The Right to Get Online

“Just Like Food on a Plate”

Tom Cheesman, Marie Gillespie, Thanuja Hettiarachchi

Digital poverty for asylum seekers now means almost total exclusion from society. This isolation has a devastating effect on mental health and wellbeing and creates enormous practical problems. It’s a human rights issue. The UK government must include free online access in asylum seeker accommodation.

Social isolation and disconnection is a problem for many asylum seekers, often with severe impacts on mental health. Covid has made this much worse. Almost all asylum seekers are now struggling to access online schooling and adult education, medical services and information, advice and support services, translation, social life, leisure, play, integration opportunities, and not least: legal support – contact with solicitors – and contact with family and friends in the UK and abroad, who are often in dangerous situations. 

Never mind online shopping – hardly any asylum seekers use the internet for that. Without a functioning mobile phone, they may not even be able to reach emergency services.

The right to get online is now widely regarded as basic, like the right to food and water. So said Frank La Rue’s report to the UN General Assembly in 2011. So said the Labour Party last year in 2019. 

But as some British MPs said in parliament in October, “those with the lowest amount to live on are forced to pay the highest price to get online”: because asylum seekers can’t pay for a contract by direct debit. (# More from those MPs at the end of this blog!)

Asylum seekers, living on a £37.75 a week allowance, with no ‘permanent address’, can’t open a bank account. So they have to use Pay As You Go: much more expensive than a contract. Just one hour on Zoom can cost you £10 on Pay As You Go. 

The homes provided by the Home Office don’t come with wifi or broadband. The occupants aren’t even allowed to install any. (In general, no personal electrical devices can be brought in apparently for health and safety reasons.) 

Internet is not a luxury. It is a basic right. It should be provided free to asylum seekers – as it should to all others who suffer digital exclusion. 

This has become even more crucial under Covid when so much education moved online. This was especially the case for asylum seekers with children in school or learning English at college. One Swansea volunteer reports:

“Swansea schools use MS Teams, which is really expensive if you’re on Pay As You Go. One parent told me she had to spend her whole £37.75 Home Office weekly allowance just to keep her two kids accessing education. In some families, everyone is sharing just one phone or one tablet. Older teenagers were under so much stress in lockdown, not being able to access classes or communicate with friends.”

Under Covid, digital poverty means being denied access to basic rights. The impacts on children’s education during Covid are a huge scandal. This doesn’t only apply to asylum seekers. It’s a very widespread poverty issue. But asylum seekers as a distinct group are being systematically, deliberately excluded from digital connection while they are under the direct care of our government.

Digital inclusion: practical projects

Early in the first lockdown, in March, The Children’s Society recognised digital poverty as an urgent issue for asylum seekers, and they contacted voluntary organisations in Swansea (among other places) to offer funding. The local organisations were already talking about this at weekly coordinating meetings (online, of course, so few asylum seekers could attend). HBTSR Sanctuary group also raised funds for connectivity and Austin Bailey Foundation donated to SASS for this purpose. Local phone credit and device distribution schemes were started. Various local organisations and projects now refer beneficiaries to these schemes. 
EYST employed a part-time worker to distribute Pay As You Go phone credit top ups, and devices (phones, tablets, laptops). She says:

“At first, when Covid started, no one understood what connection really means. People were talking about basic needs like food and clothes, but soon internet access became a massive need – just like food on a plate. Everything moved online – work, education, socialising – everything – and we all had to adjust to the new reality. How on earth could asylum seekers keep up with everyone, keep their children educated, informed, entertained, healthy, connected? I saw how so many people were really struggling. They were having to choose between food and data. Together with other organisations we secured funding for devices and purchase of data. There was some provision from the Welsh Government and the local authority but far from enough.”

A SASS volunteer started giving her time, liaising between referring organisations, funders, and individual recipients. She gives a lot of time to this now, week in week out. With so many different phone providers, no universal system of top up cards/vouchers is possible. Some must be purchased and distributed in physical form, some can be transferred digitally. It’s a major admin job. She says:

“Many of us at first had no idea just how badly the UK government treats asylum seekers and what data poverty means. Most of the population takes broadband and wifi for granted. Many people were shut out of school and college online courses. Any credit had to go for international calls. People are so grateful for phone top ups. It’s only £10 a month but it makes a huge difference. It’s not enough, though. Since SASS drop ins closed, we’re providing English lessons online – but it’s costly in terms of data. Just one Zoom class can cost you £10 on Pay As You Go.”

Distributing phone top ups creates dilemmas. One volunteer said:

“Imagine a single mother with 4 teenage children – all require devices and internet – she goes to every local organisation and gets a device and top ups, so in one week she has £50 worth of data. But is that fair to all the others in need? Who can blame the mother? The different local organisations try to work together to ensure fair and equitable access to resources for everyone in most need – but assessing need is so hard, and we have to ration our resources too.”

The right to internet includes the right to necessary education and support. One volunteer commented:

“Even if you have the device and the data, problems like how to install software can be overwhelming under Covid, with no face to face meetings, if you can’t sit down with someone to help, and you can’t even access Google Translate. When digital poverty goes hand in hand with limited digital literacy and skills – you can begin to appreciate the scale of the problem.”

The organisations and volunteers keep working on this. Internet access really is like food: blocking it is like letting people starve. More and more recognise this and are working on it.

“The Home Office describes [the] cash support as helping asylum seekers pay for essentials such as food, clothing and toiletries, [but] the ability to get online is also an essential need in modern society; […] the need for online connectivity is particularly acute for asylum seekers, many of whom are vulnerable, isolated, and have family and friends trapped in dangerous conditions elsewhere around the world; […] many asylum seekers find themselves digitally excluded due to their inability to access affordable, reliable internet access; […] the ASPEN card system prevents asylum seekers from paying for efficient, low-cost mobile internet contracts through direct debit, and instead forces many to choose between purchasing prohibitively expensive pay-as-you-go data packages or affording other essentials such as food and toiletries; […] it is grossly unfair that those with the lowest amount to live on are forced to pay the highest price to get online; […] the Government [should] widen the scope of asylum support system to ensure that asylum seekers can access affordable, reliable internet service, and provide a commensurate increase in the asylum support to cover these costs.” Greetings to the friends in Scotland behind that motion. Live long and prosper!

CAPTION – Ahmed Noori reports on digital exclusion for STAR: Student Action for RefugeesLINK:

CAPTION – Elderly people, asylum seekers and refugees and households living in poverty are hit hardest by more expensive pay-as-you-go tariffs. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

CAPTION – Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network is doing excellent work on digital inclusionLINK:


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