Underpinned by the hostile environment policy, people seeking asylum in the UK have been subject to an array of exclusionary, disciplinary, and racist measures to make it as difficult as possible for them to stay in the UK. This generated experiences of impoverishment, social exclusion, and discrimination well before the onset of COVID-19.
The pandemic has, however, intensified the hostility of the already hostile environment. Many asylum seekers and refugees are now faced with the intersecting pandemics of inequality, racism, and Covid. It is important to note that asylum seekers and refugees have been far from passive in the face of these considerable challenges, both before and during the pandemic. In some instances, they lead or take on active roles within community-based organisations for those seeking asylum, and this mobilisation was evident in the sector’s response to the pandemic. Despite this, our report on the impacts of Covid on asylum seekers and refugees in the UK shows how pre-existing hardships and the challenges presented by the pandemic combined leave many asylum seekers and refugees highly vulnerable in this time of crisis.
Many we spoke to felt that their lives were already in a state of lockdown pre-pandemic, as they were restricted in many domains of life including housing, employment opportunities, education, finance, and access to services. The pandemic, for most, had contributed to a worsening of these already difficult circumstances. One female asylum seeker stated ‘It was difficult before Covid. With Covid, it's like rubbing salt on the wound.’
High rates of social isolation and loneliness are common experiences for refugees and asylum seekers as they seek to settle down in a new place – the onset of the pandemic amplified these issues for many. The requirement to stay at home coupled with the loss of access to the physical premises of support groups was particularly challenging. These crucial groups provide opportunities to develop a sense of local inclusion and are important for socialising, mental wellbeing, forming daily routines and accessing information, support, and education. Asylum seekers who were alone were especially vulnerable to loneliness during lockdown. Single men who had been trying to claim asylum for several years, and who already experienced isolation and loneliness, were particularly affected.
Digital exclusion was another factor contributing to increasing social isolation and loneliness. Limited and intermittent Wi-Fi and data access and insufficient access to smartphones, personal computers, or televisions, meant that many were struggling to access the online spaces that have become especially important for social connectivity and wellbeing during the pandemic. It is important to understand that digital exclusion is – in large part – enforced through restrictive policies that the Home Office places on asylum seekers. Housing for asylum seekers is not provided with Wi-Fi, and asylum seekers are typically unable to sign up for broadband contracts.
Extra caring responsibilities during lockdown put significant pressure on asylum-seeker and refugee women in particular. Lockdown and the closure of schools meant that many women – especially single mothers – had few opportunities to have a break from childcare and to have time for themselves. This meant they had limited or no opportunities to visit support organisations and engage in everyday recreational activities; this all led to the worsening of their mental health.
Having to spend extended periods of time in poor quality housing with broken appliances and damaged furniture was extremely difficult for many. Repairs and maintenance that were requested during lockdowns were often not carried out, or there was a long period of waiting. For those granted refugee status, moving out of their asylum housing and finding new accommodation and finding furniture and appliances, were made more difficult during the pandemic. This resulted in some people living without various essential items, while others were homeless for several months.
For many, the pandemic has added to their financial precarity. Asylum seekers are very restricted when it comes to having a bank account and thus do not often have debit or credit cards. This meant that they were not able to use online services or online shopping during lockdown and were forced to leave their homes to purchase essential items. This made them more vulnerable, potentially exposing them to the Covid-19 virus.
The mental health impacts of both the hostile environment and the pandemic were significant for many of the people we spoke to. The heavy toll of claiming asylum, such as isolation and poverty, compounded by the effects of lockdown, had had a severe impact on mental wellbeing. For most, the impacts of lockdown had worsened their difficult mental health conditions.
To sum up, it has been well documented that black and minority ethnic communities are at greater risk of the impacts of the pandemic and the experiences of asylum seekers and refugees are another clear example of that. The combined impacts of the pandemic with hostile environment policies have created a highly precarious situation, and until the hostile treatment of migrants changes, the precarity and vulnerability of asylum seekers and refugees – in pandemic and non-pandemic times –will remain.