As the government pushes ahead with ever more draconian punishment for people fleeing war, tyranny and persecution, many of us feel compelled to act. While there are countless incredible people working at a grassroots level to support refugees and people seeking asylum, it’s also a field ripe for exploitation. Donating your hard-earned cash to certain migrant charities might not reach the people you’d hoped to help. Even more concerning, your donations might actually enforce the government’s hostile environment policies.
This article looking at the charity Migrant Help, is the first in a series of reports examining the corporate interests behind organisations working with refugees and people seeking asylum. We interviewed people working with refugees who had frequent contact with the organisation. We found that:
- Migrant Help has a multi-million pound contract with the Home Office to provide a phone line for people seeking asylum. The service is the primary route for people seeking asylum to gain information or support for all their needs.
- The phone line has been plagued with problems since at least 2015, with callers enduring long waiting times or unanswered calls.
- In fact, it’s struggling so much that it is now subcontracting this phone service out.
- As middlemen between people seeking asylum and the Home Office, asylum accommodation providers or other agencies, it is frequently unclear where the responsibility for problems lands.
‘Migrant (No) Help’
The Migrant Help website gives the impression that they care for and support “people affected by displacement and exploitation”. A prominent donate button navigates you easily to give money to “change someone’s life”. But this refugee charity is not all it seems. As a person working on the front line with refugees told Corporate Watch:
Migrant Help are the ‘bouncers’ of the opaque and Kafka-esque asylum support system. They have a friendly veneer but there are enormous issues with accessibility and delivering on the contract. Phones are not answered. Contact emails are frequently changed at short notice. Escalated emails are not acknowledged.
Migrant Help, formerly Migrant Helpline, is one of the Home Office’s key contractors and the sole official provider of advice and support for people seeking asylum. It is both a charity and a company. It claims to be able to offer telephone advice and support to people seeking asylum on basically any issue. These include navigating the asylum process; applying for asylum support and accommodation; finding a lawyer; accessing healthcare; problems with asylum accommodation (it claims it will liaise with accommodation providers to address issues); welfare issues such as neglect or domestic violence; and asylum benefits payments problems.
People seeking asylum have little choice but to use the Migrant Help phone line because it’s provided through Home Office funding. As some working on the front line explained, the Migrant Help phone service is the only option most people seeking asylum have to ask for help or to report issues, and this creates huge problems.
A one-stop shop might sound like an efficient way to run things. But that approach only works when the service is of the highest quality. If that provider is at the centre of countless stories of unprofessional service, failure to fulfil its duties and abandoning people in its care, the situation becomes disastrous, with a population seeking asylum forced into near dependency on a phone line that so often fails to get answered.
Migrant Help isn’t struggling for money. In 2021, the charity’s total income was over £22 million; £20.46 million of this came from four “government contracts”. These aren’t just any government contracts. They’re all directly from the Home Office. The very same department that hasn’t let up on making life as difficult as possible for refugees and people seeking asylum. It is perhaps no coincidence then that despite receiving millions in Home Office funding, Migrant Help has so often failed to deliver and has consistently let down the vulnerable people it is directly funded to help.
Money, money, money
A look at previous accounts shows that Migrant Help’s income has been steadily increasing since 2017 when it received just over £8 million from government contracts and grants. The contracts increased year on year to £15.12 million by 2020 with another huge leap in 2021.
The charity has received “significant” Home Office funding since 1994. By 2019, it secured a £100 million contract to run the Home Office system called “Advice, Issue Reporting and Eligibility (AIRE)” services, and act as the official point of contact for refugees to get advice on their asylum claims. This was part of a £4 billion award for Asylum Accommodation and Support Services Contracts (AASC) working alongside Mears, Clearsprings and Serco which were tasked with providing asylum seeker accommodation in the UK. By 2021, the Migrant Help contract rose to £235 million, perhaps because the initial four-year contract appears to have been extended to ten; it will end in 2029. This contract pays well for some at the charity. At least one person earns between £120,000 – £130,000 and two people earn £70,000 to £80,000. Meanwhile, the Home Office allocates people seeking asylum £40.85 per week.
Migrant Help financial history graph sourced from Charity Commission.
The AIRE advice contract also involves advising refugees on what to do if their claims are refused. That specifically includes telling them about “the support available to return to their country of origin.” The Home Office has long had a strategy of pushing people to leave through so-called “voluntary” return, and saw Migrant Help as playing an important role in meeting its “removal” targets.
The multi-million-pound contract might suggest that Migrant Help was providing an effective service for the Home Office and actively helping refugees and people seeking asylum. Yet, evidence shows this just isn’t true. Complaints go back to 2015 when Migrant Help was “slammed for leaving refugees destitute”. And it hasn’t stopped.
“Gatekeepers and the face of the hostile environment”
Photo by Ahmed Nishaath on Unsplash
We’re now used to pretty much every service we use having a phone helpline. And we’ve all been there, waiting on the phone for hours while we try to speak to our bank or ‘service provider’. But imagine you’re new to the country, and that ‘service provider’ is responsible for dealing with all major problems: your health, your housing, your money. And imagine how it must feel when that phone line takes hours to answer, or the person who finally picks it up can’t or won’t help resolve your issue. That’s the situation people are forced into because the Migrant Help phone line is their only point of access.
The head of operations with a front-line refugee support charity told Corporate Watch that Migrant Help “are the gatekeepers and the face of the hostile environment. It is a well-known joke that their name should be Migrant no Help”.
And that’s not surprising, because from the quality of the service provided to logged cases of financial precarity and even destitution, the catalogue of evidence against Migrant Help’s ‘support’ is damning:
- In 2017, the Red Cross criticised Migrant Help claiming that since it took on the role of giving Home Office advice to refugees, the situation became “untenable”, with more people being left destitute. In particular, it challenged the decision to replace face-to-face meetings with telephone support.
- A 2020 report from Institute of Race Relations called the AIRE contract “a disaster” and criticised both Migrant Help and housing group Mears. An open letter from over 100 charities ‘warned that the new repairs reporting and advice system was causing “needless suffering among those it is meant to protect”’.
- A 2021 report from the All-Party Immigration Detention Group detailed problems with the Migrant Help phone service endured by refugees in the notorious Penally and Napier detention centres.
- In 2021, problems getting through to the Migrant Help phone line contributed to thousands of refugees being left without access to food or money. The Home office gives people seeking asylum £40.85 per week on Aspen cash cards, but the system totally broke down, with cards not arriving or failing to work. Yet again, the only ‘help’ available was via the Migrant Help phone line. People seeking asylum don’t have access to bank accounts, aren’t allowed to work and rarely have networks of family or friends able to lend cash, so days of delays where Migrant Help doesn’t answer phone calls cause acute hardship and hunger.
- People seeking asylum have been unable to report issues with inadequate housing to Migrant Help. According to the BBC, the Home Office refused to answer Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from refugee charities “about the severity and frequency of complaints, and about how Migrant Help was performing”.
- One successful FOI request revealed that between Sept 2019 to Sept 2021 there were 517 logged complaints against Migrant Help.
- In April 2022 a Home Office report (released through an FoI) implicated Mears, Migrant Help and the Home Office in a crisis for Badreddin Abdalla Adam that ultimately led to him stabbing six people. He’d tried to make contact with Migrant Help for support with his health and accommodation 72 times in the period leading up to the stabbings.
Evidence shared with Corporate Watch echoes these issues are ongoing. Our contact told us that a caseworker asked if Migrant Help could issue a “hardship payment” to someone who’d had no money for several months: “I’ve escalated to Migrant Help and they say it is being investigated. But when I ask, there is no time frame for an answer.”
“People are sick of complaining,’ one hotel resident in the asylum process reportedly said, “because they feel it makes no difference. And you have to complain to Migrant Help”. Someone working with urgent asylum cases reported waiting four hours on the phone before eventually being told by Migrant Help that the issue needed to “’be escalated’, and so they just put me on hold again for another hour”. Meanwhile, a volunteer reported trying to support someone who was homeless and had already waited three days to get into accommodation but reportedly:
When he called Migrant help they had him on hold for 45 mins and then it cut off. His battery went dead and he had to find somewhere to charge his phone and try again to be told there was no update.
Many people seeking asylum don’t have the support of organisations that can escalate things on their behalf. Our contact also explained:
As the unique route to navigate to asylum support, to prevent destitution, people seeking asylum have literally no choice. Even organisations with specialist advisors working in this area still have to go through Migrant Help. Behind the Migrant Help contract, there are the accommodation providers… They then subcontract to security firms, but there is very little accountability. Supposedly people with complex needs such as those with mental illness, survivors of trafficking or with disabilities are given outreach support but this rarely or ever happens in my experience. Partly because trust in the organisation is so low.
The source also explained that in theory, “voluntary sector groups can apply to be commissioned and claim back money for work they do that Migrant Help should deliver”. However, “partly due to reputational risk of not wanting to be associated with Migrant Help” groups are said to frequently deliver the work themselves. But that work is difficult to fund, since the Home Office’s funding to Migrant Help is expected to cover it. This produces “over-stretched charities relying on volunteers, grassroots groups and communities to mitigate the worst impact” of Home Office failures to support people seeking asylum.
Not only is Migrant Help’s near monopoly just not working, but the organisation itself now seems to be subcontracting its duties to run the phone line, in a 3-year tender worth £1.5 million.
A dangerous blame game
The nature of the relationship between the Home Office, Migrant Help and other outsourcing giants such as Mears, Clearsprings and Serco creates additional layers of hardship both for people seeking asylum and those working at a grassroots level to provide support because accountability becomes nearly impossible. Our source told Corporate Watch:
When things don’t happen – such as people not getting the £8 per week cash support they are entitled to when living in hotels for six months; or repairs to houses that are unsafe for disabled children – it’s unclear whether fault lies with Migrant Help, the accommodation provider, the subcontractor, or the Home Office themselves. They all hide behind and blame each other and no one takes responsibility.
Given the litany of complaints against Migrant Help, it’s difficult to comprehend quite how it secured such a huge contract. Since being awarded the multi-million-pound deal, it has still failed to deliver. In fact, a 2020 investigation from the National Audit Office prompted a parliamentary report which scrutinised the Home Office AIRE contract allocation and Migrant Help’s performance.
The parliamentary report summarised that:
- The Home Office admitted faults in issuing AIRE contracts, including that the process was rushed.
- Home Office data showed that on average, calls for support historically took between 12 and 17 minutes. Yet the winning Migrant Help bid was based on a far shorter call length of four minutes on average. When it took up the contract, it was perhaps inevitably then only able to answer a fraction of the calls received between September 2019 and January 2020 (one-fifth, to be precise). The report also notes that the charity Asylum Matters sent written evidence stating “that many asylum seekers and their caseworkers had lost confidence in AIRE and simply stopped calling”.
- There was a lack of scrutiny for very large tenders issued by the Home Office, coupled with a lack of transparency.
The report also criticised the Home Office for issuing many of the AIRE contracts to the sole bidder.
According to the NAO report, Migrant Help promised that it had recruited more people and that the service had improved. The report claimed that in 2020, the charity ”answered 94% of calls within 60 seconds. However, callers are still facing long delays in being transferred to a specialist adviser when required”. And as ongoing media accounts and information given to Corporate Watch reveal, there are still huge problems for people trying to access support.
In safe hands?
Migrant Help’s 2021 trustee report claims that Migrant Help “assisted clients in reporting any issues with the accommodation”. Yet the previous year, Helen Bransfield, Migrant Help director of asylum services, offered little challenge when news broke about the appalling conditions for asylum seekers housed in the near-derelict Napier army barracks in Kent. This doesn’t quite tally with the horrific reports about conditions at Napier reported by refugees and local volunteers. Migrant Help wasn’t responsible for providing this sub-standard accommodation. However, it’s not clear whether the accommodation providers – Mears and Clearsprings – failed to act on the complaints; or whether Migrant Help failed to report them – or both. But there’s no doubt that the lack of transparency hinders accountability, leaving many people seeking asylum in a dire situation.
Meanwhile, Migrant Help’s near monopoly on asylum advice has severe implications for the quality of service. Put simply, there is little motivation to do a good job, particularly when the government’s policy is to make life as difficult as possible for refugees. The trustee report also notes that Migrant Help was “concerned about the reputational damage” and “considerable negative press coverage” about conditions at Penally and Napier. Yet It makes no mention of the people forced to live there. Migrant Help reported two other “serious incidents” to the charity commission in 2021-2021.
There also seems to be a revolving door linking some in the Migrant Help management team with other Home Office AASC providers. Juliet Halstead, Migrant Help’s deputy director of asylum services, spent a year working for Mears. She’s listed as head of housing for G4S under the Home Office Compass contract (which predates AIRE) between 2012 and 2019. G4S is the notorious security firm which ran multiple UK detention centres and supplied guards to carry out deportations; its history is embroiled in violence against migrants. Halstead joined the company at a time when it was facing intense scrutiny following the 2010 death of deportee Jimmy Mubenga. And while she worked there, G4S guards were secretly filmed throttling detainees at Brook House detention centre. Halstead was also at G4S when it subcontracted Jomast (run by Stuart Monk) to provide asylum seeker housing. During this time, Jomast painted the doors of refugee houses red which led to ongoing racist attacks. At the time, G4S “repeatedly denied” being aware of any complaints about this until the story broke in the national media.
Meanwhile, Andrew Billany, a former CEO of Migrant Help is now a trustee and director for criminal justice charity Nacro. Nacro was previously linked to G4S when it entered a bid to build and help run two prisons in Merseyside.
Migrant Help seems inextricably linked to the failures of the accommodation providers who share in this £4 billion deal. It’s impossible for asylum seekers and refugees, or those working on the front line to support them, to access any real help without going through this charity. From leaving vulnerable people waiting hours to even hear a voice at the end of a phone, to actively propping up the hostile environment by pushing voluntary return, Migrant Help is simply a cog in the ongoing racist cruelty against refugees.
If you want to help people seeking asylum, please avoid the Migrant Help ‘donate’ button. Instead of giving to Migrant Help, support grassroots initiatives providing direct support such as:
This article was corrected on 16 August. We incorrectly stated that Jimmy Mubenga’s death occurred during Juliet Halstead’s tenure at G4S. We have since been made aware that Halstead joined G4S two years after the death of Jimmy Mubenga and was not working there when it occurred. We have amended the article to clarify this.