During the lockdown, the Sisters Not Strangers coalition conducted research on how asylum-seeking women were surviving the pandemic. Over 100 women in England and Wales, already vulnerable to hunger, homelessness and ill health before the outbreak, responded to tell us that they were struggling more than ever.
The refugee women leaders who coordinated this research believed that the experiences of women like them were being ignored by the government. “[W]hen we speak as individuals it can sound as if we are [dramatizing] the situation,” Loraine Mponela, an asylum-seeking woman who chairs the Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group, said: “But it’s not drama, it’s real life.”
For women within the asylum system “real life” means poverty. Banned from working, they must survive on support equating to £5.39 a day – an amount raised by just 26p during the pandemic. Most of the women in our networks have fled gender-based violence. Yet racism and sexism in Home Office decision-making means that their stories of persecution are often disbelieved, and cuts to legal aid mean that it is increasingly difficult to access quality advice. Many of these women, fearing persecution in their country of origin, remain in the UK. But they have no access to statutory support and no right to work. “Real life” for these women, even before the pandemic, was a state of indefinite destitution.
As charities closed during lockdown access to hot meals and hardship payments, that sustain women both within the asylum and those whose claims have been refused, was blocked. Priti Patel declared that “our measures are working“, but 74% of our respondents were hungry.
Pauline, an asylum-seeking mother supported by WAST Manchester, shared: “I fled domestic violence…and to protect my daughter from FGM. I can hardly feed my children because food prices have gone up since the pandemic and the support I receive from the Home Office is not enough.”
Only four women who answered the survey were in emergency accommodation provided by councils. Twenty-one percent were homeless during the lockdown, relying on precarious arrangements with community members. Inadequate funding and confusion over how local authorities could legally accommodate people with no recourse to public funds meant that some refused asylum-seeking women in England were denied emergency housing. Councils told them to approach the Home Office instead, but only two women who answered our survey received emergency accommodation from the Home Office.
Other women feared seeking support from the Home Office due to mistrust of sharing their information or the likelihood of being dispersed to accommodation far from their support networks that are vital for traumatised survivors of sexual violence. Some were deterred by reported conditions in Home Office housing. For this research, we also consulted support workers at the charities involved, 70% of whom had assisted women within the asylum system who reported living in unsanitary Home Office accommodation. Lo Lo, a survivor of trafficking, with a serious health condition, said: “The accommodation was filthy and overcrowded. There were cockroaches and rats everywhere and we didn’t have any hot water.”
A fifth of women who answered the survey were forced to sleep in the same room as a non-family member during the pandemic, despite government insistence on social distancing. One refused asylum-seeking woman had to move several times, at one point sleeping on the floor in the room of a male stranger, cooking and cleaning the house to avoid street homelessness.
The vast majority of women said that their mental health had deteriorated during the lockdown, exacerbated by barriers to accessing NHS care and increased isolation from a lack of phone and internet access. For twenty-three percent it was “much worse than before”, with support workers from Liverpool, Manchester, Halifax and London reporting having assisted women who had self-harmed or tried to kill themselves during the pandemic. A fifth of support workers assisted women who were forced to stay in unwanted or abusive relationships – but with the closure of face-to-face services, the true figure of abuse during lockdown is probably far higher than the survey reveals.
We at Sisters Not Strangers believe that everyone deserves to survive the pandemic. This is why we call for a grant of leave-to-remain to be given to people with insecure immigration status, so that they can access support, safe housing and NHS care during a public health emergency. But if we are to build back better we must go further – reforming not only the system that endangers asylum-seeking people during the outbreak, but also by dismantling policies that entrench poverty, patriarchy and white privilege throughout British society. Let us continue the solidarity that emerged in the pandemic to create an equal society that values all of its members.