NACCOM’s Annual Conference where Laura and Alex from IMiX will be facilitating a workshop on ‘Lessons from Windrush in Championing Long-term Change’.

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