Woman in a headscarf waits outside

The noise is deafening: 150 people, crammed into a church hall.

You can hear conversations in English, French, Farsi, Arabic, Triginya and Amharic.

This is Leeds’ biggest drop-in session for asylum seekers and refugees – and it is bursting at the seams.

The number of people needing help has swelled. But funding cuts mean the service has gone down to one day a week instead of two.

Queues outside St Aidan’s church hall begin hours before doors open. Some people have to be turned away at the end without being seen at all.

Staff and volunteers have to use a megaphone to call out numbers as people wait in turn for appointments with a caseworker.

People are sorting through mounds of donated clothes, looking for winter coats and jumpers to fit them and their children.

The kitchen is a flurry of activity, preparing plates of curry, rice, salad and cake.

A mound of neatly-knotted carrier bags hold tinned food and pasta – each bag will have to see many people through the week.

Tinned food and pasta

People who visit the service rely on bags of food to get them through each week.

The service is run by Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (PAFRAS) and the British Red Cross. We fund a caseworker here – and his work never stops.

Stefan Robert sits in a cramped corner of the church hall giving advice on housing, health care, and the incredibly complex asylum process everybody here is trying to navigate.

Trapped in limbo

Many of the people packed into this church hall are failed asylum seekers. They have travelled many miles to get here. Some have been raped, tortured and abused. Now they have been denied the right to remain in the UK but they cannot return home.

Our system leaves failed asylum seekers in a grey half-light: alive, but not able to make a life for themselves.

They cannot work but have no access to public funds.

They are homeless, but are not allowed to register for any kind of accommodation.

Most are completely destitute – sleeping in mosques, churches or on friends’ floors.

Some spend hours riding the city’s buses on a day ticket because it is warm.

On the margins

British Red Cross case worker Stefan says: “The fact a lot of people here would rather be homeless shows they feel they can’t return.

“They would rather put themselves through that than put their lives at risk by returning to their country of origin.

“A lot of the people we work with are sleeping rough, have health problems and are separated from their families.

“Often they have been quite successful professionally in their country of origin and it’s difficult for them not to be able to work and have the same social status.

“They have had respectable professions and now find themselves humbled and on the margins of society.”

Stress and care

A woman's hand holding a donated jumper

One woman, sits with a friend at one of the trestle tables set out in the hall. In her hands, she grasps a jumper she has found among the donated clothing.

“I like it here. It helps we can get clothes here because then I can use the money to buy food for my child,” she says.

Another woman has come by bus from Bradford to see our caseworker.

“They are very caring. I feel better informed – you know that someone can give you information or help you with anything,” she says.

“It can be very stressful.”

15 years of waiting

Two young men from Eritrea stand uncertainly by the door.

They arrived a month ago after travelling through North Africa and across Europe.

Through a volunteer translator, they say their journey across the Mediterranean was ‘terrifying’ and they are desperate to get back into education. But they are too shy and overwhelmed to say much more.

This is just the beginning of their journey in this country.

Other people in this hall have spent more than 15 years trying to navigate the maze of asylum rules, regulations and decisions.

And during that time, their lives are ebbing away – on a bus ride to nowhere around Leeds.