I was always interested in people from other backgrounds and cultures and, at 22, in 1976, was just starting out in my career. Although I wasn’t a solicitor, I applied for a job at the UK Immigration Advisory Service (UKIAS), because I wanted to make a difference.  

Helen Ellis, who had started the Kent Committee for the Welfare of Migrants (KCWM) in 1963, was on the Board of UKIAS, and ran the Folkestone office.  

I went to work there. Immigration appeals were heard at Dover Castle, and sometimes the clients were abroad, so you were dealing with relatives here. Often people were coming to join families. We also provided voluntary welfare support to KCWM. 

I was ecstatic when I won my very first appeal. I remember rehearsing with my husband the night before, making him roleplay the judge. It was somebody trying to bring their elderly father here from Iran, where there was no one else to look after him. He came, and I met him afterwards a few times. 

I started a family and stayed at home for a while, but in 1989 Helen asked me to come back. UKIAS were closing the Folkestone office, and she was worried about the welfare work. 

Two retired Chief Immigration Officers also came and worked with us, and Paul Marsh, who had been a trustee of KCWM. We worked from home, with somebody on call 24 hours a day. We would go out at any time to see people stranded at the ports. 

A lot of our work was unblocking problems people had at the ports, providing advice and support.  

Helen asked me to take over the management in about 1990. 

The workload increased, with more people claiming asylum. We got a small grant from the Home Office, which paid for a small office in Dover Eastern Docks above the Immigration Office, so we could easily talk to the staff there.  

I can’t explain how busy we were. We took on another two members of staff and started to run open surgeries, two mornings a week, with people queuing down the corridors. I brought in another volunteer to teach English. We used B&Bs for accommodation. 

We became one of six agencies with Home Office funding in 1991, and renamed as Migrant Helpline. We didn’t want to just support refugees and people seeking asylum: our Articles of Association were about providing relief and support to anyone in distress travelling to and from the UK. But supporting refugees became the predominant part of our work. 

We got funding to provide accommodation locally. We recruited 60 people and it just grew and grew during the 1990s, with induction centres in Millbank and Croydon and offices in Hastings, Brighton, Thanet, Folkestone – always in the South East. We were a united front with other charities doing similar work, negotiating collectively with the Home Office and sharing information. 

We moved two more times, and then into our current Dover HQ. 

It was a large expansion, because of conflict in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq, and various African civil wars. People took huge risks to get here: hanging on to the bottom of lorries, or packed into them. 

But there was a real buzz about helping people. We would find accommodation, fill in support applications, and people would stay with us until they were dispersed.  

Most of our budget went to accommodation, which was difficult to find because of local resistance. We made sure there were places to pray, provided English classes, helped people to get to appointments, and dealt with issues, supporting people in the first two weeks, before they were moved on. 

Some chose to settle in the area. We had one-stop drop-in centres, a bit like the Citizens Advice Bureau. We built relationships with local service providers and set up community groups to talk to the local residents and agencies. Issues were often due to cultural misunderstandings.  

In the Gateway Programme, refugees directly from camps needed more help integrating. They would have refugee status when they arrived – a bit like the Ukraine scheme today – and two years of our support. They were often from the Middle East, having fled wars with no funds. 

As CEO I was very keen to promote our other work, like supporting foreign nationals in prisons. Although they would be subject to a deportation order with no chance of appeal, they still needed help and information. 

We also got involved with helping trafficking survivors, hearing heartrending stories of exploitation, and how people had found the courage to escape. 

We started the interpreting service, which still exists today as Clear Voice, because we were otherwise dependent on grant funding. Trying to secure funding, and its short-term nature, was always the number one problem.  

Negative press and finding appropriate and affordable accommodation were constant challenges, but the staff were always very motivated. People who are drawn to this work generally are. I used to remind people of the charity’s origin story in their induction. Although we had grown, what we were giving was a personal one-to-one service. 

It’s a stressful job. Back in the early days, I was advising a young Somalian in detention during his interview with the Immigration Office. He had been tortured in prison. He broke down several times telling his story. 

I left in 2008, and the following year was awarded an OBE for services to asylum seekers and refugees. I'll never forget the elation of that first appeal; that we managed to recruit refugees to work for us – as interpreters and then counsellors; putting across positive stories, talking to the community and building networks.  

The numbers coming across the Channel now are no greater than they were before, and we’re not taking more than our share. It’s just that we’re an island and when people cross by sea, it’s more visible. But people don’t take decisions lightly to leave their own countries and everything they know. We have to tell those stories. That’s the way to change public opinion.