The COVID-19 pandemic is causing unprecedented levels of disruption and suffering across the board. The death toll continues to rise, businesses are closing and our public services are struggling due to the twin pressures of increased demand and staff shortages.
The UK is currently facing its most significant crisis since the Second World War. In such testing times, it is of the utmost importance that our most vulnerable are cared for. Whilst the elderly and the immunocompromised have been determined as particularly at risk from COVID-19, there is another equally vulnerable group that has been sadly ignored.
Asylum seekers are at serious risk of being adversely affected by the Coronavirus outbreak for a number of reasons. First, the current provision of financial support amounts to a paltry £37.75 per person per week – simply not enough to maintain a decent standard of living. In fact, a study by Refugee Action revealed that many of those forced to survive on asylum support ‘struggled to feed themselves and their children’. Further to this, the British Red Cross found that 66 percent of asylum seekers experienced hunger ‘without being able to satisfy it’ on a weekly basis. At a time when both good health and the ability to access essential items could not be more important, the destitution experienced by asylum seekers leaves them acutely vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19.
Second, the accommodation provided to asylum seekers is often substandard- with little to no provisions for upkeep- and frequently leads to ill-health. An investigation by the ICIBI found that only a quarter of asylum properties met contractual standards. Carpets were damp and encrusted with dirt, leaking water was commonplace and problematic boilers were remedied by a cursory inspection and temporary fan heaters. In one instance, the NHS found that damp and poor ventilation had resulted in the ill-health of a child.
Quite remarkably, these issues and the impact they have on those living amongst them were frequently overlooked by accommodation providers. The ICIBI found that on one particular occasion, children known to be suffering from health problems such as asthma were living in properties with severe damp yet were not considered for relocation. With the government’s official COVID-19 guidance stating that all shared spaces should be well-ventilated, asylum accommodation stands in the way of residents protecting themselves from the spread of infection.
Third, asylum seekers often face difficulties when trying to access the healthcare they need. Logistical factors such as travel costs often put much-needed medical assistance out of reach- in the words of one pregnant woman seeking asylum in London:
‘I wish I could get accommodation near the hospital. It costs nearly £20 to travel to the hospital. The distance to the hospital – it’s far!’
Fear also plays a huge role. Due to concerns about data-sharing between NHS trusts and immigration enforcement and its possible consequence on any pending asylum application, asylum seekers are reluctant to reach out to the NHS.
On top of this, NHS staff are often unaware of asylum seekers’ legal entitlements in relation to healthcare. One Nottingham-based asylum seeker was told ‘We don’t accept refugees and asylum seekers that is our policy’, despite the fact that the only reasons a GP surgery can refuse registration are if the patient list is full or the patient provides proof of address outside the area it covers. In the middle of a global pandemic, having easy access to medical treatment could not be more important. Taking this into account, displaced people in the UK are left dangerously exposed to COVID-19 due to the difficulties they face in accessing healthcare.
Of course, whilst all these things are already problematic at the best of times, COVID-19 has exacerbated them primarily by shutting down the informal support network most asylum seekers rely on. Many foodbanks and charities, for example, have closed their drop-ins where vulnerable people can access free meals or sometimes, even accommodation. Social distancing measures have also meant that friends and family members are no longer able to offer food and shelter.
At the same time that their network of support is shrinking, supermarkets are running out of products and shelters are closing, the twin issues of food poverty and homelessness are set to intensify. These, in turn, will make asylum seekers particularly susceptible to a virus that preys on an immune system weakened by physical and mental stress, hunger and ill-health. The situation could be greatly improved by granting all undocumented migrants temporary leave to remain, as this would enable public funds to be accessed and healthcare to be sought without fearing the consequences.
Additionally, it is also imperative that any housing issues that could make people especially susceptible to contracting COVID-19 are immediately addressed. Instead of simply taking a cursory look at boilers that are not functioning properly or reports of damp, water leaks and pest infestations, property managers should – or should be made to – immediately remedy the problem once and for all. Sending a small heating fan instead of fixing a boiler is simply not acceptable.
In Scotland, a new national helpline has been launched to help vulnerable people at high risk of contracting COVID-19 who don’t have a support network. Asylum seekers, being vulnerable themselves, should also be helped and encouraged to access such a system, particularly amid these turbulent times.
Yes, poverty, ill-health and social exclusion are regrettably facts of life for many of those seeking asylum and we know that these problems will continue to intensify especially in the coming weeks. It is immensely important that we as a nation are ready to look after our most vulnerable, particularly at a time of such chaos and distress.