In the Same Storm: UK asylum seekers in the Covid-19 crisis

The threat from Covid-19 is not just the threat of serious illness and death. It is the threat of loss of livelihood, of loss of freedom of movement, of loss of educational opportunities. It may be the threat of being locked down with someone who abuses or exploits you or your children. It may be that you can’t get the food you need, or medical treatment, or advice and support.

People seeking asylum forced to share beds with strangers in ...

Refugees and asylum seekers in the UK face all of these threats, and more. The Refugee Council’s open letter calls upon the government to address three key issues:

Increase asylum support by £20 per week to bring it in line with Universal Credit. This increase is vital for people seeking asylum trying to look after themselves and their families during the coronavirus pandemic.

Make it possible for people to claim asylum without having to travel. Currently people seeking asylum are still being required to travel in order to make a claim, in direct contradiction to the Government’s own travel restrictions and rules on social distancing.

Give all people seeking asylum accommodation suitable for social distancing and self-isolation. No-one should be made to share a room, but sadly this is the reality for some people in the asylum system and this is not acceptable.

People on asylum support are provided with just over £5 per day to cover their essential living needs.   Those who were already struggling are now finding it harder still – they are issued with prepaid cards that are only uploaded with credit weekly, and can only be used in certain shops. In addition, the need for mobile phone credit/data is much greater when face to face appointments are not available. Those who are in receipt of Universal Credit have seen their allowance increased by £20 a week for the next year. Those seeking asylum were getting far less than UC claimants anyway, and have now been told that their support rates will increase by 26p per day, less than 1/10th of the UC uplift. No one is suggesting that the UC claimant is being showered with largesse, far from it. But asylum seekers are, in this as in so many other respects, the worst off amongst the worst off.

Currently, to make a claim for asylum once you are in the UK, you must attend an Asylum Intake Unit. There are currently seven of these around the country (previously there was just one, in Croydon). But even with these new regional units, most people will have to use public transport to get there, exposing them to infection on what may be long and complex journeys. And many asylum seekers have health problems, arising from the situations that caused them to flee in the first place, the conditions in refugee camps or the exigencies of the journey here, and then poverty and poor quality accommodation on top of that.

The quality of accommodation for asylum seekers already raises serious public health concerns. Arrangements such as bedroom sharing between unrelated adults, communal eating facilities and crowded social spaces make social distancing difficult, and self-isolation almost impossible. Concerns have also been raised about the provision of sufficient hygiene and sanitation products in both Initial Accommodation centers and hotel provision.

In addition to the above, many of the drop-in facilities, the conversation classes, the informal support provision, have had to close. Support organisations are struggling to maintain effective contact with their clients – this is not just about the digital and technological aspects of communication, there are also frequently language barriers.

The closure of drop-in centres means isolated people become even more lonely, while others are at risk because they no longer have access to the services they rely on such as showers or washing facilities.

A third of the organisations we spoke to were still offering some kind of face-to-face support, delivering food parcels, making cash payments and continuing with casework for more vulnerable people.

The threat of disease will not stop refugees from leaving home, not when those homes are still being bombed or attacked by terrorists, not when they face persecution because of their faith or their political convictions, or their sexual orientation, not when the alternative is starvation. That they survive the terrors of the journey only to face destitution here is bitter enough. But they find themselves facing a new threat, one to which their poverty and lack of choice leaves them especially exposed.

We are all in the same storm, facing the same perils. But whilst many of us are in robust crafts, some are in leaking dinghies. Some are drowning.

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