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COVID-19: We Must Not Forget Asylum Seekers

By Anne East. Anne is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors/attorneys .

Fear, anxiety, loneliness – these are just some of the emotions that many of us will be feeling at the moment. But what if that was simply the norm – our everyday existence rather than something temporary?
For the tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Britain today, isolation, destitution and despair are the realities in which they live. For them, COVID-19 is simply another challenge on top of the countless others that are experienced on a daily basis. Not only this, but the pandemic is likely to exacerbate many of the issues that already cause displaced people misery and suffering.

Destitution

As it stands, asylum seekers are not allowed to work, nor are they able to access mainstream benefits, leaving the government’s meagre provision of asylum support as the only means of subsistence. Individuals eligible for Section 98 emergency support do not receive cash help and those who receive Section 95 ongoing support are given just £37.75 per week to live on. The circumstances facing refused asylum seekers are even more extreme, as all government support is withdrawn 21 days after the refusal.

Taking this into account, it is not difficult to understand how destitution becomes simply unavoidable for many asylum seekers. Research from Refugee Action revealed that many of those living on government support ‘struggled to feed themselves and their children’.

Corroborating these findings, a study by the British Red Cross into destitute asylum seekers in South Yorkshire found that 66% of those questioned were unable to satisfy their hunger on a weekly basis. This highlights the extremity and reality of the food poverty faced by thousands of people seeking sanctuary in the UK. Regrettably, this bleak situation will likely be exacerbated by panic buying and food shortages amid the ongoing pandemic. It is conceivable that many asylum seekers will be at genuine risk of malnutrition in the coming weeks, potentially increasing the risk of complications were they to become infected with COVID-19.

In addition, more than half of those surveyed by the Red Cross regularly relied on charitable networks for support. Voluntary organisations play an immensely important role in ensuring that food parcels and cooked meals are made available to destitute asylum seekers on a regular basis. However, with many charity facilities such as day centres closing under social distancing measures, an integral part of their support network has been lost.

Inadequate and Crowded Accommodation

Food poverty and the danger of ill-health through malnutrition are not the only risks that place people seeking asylum at higher levels of vulnerability. Inadequate and overcrowded accommodation means that self-isolating as a means of protecting themselves or those around them is simply not possible, leaving communities exposed to infection.

A report from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) stressed that the provision of asylum accommodation was found to have ‘significant room for improvement’ by both the National Audit Office and the Home Affairs Committee. Evidence from several NGOs that support asylum seekers revealed that accommodation was frequently flagged as having ‘bed bugs, rats and other vermin infestations’. Despite accommodation needing ‘urgent’ attention, many problems were not prioritised and ‘the effect of these issues on children were not always considered.’

Trying to forge a positive existence amid such unsafe and unsanitary conditions is immensely challenging; ill-health becomes difficult to avoid. The ICIBI uncovered that on one occasion, extreme damp and poor-ventilation caused the ill-health of a child. As Coronavirus has a particularly virulent impact on those with underlying health conditions, the inadequate housing provided to asylum seekers leaves them notably vulnerable to the disease.
Accommodation is also often overcrowded- one HMO (House in Multiple Occupation) was found to have 21 rooms for mothers and babies. With respiratory diseases such as COVID-19 capable of spreading rapidly amongst those living in close proximity, the accommodation provided to asylum seekers places them at serious risk.

Barriers to Healthcare

In the middle of a major public health crisis, the need for easy access to medical treatment is of paramount importance. Yet for many asylum seekers, NHS services are placed unjustly out of reach.
Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has shed light on the many barriers that are faced when attempting to access healthcare. One such barrier is that staff often has a poor understanding of the rules in relation to the legal entitlements of asylum seekers. This was particularly notable when trying to register with a GP, something that everyone is entitled to regardless of immigration status. One occasion, a Nottingham-based asylum seeker was told ‘we don’t accept refugees and asylum seekers that is our policy’, despite primary healthcare being open to all.

The government has placed Coronavirus on the list of communicable diseases, meaning that treatment is not contingent on possessing leave to remain. Whilst this is hugely positive, it is imperative that asylum seekers are made fully aware of their rights in this regard. A lack of information frequently prevents asylum seekers from accessing much-needed assistance- this cannot stand in the way of treating COVID-19.

In the words of one desperate asylum seeker: “I don’t feel that I’m a human being. I am valueless”. If this is how we treat the individuals who have sought refuge in a society that we consider civilised, what hope is there for any of us, pandemic or otherwise?

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