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Islington’s volunteer-run Unity Project launches to help migrants navigate paperwork and integrate with community

PUBLISHED: 12:49 23 November 2017 | UPDATED: 15:01 24 November 2017

The Unity Project launches at New Unity, Upper Street. Volunteers and founders surround a mother and her baby who have been offered help, and Islington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry. Picture: Ally Scott

The Unity Project launches at New Unity, Upper Street. Volunteers and founders surround a mother and her baby who have been offered help, and Islington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry. Picture: Ally Scott

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Migrants who arrive in Islington face a daunting prospect: mountains of government paperwork in a language they often aren’t familiar with; a ban on getting certain state benefits; and no legal help.

Emily Thornberry MP pictured at the launch of the Unity Project with a woman who came to the UK from Ghana 13 years ago, and her baby. Picture: Ally ScottEmily Thornberry MP pictured at the launch of the Unity Project with a woman who came to the UK from Ghana 13 years ago, and her baby. Picture: Ally Scott

That’s where the Unity Project comes in, a voluntary group set up by Mildmay councillor Jenny Kay (Lab) and Rev Andy Pakula, the minister of radical “non-religious” church New Unity, which has sites in Newington Green and Upper Street.

It launched on Friday with the help of Islington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry.

The project has been in its pilot stage since June. It helps migrants challenge the “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) condition of welfare support, which excludes people from accessing certain state benefits.

The launch at New Unity in Upper Street was attended by a handful of the project’s 40 volunteers, as well as two migrants who’ve benefited from the project’s legal support.

Emily Thornberry said: “We have a really vibrant society in Islington and it is one of the things that make us the great borough that we are.”

After visiting other migrant centres and public me

etings, Islington councillor Jenny Kay (Lab, Mildmay), along with Rev Andy Perkula, minister of New Unity, decided there was a gap in the support being offered to migrants – legal assistance.

Amid rises in xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, they, along with others from Islington, set up the project to provide migrants with legal assistance and promote integration across the community.

“Islington is a very diverse community, but sometimes it’s hard for people to build relationships outside their normal circles,” Cllr Kay said.

"You have to have months of annotated bank statements and tenancy agreements, but they don’t take into account uncooperative landlords, or that people just don’t have these documents."

Caz Hattam

“As well as legal support and advice, we provide opportunities for migrants and non-migrants in Islington to build a shared sense of belonging.”

The group meets on Tuesdays, with two volunteer caseworkers assigned to each migrant seeking help with their application. On average, three appointments are needed to properly complete the paperwork.

Caz Hattam, the other main organisational force behind the project, said: “There’s not many places where you can get ongoing case work support, others are more just a one off, drop-in type scenario.”

To lift the NRPF condition, a mountain of paperwork is required, including months of bank statements, letters and tenancy contracts. For non-native speakers or single mothers, jumping through these hoops is an almighty task.

Caz said: “If there’s £2.50 going out of your account from Lidl, they want to know about it.

“You have to have months of annotated bank statements and tenancy agreements, but they don’t take into account uncooperative landlords, or that people just don’t have these documents.”

Among the 10 successful challenges to the NRPF completed so far was a mother at the launch, who didn’t want to be named. She came to England from Ghana 13 years ago, and now lives in Croydon.

“They helped me put in my application in July and I got a reply on the October 19,” she said.

“My heart is finally at peace. I don’t stress as much as I used to.”

To donate or find out how to volunteer, visit unity-project.org.uk.

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