Lived Experience of Navigating Asylum Partnership (NAP) Programme

May 16, 2023
Asylum Guides
Tarana Wafi
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Tarana Wafi

In this blog, I share my reflections on working in the UK refugee sector as someone with 'lived experience' of forced displacement and claiming asylum. Specifically, I delve into my experience of managing the NAP programme. Join me on this introspective journey to learn more.

In August 2021, I left my job in England to help Afghan refugees, including my parents, who were fleeing the Taliban. As I navigated through various countries, facing language barriers and struggling with asylum systems, I felt powerless. Determined to assist others facing similar challenges, I came across the Navigating Asylum Partnership (NAP) Manager position at Refugee Action. I was positively thrilled to learn about the concept of Asylum Guides (AGs). Reflecting on my journey, I realised the invaluable support a guide could provide. However, I wondered if being someone with ‘lived experience’ was empowering or a reminder of the traumas of being an asylum seeker.

I was excited to get the job as the NAP Manager, joining Refugee Action's Good Practice and Partnerships team. Being the only manager with lived experience on the team made me question whether there were different expectations and extra pressure on me to prove myself. Although I have previous project management experience, this new identity made me doubt my abilities, especially since I needed to catch up on the last two and half years of the programme; NAP was launched in June 2020 and I started at the end of October 2022. My first task was to go through the very  comprehensive and slightly intimidating handover notes from the previous NAP Manager.

The Asylum Guide model, based on Refugee Action's principles of early action and access to justice, aimed to reach asylum seekers early in their journey and provide them with clear information about their rights within the asylum system. The model relied on carefully selected partner organisations and trained volunteers, preferably individuals with lived experience, to assist others. After familiarising myself with the team and undergoing internal orientation, I met with the NAP partners. Despite each partner having a different structure and management style, they shared a common passion for helping others and a belief that every person seeking refuge in the UK deserves a fair chance at safety and dignity. I was struck by how successfully the Asylum Guides model was incorporated in these different organisational structures.

The NAP programme also aimed to engage people with lived experience at operational and strategic levels. Each partner introduced two asylum guides with lived experience to form the NAP Expert by Experience (EBE) Steering Group. I found the terminology surrounding EBE challenging, but I tried to focus on its intent to shift power to those most affected by the asylum system. Asylum seekers were engaged through voluntary work as asylum guides, providing them with valuable experience and diverse perspectives for projects.

The NAP EBE group was meant to collaborate with the NAP Creative Learning team to evaluate the program and contribute to campaigns for systemic change. I was excited to work with this group, and I observed the level of enthusiasm and hard work put into its establishment. One of the key learnings from the programme is that effective engagement with EBE groups require substantial investment, including time and budget, clarity of purpose, managing expectations, ensuring continuity, and understanding risks.

We all knew that the Asylum Guide model worked, and its biggest strength was its resilience and ability to adapt while maintaining the integrity of purpose. But, unfortunately, Comic Relief decided not to extend funding in the final months of the project, leading to a shift in my role from reinvigorating the partnership to winding down the project. I questioned whether the outcome would have been different if managed by someone without lived experience. Evidently not, but the fact that I asked myself this question is telling of how identities affect our perceptions and expectations. 

Despite facing challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and unfavourable government policies, the Asylum Guides model proved resilient and adaptable. I encourage anyone interested to visit the Asylum Guide website for resources on setting up an asylum guide programme or supporting someone claiming asylum. These resources are developed in collaboration with partners and beneficiaries, reflecting our commitment to involving lived experiences. The NAP Creative Learning partner also played a vital role in ensuring inclusive processes were in place for evaluating the programme and documenting lessons learned. This collective knowledge is the invaluable legacy of NAP that will continue to inform and shape future initiatives in the refugee sector, ensuring that the voices and needs of asylum seekers are central to the support they receive.

As my contract and the project come to an end, I remain hopeful for the continuation of asylum guides, providing support and hope to those seeking asylum. Working in the refugee sector as someone with lived experience brings back traumatic memories, but with the right support, it can also be healing and empowering.  Despite the challenges, creating opportunities for asylum seekers is rewarding, and the success of the NAP programme is evident as some participants have now become volunteers, coordinators, and managers - a small but powerful ripple to shift power. 

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