UNHCR UK FAQs on COVID-19 in Relation to Refugees and Asylum Seekers

This page offers information on asylum policy in the UK, and the support that refugees and asylum-seekers are entitled to in relation to the Coronavirus pandemic.

This page relates specifically to matters concerning refugees and asylum-seekers, and offers answers to frequently asked questions.

To get tested for Coronavirus, and to learn more about how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 visit the NHS guidance website. The Government has clarified that no-one in the UK, including anyone living in the UK without regular immigration status, will be charged for treatment and testing for COVID-19 if required.

The vaccination programme in the UK is being delivered according to vulnerability to Covid 19. 

The priority groups, in which order people will be invited to receive their vaccine: 

• Residents in a care home for older adults and their carers
• All those 80 years of age and over and frontline health and social care workers
• All those 75 years of age and over
• All those 70 years of age and over and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals
• All those 65 years of age and over.
• All individuals aged 16 years to 64 years with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality
• All those 60 years of age and over
• All those 55 years of age and over
• All those 50 years of age and over

More on the vaccination programme in the different regions can be found on the UK Government website

Information about the vaccination programme can be found in a number of languages on the NHS website.

The Hesa Center has also created information on the vaccination programme in different South Asian Languages.

Job retention scheme

The Government is providing some support for employers, employees and the self-employed affected financially by this crisis. Details about this are available here

What health and self-isolation advice is available to UK refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups during the crisis?

Doctors of the World and other organisations have translated NHS guidance on Covid-19 into 60 languages. The translations are here. Public Health England has also published Covid-19 stay-at-home guidance in different languages here.

Are refugees and asylum seekers included in health and Government welfare support?

Those granted refugee status in the UK are entitled to free NHS care for their health needs. They have the right to work and can claim some state welfare benefits for which they are subject to the same restrictions as UK nationals.

Asylum-seekers are entitled to free NHS treatment. However, very few are allowed to work and most rely on state support – £39.63 per week for most persons for essentials, with basic accommodation provided. Once an asylum-seeker receives refugee status, they are given 28 days to ‘move-on’ from their property and find work or apply for welfare benefits in the mainstream system. The 28 day ‘move-on’ period is widely regarded as insufficient for many newly recognized refugees to find a job, or to navigate the system and transfer to regular welfare. Most refused asylum-seekers do not receive welfare support and are not formally covered by the NHS.

The Government has clarified that no-one in the UK, including anyone living in the UK without regular immigration status, will be charged for treatment and testing for COVID-19 if required.

Most organisations assisting refugees and asylum-seekers remain open, but may be working mostly remotely or have adapted their services in other ways in response to covid-19.

What changes have occurred in asylum and statelessness policy in light of COVID-19?

Home Office information about the asylum process is available here and here, and about how to apply to stay in the UK as a stateless person here

There have been some changes to asylum and other procedures due to covid-19. 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; the Home Office is expanding use of digital technology to conduct interviews remotely. Immigration reporting requirements have been suspended for many people. Further submissions / fresh claims — ie, providing new evidence where asylum claims have been refused or withdrawn – can be made by post or online. 

For more information about changes to the asylum and other protection processes, please see the Refugee Council’s website here.

What about accommodation for people in the asylum system and people with insecure immigration status?

Home Office information about how to apply for asylum support is available here. You can also find more information about different types of support available here.  Please see also the website of NACOMM for additional information.

If you are seeking protection in the UK and are homeless or destitute, you may be able to get help from the British Red Cross or another organization – please check the British Red Cross website for information about what they offer and their nearest office.

Some people who are destitute may be eligible for various types of support besides the standard asylum support. For example, some people who are destitute, even if they never claimed asylum, may be eligible for a type of support called Schedule 10 Immigration Bail support. More information is available here

Please also consult the Refugee Council website for updates. 

What is the status of immigration detention?

The UK is one of few European countries with no time limit on immigration detention. 

In response to covid-19 and pressure from numerous organisations, the Home Office released many people from immigration detention and has undertaken some measures to prevent the spread of covid-19 for those remaining in immigration detention.

If you are in immigration detention and need help or advice, please check the website of Bail for Immigration Detainees, which has an advice line for detainees. You can call 020 7456 9750 Mon-Thurs 10-12am.

What does UNHCR do in the UK?

Unlike in many other countries, UNHCR has a limited ‘operational’ role in the UK, where a strong NGO sector provides much of the non-governmental response across the country. In the UK, UNHCR provides advice, guidance and training on refugee and statelessness law and policy to the government and stakeholders, advocating as necessary for improvements to law and practice; where appropriate UNHCR takes up cases directly including in the courts.

UNHCR partners with the UK Government and the IOM in refugee resettlement, for which the UK has one of the largest programmes globally.

UNHCR advocates on behalf of refugees, stateless persons and internally displaced people globally, seeking political and financial support for its activities worldwide.  UNHCR also communicates with the general public to foster inclusiveness and empathy.

If you are an asylum-seeker, refugee or stateless person, we may not be able to help you directly, but where possible, we will try to help you find information and resources that will be useful and/or refer you to other organisations for direct assistance.

Does UNHCR have a hotline for refugees and asylum seekers with questions?

UNHCR UK’s Legal Protection Unit continues to function despite the current restrictions and can be contacted at any time via email on [email protected] or via our switchboard at 0203 761 9500 from 09:00-17:00 Monday to Thursday and 09:00 – 15:00 on Fridays.

What steps has UNHCR taken in the UK to respond?

Since the start of the crisis, UNHCR has worked with the Home Office and the NGO sector to identify gaps in the government’s response to COVID 19 as it applies to asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants, and recommend measures to address them.  UNHCR is a member of a working group, led by the British Red Cross, whose purpose is the sharing of information, collaboration and advocacy over COVID19-related issues in the sector.

Our staff are liaising with the government to coordinate reaction in the areas of detention, resettlement, asylum decision-making and statelessness. We are contributing to related Parliamentary enquiries and taking other action to seek to ensure the protection of people seeking asylum in the UK.

What about Refugee Family Reunion visa applications? 

Applications for Family Reunion are submitted to the UK Home Office and UNHCR is not involved in the process. Individuals in the UK wishing to be reunited with family abroad should seek specialist legal advice; preferably from a UK-based advisor.

After March 2020 the UK Government was unable to process Family Reunion applications whilst Visa Application Centres (VACs) were closed overseas. Many VACs have now reopened and family reunion applications are being processed again.

You can contact your nearest British Red Cross office which may be able to support with the Family Reunion process depending on your individual circumstances. Further information about who is eligible for support from the Red Cross is available here: https://www.redcross.org.uk/get-help/get-help-as-a-refugee

How many refugees and asylum claimants are there in the UK?

As of end 2019 there were an estimated 133,100 refugees living in the UK (UNHCR data). According to Home Office data, there were 35,566 asylum applications (44,494 individuals) in 2019. In 2019, 20,703 people were granted protection in the UK through the asylum system or resettlement programmes, the highest number in a single year since 2003. Of these 12,565 were grants of asylum, up 64% with notable increases in grants to Iranian (up 143% to 2,723), Sudanese (up 168% to 1,625) and Eritrean (up 113% to 1,785) nationals. 

However, more asylum-seekers are waiting longer for decisions. There were 40,018 asylum applications waiting for a decision at the end of 2019 (a 47% increase over the previous year).