Charity fears volunteer crisis after Brexit

Camphill Scotland says the Home Office’s response to immigration concerns has been a “mixture of reassurance and denial”

Friday 8th February 2019

A Scottish learning disabilities charity that relies on international volunteers has issued a stark warning about the UK Government’s plans to restrict the free movement of people from the EU.

Camphill offers social, cultural and employment opportunities for more than 600 people with learning disabilities who live and work alongside volunteer co-workers in tightly-knit communities across the country.

But the charity, which was founded near Aberdeen by Austrian refugees in 1939 and has strong links with Europe, faces uncertainty as the UK Government looks to restrict the number of European workers coming to Britain after Brexit.

Neil Henery, Director of Camphill Scotland, the body that represents the 11 Camphill communities here, fears curtailing EU migration could have a “massive impact”.

Of the near 900 Camphill staff in Scotland, 45% are EU nationals.

The group is concerned about the UK Government’s plans to replace freedom of movement for European workers with the more restrictive and potentially difficult-to-navigate points-based visa system used for individuals from the rest of the world.

But Mr Henery says the Home Office’s interpretation of the current rules can be difficult to follow: “We find that people who wish to come here and volunteer here can be knocked back for seemingly trivial reasons.”

One aspiring charity worker from South Korea was denied a visa because, during a Border Agency phone call at 11pm, their local time, they were unable to remember the postcode of the community they would be living in.

“We’ve found this year with [non-European] volunteers they’ve had a lot of anxiety about whether they’d be able to come,” he adds. “If that was extended to Europe, given that we’ve got such strong links with them, it would really have a profound significance. The ending of free movement is a big worry.”

The organisation says uncertainty about the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with Europe is already beginning to bite. One Camphill community has seen numbers slump from around 20 international applications in a normal year to none this year.

If this drop off was replicated across the board “there would be a massive impact in terms of the quality of community life that Camphill communities would be able to provide”, Mr Henery says. 

“The communities in Scotland are all independent charities. Some of them are very small, we’re talking about £500,000 turnover, some even smaller than that, and they operate on a shoestring really, given the constraints to the social care budget, and they don’t have lots of spare cash to develop elaborate contingency plans.”

“They would need to constrict their services and the offer would be very different in style.”

Despite this, Mr Henery says, the Home Office has met concerns with a “mixture of reassurance and denial”.

The UK Government maintains that temporary workers will still be able to come through short-term temporary permits or the enhanced youth transfer scheme set out in its immigration white paper.

However, this has done little to assuage Camphill’s worries.

“We go on in this situation where it’s all very uncertain and disturbing, with no clear way ahead,” Mr Henery reflects.

It’s the people with learning disabilities, some of the most vulnerable people in society, that are at risk here…there seems to be a cavalier disregard for the implications of deteriorating links and relationships between the UK and Europe.”