Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network

LASSN share their experience getting tech in the hands of their clients.

Organisation Profile

How is your charity working towards Digital Inclusion? 

We try to look at Digital from the perspective of folks living in extreme poverty, who might struggle to find or to use kit for all kinds of reasons. A decision to “Go Digital” doesn’t necessarily include more people or reach those in need. Unless it’s carefully thought through, it can frequently exclude the very people you intended to help. 

When thinking about how we deliver our projects in non face to face ways - our starting point is: “what’s the best way of building on what people already know and feel comfortable with?” This might be more phone calls to start with. It might be a WhatsApp chat. It might mean upgrading someone’s phone so they can look at the internet. It might mean building the confidence and knowledge of their volunteer, so the volunteer can suggest trying new things. 

We also have to work hard at planning our online contact and not just hoping things will happen naturally. If limited access to data means you have to choose between half an hour of Peppa Pig on YouTube and half an hour of Zoom call, the Zoom call has to be at least as interesting as Youtube for you AND the kids. So our contacts now assume we will be supporting not just individuals but other members of their household too. We’ve developed materials to help with this. And of course, like everything LASSN does, we put this online for free for anyone to use. We are committed to sharing our learning and make this all free and publicly available. 

We’ve worked with Solidaritech to distribute the tech they refurbish. This relationship has come into its own during Covid-19. 

Longer term, we know we need a cross-sector structural response to digital inclusion, that takes into account the structural inequalities at play. Operation Wifi is campaigning for wifi to be made open access using existing broadband infrastructure. 

What support are you providing?

We are coordinating the distribution of tech (smartphones, tablets, laptops, dongles) and data to asylum seekers in Leeds and West Yorkshire. Some gear is refurbished, we’ve bought some new tech and had some donated. Solidaritech bought data-only sim cards on a deal with O2. 

Internally, we are supporting volunteers and staff through training and peer group calls to grow confidence, share challenges and solutions to aid remote delivery of their projects. 

Externally, we share our approaches, learning and advice openly across the sector through our website and Leeds Migration Partnership site. Check out our blogs and resources on Video calls and how to reduce data usage; Support and resources for teaching remotely; Ideas and activities you can use when teaching remotely

How many people have you already supported/do you aim to support? 

LASSN provides direct support to 300 refugees and asylum seekers and other migrants at risk of harm, and 300 volunteers. In the last 6 weeks, we’ve put free technology into the hands of more than 100 people, and we hope to reach at least another 200 over summer. We currently provide free WIFI access to people staying in a temporary hostel for people with No Recourse to Public Funds in Leeds.

How do you decide who gets this support

Our current offer of free tech is restricted to people who are still in the asylum process, and we only take referrals from organisations - this helps us with monitoring. LASSN offer free phone top ups to all clients regardless of their immigration status. Organisations who want to order tech or data from us need to be registered with Help In Leeds, a service directory of organisations supporting asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants. 

We don’t have a strict criteria, but the amount of gear they can access depends on the household size - if they’ve got a lot of school aged children they’ll get a bigger bundle of tech and data. 

What challenges have you encountered?

Many people who want to refer a household aren’t really sure what people need: traditional needs assessments have not included an assessment of digital strengths, abilities or needs, and we are all learning how to do this well, and effectively.

Many people in our sector, lack confidence in their own skills and ability to get to grips with digital and remote delivery. For many it feels like their job has fundamentally changed, especially with challenges to providing meaningful emotional support. We’ve encouraged people to talk to each other about their challenges, to share tactics and techniques and to be honest about how frustrating this can feel.. 

As an organisation we’re continuously learning. We’re trying out and blending different forms of communication - videos, phones, group chats etc. to find what works for us. 

We’ve learnt a lot about setting up and facilitating virtual meetings with larger groups. Someone is in charge of direct messaging everyone in the waiting room, welcoming them and asking them to introduce themselves. Then they encourage participants through the chat or help the presenter identify if someone wants to speak or ask a question. This seems like a lot more work, but you wouldn’t run a large physical meeting without someone on hand to welcome guests and make cups of tea! 

What feedback have you got from clients?

The uptake of smartphones (to use as remote wifi) has actually been slower than expected, and dongles have been more popular than we anticipated. 

The laptops fly out as fast as we can provide them, and people are so grateful to have something to do during lockdown. 

We have supplied devices to houses where there are several households sharing facilities, and some people are shielding. The guys living there WhatsApp one another, so they know who is in the bathroom, who is in the kitchen. One of them phones his husband who lives in another town, and another talks to his kids who also live far away. Lockdown puts a strain on relationships. Seeing and talking to people we love is more important than ever. 

“The Xbox helps me to forget, and to pass the time.” 

What practical advice would you give to other organisations?

Read the T&C’s, understand the products you are buying and the responsibility this brings. When you supply something, people will turn to you for advice and guidance. Be honest about the help that comes with the stuff you are supplying. 

Do research into the levels of risk involved in choosing digital solutions or distributing tech. If you’re supplying electricals, make sure you consider things like PAT testing and what’s covered by your insurance.   

If you’re thinking of supplying data SIMs or broadband, think about who is responsible for what’s downloaded, and what would happen in a worst-case scenario. Are there things you can do to offset this risk (eg by filtering/barring Adult Content). 

For example the deal Solidaritech negotiated with O2 ensured all SIMs had pop up adverts blocked at source (reducing the amount of data used by ads) , and content filters were in place to prevent inappropriate use. This means when orgs purchase SIMs from Solidaritech, they don’t have to worry about insurance and liability - it’s been sorted for them. 

Also, any ongoing financial or in-kind support received by someone in the asylum system could be taken into account by the Home Office. We provide letters with all our tech specifying that it is a one off gift and not an ongoing offer of support. If the purpose of the data/phone credit is to access our support, we make that very clear. 

How do you get funding for your Digital Inclusion work?

We were able to reallocate some grant funding from the Police and Crime Commissioner to undertake this work, as well as a local scheme run by Leeds City Council called 100% Digital. We are also using unrestricted funds, and the money we would have previously spent on bus tickets and travel vouchers.   

Longer term, it isn’t sustainable for all us small organisations to waste time and effort trying to negotiate deals with data/tech providers on an ad hoc basis. Of course we’re doing it now, because we can’t just stand by and watch people come to harm because they don;t know the public safety messages, or can’t afford to phone for help. But digital poverty is a structural problem and requires a structural response, if we’re serious about including everyone. .