Amidst the Destruction of COVID-19 We Must Do Everything Possible to Safeguard Asylum Seekers

Asylum seekers
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Guest Blog by: Paul McShane
Photograph: Alamy

Imagine surviving on £37.75 a week. Having few legal rights, struggling to feed your children, clothe them and provide medicine if needed. With the country, indeed the whole world experiencing the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, the inadequate support provided to asylum seekers leaves them hugely vulnerable to the disease and its impact.

According to an investigation by the ICIBI, just a quarter of asylum properties actually meet contractual standards. This is a problem at any time, but as Coronavirus is a respiratory disease, living in property that might suffer from damp or poor ventilation- which many of the houses provided to asylum seekers do- increases that risk exponentially.

When a destitute asylum seeker arrives in the UK, they initially need to make an asylum claim and seek a form of living for them and their family. This means taking all belongings with them to a Home Office interview, at which they will be assessed for emergency support. They are granted 28 days leave before this emergency support comes to an end, having to apply for ongoing government support during that timeframe – realistically, this takes longer, often up to 3 months. The only means of support in the meantime might be friends, family or charity handouts.

This is the situation facing many asylum seekers in the UK at present. Those unable to access statutory support are dependent on the work of charities, yet even this form of support is under threat. Indeed, many charities have shut their doors due to the pandemic, leaving them without any support whatsoever. In addition, many food banks have had to close under social distancing measures, further deceasing the range of options available. According to research from the British Red Cross, 66% of asylum seekers experience hunger without it being sated and 23% report being hungry every day. With Coronavirus disproportionately affecting those with underlying health conditions, the inadequate support provided to asylum seekers places them at extreme risk.

As an asylum seeker, there is no British citizenship to fall back on and they have no guaranteed ‘leave to remain’ rights either. In light of the meagre living allowance provided by the government, their chances of accessing enough food, heating, clothing and basic essentials is hugely compromised.

Another key aspect of an asylum seeker’s current plight is social distancing. Much of the accommodation provided to asylum seekers is overcrowded- a study by Refugee Rights Europe found that a number of female asylum seekers are forced to stay in rooms containing up to seven or eight other people. Such cramped living arrangements deny residents the ability to adhere to social distancing measures, leaving them acutely vulnerable to the transmission of infection. 

In the midst of a global pandemic, it is vitally important that all people have easy access to medical treatment. Yet there are number of barriers that prevent asylum seekers from accessing the assistance they need. One such barrier is the fear of punishment– ‘Hostile Environment’ policies have led to data-sharing between NHS staff and Immigration Enforcement, meaning that asylum seekers can face deportation if they reveal their immigration status when seeking treatment. The fear of such brutal consequences often leads to asylum seekers choosing to suffer their ailments with no help whatsoever.

Logistical costs also place much-needed treatment out of reach. With the asylum support rate barely covering the essentials, the phone credit needed to book an appointment is often unaffordable. Further to this, asylum housing is often situated far from the nearest hospital, leaving no other option than to pay for public transport.

At present, it is third-party organisations who are tasked with helping asylum seekers. Charities and voluntary organisations are absolutely crucial to survival, yet as mentioned, many are closed or unable to offer the same level of support during the Coronavirus epidemic. Increasing government support from the outset would greatly ease the burden on the third sector and provide vital assistance that would help asylum seekers attain decent living standards. In summary, there are four things that need to be addressed:

  • Bridging the gap between asylum seekers and health services, allowing them to access the treatment they need;
  • Increasing the level of financial support available so that all asylum seekers are able to sustain a decent standard of living;
  • Helping to provide safe accommodation that provides asylum seekers with the ability to properly self-isolate;
  • Providing a help card to asylum seekers, listing organisations that provide assistance and the specific services they offer. This would lessen the confusion and stress experienced by those seeking help.

Understanding is key too. The majority of people coming to our country desperately need help and support, particularly those with families. They deserve the opportunity to forge a positive existence for themselves and their loved ones. Making the process simpler will help immensely, and in light of the current climate, it will help save lives too.

Paul McShane is content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors.

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