Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Charity sector scrambles to shield refugees as UK COVID-19 crisis deepens


Charity sector scrambles to shield refugees as UK COVID-19 crisis deepens

UK charities take steps to support refugees and asylum-seekers as government announces new measures to stem coronavirus.
25 March 2020
United Kingdom. Afghan refugee poet wins scholarship at London university
"School was two mountains away, and it snowed a lot. We went on a rocky mountain path and it took an hour and a half." Nineteen-year-old Shukria Rezaei is an award-winning poet who arrived in Oxford after leaving Afghanistan with her mother. She spoke very little English on arrival and joined Oxford Spires Academy where she worked with Kate Clanchy, the poet and writer in residence.

UK groups are scrambling to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are not forgotten during the COVID-19 pandemic.

These vulnerable people often face barriers to accessing services and English language classes and concern is mounting they could be left behind as society is re-ordered to cope with the crisis.

The UK government announced on Monday that people must stay at home aside from shopping for basics, daily exercise, medical needs and travel for essential work. To date, the country has seen 8,077 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 422 deaths.

Support networks for young refugees and asylum seekers are under massive strain, said Jo Cobley, director of Young Roots. The non-governmental organization (NGO) works with 650 young refugees and asylum seekers via activities and casework in London’s Croydon and Brent districts.

"A lot of young people have fallen through the net, like those waiting for appeals. There are big concerns about mental health for an already isolated group,” Cobley said. Young Roots is in touch with its clients by phone and text. It has launched an appeal and is providing, where possible, smartphones, data bundles, and food and travel vouchers.

National NGOs are advocating for the inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers in national health care and other benefits, to ensure that accommodation and isolation facilities are available and to guard against marginalisation or stigmatisation.

They recently sent a joint letter on the issue to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The British Refugee Council has launched a fund to ensure that its therapists remain available for remote counselling and so they can support people with newly-granted refugee status, who only have 28 days to find accommodation.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, provides training and guidance on refugee and asylum law and policy to the UK government and stakeholders. It also takes up cases directly where appropriate.

“This is a national and global emergency,” said Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UNHCR's Representative in the UK. “The virus knows no borders and measures to combat it can only succeed if they are inclusive. All countries must consider practical ways to ensure that refugees and other vulnerable people, including those in irregular situations, are not left on the margins,” she said.

Birmingham-based artist-activist Salma Zulfiqar has taken ARTconnects, a creative workshop which aims to empower refugees and strengthen links with host communities, online via Zoom, with follow-ups on Facebook and Instagram.

Her online workshop Monday was due to include participants in Italy and Spain as well as the UK.

“People are looking after themselves first. They are scared, stressed and panicked,” she said. “We need to get the information out there and make sure that refugees are included. More than ever, we need acts of kindness.”

The government has announced measures to support employers and employees and introduced a Coronavirus Bill, expected to be passed soon, covering health, social work, food supply and other extraordinary powers.

The Home Office is enabling asylum claims to be registered with limited contact. Some screening interviews and all substantive in-person interviews have been cancelled and the Home Office is looking to expand using digital technology to conduct interviews.

For most, immigration reporting requirements have been suspended for three months and the requirement for so-called further submissions, new evidence requirements where asylum claims have been refused or withdrawn, has shifted to the post or online.

The Home Office says it cannot currently support assisted returns for people who require a level of assistance upon return home from the UK.

The government is also reviewing the basis for ongoing immigration detention. NGOs have written to the Home Secretary, calling for the release of those in immigration detention amid fears about the ability to contain the virus within the facilities. Legal action is also being pursued to secure the release of detainees vulnerable to infection and the suspension of new detentions.

As is the case globally, resettlement to the UK has been temporarily suspended by UNHCR, the IOM and the government. Local authorities are being updated through strategic migration partnerships about the impact on service providers.

The Government has also announced its intention to seek an arrangement with the EU to preserve the right to family reunion for unaccompanied children seeking international protection in the EU or the UK, and has signalled it will continue with Dublin III transfers of asylum seekers from Europe as well as processing in-country applications, where possible, despite COVID-19.

Across the country, asylum seekers appear especially vulnerable, lacking the support for refugees with status. Those with an active claim receive £37.75 weekly for essentials, with rudimentary accommodation provided. However, those refused receive no support.

For groups supporting refugees and asylum seekers, activity is moving online where possible, or into raising funds for emergency packs.

In London, Haringey Migrant Support Centre has created an emergency fund for homeless and destitute migrant visitors whom they previously supported with food bank vouchers, food parcels and clothes.

The Asylum Support Appeals Group has posted the latest advice online about benefits or asylum support, though that advice can change quickly. Doctors of the World has translated the health service’s advice on Covid-19 into 26 languages to be disseminated by those working with migrants and refugees.

Therapeutic and learning activities have also had to scramble to adapt. TimePeace, an organisation bridging the social gap between refugees, asylum seekers and locals, has moved its Speed Friending sessions online via the Slack platform.

Phoenix Community Care is raising money for a computer so that young asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors in Tottenham can study online.