Asylum seekers supported by the Home Office receive £37.75 per week allowance for all the necessities of life – a fraction of mainstream benefits. Denied the right to work, unable to afford public transport, isolated with worsening mental health problems – even before Covid. Hunger is common.
- Universal Credit increased by £20 during the crisis, in recognition of the increased difficulty of making ends meet, rising food costs etc. The asylum allowance has been increased by just £1.85, to £39.60. Asylum seekers are in the most desperate poverty.
- New asylum seekers continue to arrive in Swansea during the crisis, ‘dispersed’ from England. Improvised interim accommodation, in a hotel, is unsafe, crowded, with no social distancing possible. Occupants are randomly allocated to it, then relocated to Cardiff, then back. They have nothing – no clothes, shoes, toiletries – but the Home Office does not work with local voluntary groups which could help them.
- Most asylum seekers in Swansea rely (until Covid) on local voluntary drop-ins for regular meals, and to access donations (toiletries, sanitary goods, clothes, etc), English classes, other support and advice, to escape isolation and mitigate mental health problems, to feel part of a community, make new friends. These drop-ins have all closed. Local charities scrambled to deliver services via phones, working with food banks and others to meet emergency needs, responding to a constant stream of requests, above all from people going hungry.
- In the crisis, local workers and volunteers have collaborated in new and inventive ways. The local authority, charity support and advice services, foodbanks run by churches and mosques and others, all now coordinate closely. Some new funding streams have appeared. Volunteer groups have come together energetically to organise new support, over phones and other devices. Asylum seekers and refugees themselves play key roles in developing and delivering the new services.
- But the crisis has also exposed other problems.
- When asylum claims and appeals fail, but deportation would be illegal, some are offered accommodation and a lower allowance, on stringent conditions. Some people in this situation have been arbitrarily rehoused by the Home Office, in different cities, severing their local networks.
- Many cannot accept the conditions. Then they must somehow survive with no accommodation, no allowance, no right to mainstream benefits or right to work. They depend on charity, friends, or exploitative illegal employers (this policy supports and encourages many criminal enterprises). This is No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF).
- Homeless (refused) NRPF asylum seekers were offered accommodation by local authorities during the crisis. Sometimes it is inappropriate and unsafe. Now, as lockdown ends, the beneficiaries are likely to be made homeless again.
- Projects supporting NRPF face great challenges. One in Swansea is prioritising the most vulnerable: older, single women, including women in the 60s and 70s – a ‘forgotten minority’ among asylum seekers. The project relies on volunteer hosts. Recruiting them is harder than ever.
- Destitution also affects many who gain refugee status, in the delayed transition from asylum support to mainstream benefits. The Home Office has allowed new refugees to stay in asylum accommodation, but that will probably soon end.
- In Swansea, many asylum seekers reported that they have felt very upset and disappointed at increased experiences of racism, prejudice and verbal abuse. His has been reported more widely across the UK. For example, one single mother with several pre-school-age children went with them to a supermarket and was verbally abused for breaking the ‘one person per household’ rule. But she had no alternative. She felt she would have been treated with sympathy if she had been white and/or spoken with a local accent. Another women in her 50s visited her elderly next door neighbor to ask if she could help and became very distressed when the neighbour shouted at her to go away “people like you are spreading the virus in our country”. It should be noted though, that equally myriad simple acts of kindness, solidarity and friendship have also been documented and expressed and enacted.
DISTRESS AND DESPAIR
- Many asylum-seekers and refugees suffer long-lasting mental distress due to experiences in their home country, and on the journey in search of safety, and also experiences here in the UK (being disbelieved, left in limbo for months and years, treated as alien and unwelcome).
- Counselling services are offered by one local charity. They have switched to phone/tablet-based counselling. This is less than ideal for many cases of PTSD, anxiety, depression, agoraphobia and other conditions. Lockdown itself often aggravates distress.
- Covid 19 has exacerbated the digital divide. Data poverty and information insecurity go hand in hand. A high proportion of all UK children are not accessing education now, due to data poverty (promised laptops have yet to appear). Data poverty affects an even higher proportion of asylum seekers.
- Many families rely on one shared phone. They can’t afford wi-fi and phone contracts; they are banned from installing electronic devices in Home Office accommodation; they can rarely open a bank account.
- Charities have developed new schemes to distribute phone top-ups and loan out tablets, so children and adults can participate in education and volunteering activities (and entertainment).
- A high proportion of asylum seekers who previously took English classes at colleges and charities are in online education now. But some students have been ‘lost’, presumably due to data poverty. Charities are working to contact and support them.
- People who know limited English, and are socially isolated, are at great risk of not receiving or understanding information including public health advice. Translations of government announcements were slow to appear and often in inappropriate formats (e.g. only text, but some cannot read).
- There are no official interpreting services. Volunteer interpreters, acting with charity groups or independently, are enormously important information brokers. Some language-specific refugee communities are well organised for mutual support. Some not at all.