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By Richard Ballout. Richard is a political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation that provides legal aid to asylum seekers and trafficking victims in the UK and Ireland.

It is well documented that mental health problems in the UK are on the rise. Recent figures show that approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem in any given year. While any section of society can be affected by mental health problems, refugees and asylum seekers are particularly susceptible. Refugees are 500% more likely to have mental health needs compared with the general UK population, and 61% of asylum seekers experience serious mental distress. Unfortunately, secondary healthcare data indicates that refugees and asylum seekers are also less likely to receive mental health support than the general population.

The pre-migration experiences of refugees and asylum seekers can be harrowing. Tales of horrific scenes of war and destruction are not uncommon. Many of those who reach our shores have faced unimaginable hardships and have been witness to shocking violence, torture and the death of those closest to them. Unsurprisingly, these experiences can lead to debilitating mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders, PTSD and depression.

The problem of loneliness and isolation
Considering such experiences, it might seem obvious that refugees and asylum seekers are more likely to have mental health problems. But for many refugees and asylum seekers, their mental health problems originate from a different source – their post-migration experiences.
Most problematic of all are feelings of loneliness, isolation and alienation, which are widespread among refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. A report published by The Forum found that 58% of migrants and refugees in London described loneliness and isolation as their biggest challenge. It can be extremely difficult for refugees and asylum seekers to feel a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar, different, and often confusing culture. This sense of isolation and alienation is compounded by language barriers, a lack of social networks and the loss of family and friends.

Populist rhetoric on immigration on the right of the political spectrum, which has been festering with increasing velocity, both domestically and internationally, has only served to exacerbate these feelings. The UK asylum process is a source of considerable distress for refugees and asylum seekers. Many are terrified of being deported and are living in perpetual fear. Also, immigration services are more difficult to access in the UK, in contrast to neighbouring countries.

Hostile environment
Over recent years, certain government strategies and policies, such as the hostile environment policy, have created an atmosphere of suspicion of ‘the other’ at a governmental level and in wider society. The ‘deport now, appeal later’ scheme permitted the deportation of asylum seekers before appeals on the rejection of their asylum claims were heard, leading to families being torn apart.

Also, the Immigration Act of 2014 obligates landlords to reject tenancy lettings to those who do not have valid leave to enter or remain in the UK. Landlords face the risk of fines of thousands of pounds if they fail to carry out immigration checks. A report published by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that landlords are discriminating against refugees, who are eligible to rent, in favour of ‘safe options’.

What can be done?
Tackling any mental health problem requires a multifaceted approach. Strategies designed to integrate asylum seekers and refugees into British society are vitally important in the challenge of tackling loneliness and isolation. Partnerships fostered between migrant and refugee community organisations and other institutions can be extremely effective in improving the integration of refugees into British society. Such partnerships can lead to organisations becoming more refugee-friendly. Resultantly, refugees will be able to enjoy improved integration.

English language skills are absolutely crucial to the integration of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. It has been proven that refugees with poor language skills are at most risk of exclusion. Native language skills are extremely useful in accessing employment and in building social connections and networks with other communities. Employment is another key ingredient in reducing loneliness and isolation. The rate of unemployment is 18% among refugees in the UK, which is three times higher than the general population.
Improving access to employment should be a major focus at a governmental level in the complicated task of integrating refugees. Support and guidance ought to be provided to organisations to employ refugees. Recent research conducted by the University of Cambridge and University of Salford found that working between just 1 and 8 hours per week generated significant mental health benefits to those who had been previously unemployed or economically inactive. Employment can also build social connections and improve English language skills.

The benefits of volunteering

As well as governmental interventions and programmes, feelings of loneliness, alienation and isolation could be assuaged through more personal actions. In the battle against the issues they face, it is key that refugees and asylum seekers are not solely reliant on elements largely outside of their control to deal with their mental health problems. Through taking matters into their own hands, the confidence of refugees and asylum seekers will grow.

Volunteering will build important social connections and, in many cases, these connections will be built with the host population. This contact with the host population will be particularly valuable, providing refugees and asylum seekers with a vital link to the people they feel least connected to. Ultimately, these connections with the host population are what is most important in breaking the chains of alienation and isolation which so many refugees and asylum seekers are shackled by.

Volunteering could also be extremely helpful in improving the English language skills of those who participate in it.
Outdoor volunteering could be a particularly potent remedy. The great outdoors can provide numerous benefits and the therapeutic qualities of the outdoors are well documented. Research has shown that connecting to nature can ease anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, particularly when this is combined with exercise.

Outdoor volunteering will undoubtedly induce similar benefits to all those who participate in it, whether it is in wooded areas and forests, or a simple act of community gardening. Through outdoor volunteering, refugees and asylum seekers can discover more about the UK’s rich heritage, places and landscapes, feeling more connected to the country they now call home. And that connection could be stronger than any they have experienced in the UK before.

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