Asylum Seekers Face Isolation and Destitution amid Covid-19

16.6.2020: Rethinking Security: Loraine Masiya Mponela, the chairperson of Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group (CARAG), reflects on the unique challenges being faced by asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in the UK during the pandemic.

Asylum seekers are people whose request for protection is yet to be processed. International law provides that anyone has a right to seek asylum from persecution. Undocumented migrants are people who have spent many years in the UK, often building strong ties and family life, but still have diminished rights.  

Asylum seekers in isolation

Asylum seekers are already the most isolated and marginalised people in the UK and things have just gotten a lot worse for them. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, CARAG used to organise meetings where we would have a hot meal and chat about anything. We had this safe space where everyone felt welcome. This was the only time for many asylum seekers to have this opportunity to meet and talk with others. In line with lockdown guidance, these meetings have been suspended.

We are trying to use online platforms like Zoom but that has its own challenges. Very few of us can afford phone credit and data to join a meeting. Asylum seekers live on the £5.39 per day provided by the government. We are not allowed to work, even though many of us want to work and are qualified to work, even in essential services which can save lives during this COVID-19 crisis.

A number of asylum seekers with significant mental health issues live together in shared Home Office accommodation, where there is limited privacy with no possibility of social distancing, which makes matters worse for their health and wellbeing.

We know of some asylum seekers with physical disabilities who are placed in inappropriate accommodation by the Home Office. This is difficult to challenge. The dominant message coming from the Home Office is that asylum seekers should be grateful for whatever the Home Office provides for them.

We are seeing single mothers who are struggling with childcare in often poor, cramped accommodation. It is hard for them to entertain children in households without a TV, computer or the Internet. Children at home instead of at school means more money spent on food, electricity and gas.

New UK applicants for asylum are placed in initial accommodation which is often in run-down hotels. This is where you don’t get any cash but meals are provided. These hotels often only give 20 minutes of Wi-Fi per day. Some hotels are charging over £25 a month to use hotel Wi-Fi up to 12 hours a day.

There has been a mushrooming of COVID-19 resilience funds recently, which is a positive development. Unfortunately, most funders are looking for registered charities. Grassroots migrant organisations like ours are constituted as community groups, which means we are excluded from such funding. However, some individuals have reached out to us and I am trusting that we will attract more funders who want to help our growing community. 

Undocumented migrants face destitution

Many “failed” asylum seekers, who the Home Office has acknowledged cannot be safely returned to their country of origin, are either street homeless or “sofa surfing”. These people move from one place to another on a daily basis, either looking for food, a toilet, a place to shower or somewhere to sit down to rest.  Thankfully most of our people who were living on the streets and in night shelters, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have been put in bed and breakfast accommodation by councils. But what they really need is a settled life in secure and permanent accommodation. We should also remember that not every destitute person can access this government support, for reasons too various to go into here.

Destitution has worsened, as some among us were working cash-in-hand as cleaners and carers. This has now stopped – therefore no income. Babysitting jobs are gone as well, as  parents are now at home. Sadly, for many of our people, these are the kind of jobs not “furloughed” under the government Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Unfortunately there is nobody to advocate for these people.

The Home Office cash support for asylum seekers is provided on a debit card called an Aspen card. Of late we have noted problems in using the cards. Most local cash machines are declining the card. It means holders of these cards have to walk to city centres for bank cash machines hoping to find one that can disburse funds from these cards.

Lingering in my mind also is an asylum seeker who told me that the most painful thought for her is catching COVID-19 and dying in the UK, only for her remains to be disposed of in a country that never accepted her in life. She said that hurts her the most. 

Amnesty for all

I think to ease the immense suffering of undocumented migrants, amnesty for all of them would be a significant step forward. The current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor of London, argued for such a step. Campaigners are also asking the government in this petition to give Leave To Remain to everyone in this country so everyone can have access to healthcare, as a public health measure in dealing with the pandemic.

Amnesty for all will enable the most marginalised people in our society to take back control of their lives and fight the pandemic from the same front as everyone else. Further, many undocumented migrants were essential workers back in their home countries – nurses, drivers, care workers. By regularising their situation the government would not only be saving lives but also enabling them to unleash their skills.

Asylum seekers and undocumented migrants are among the most insecure people living in the UK. The conditions they endure are beyond the comprehension of most people. We at CARAG do what we can to help our fellow refugees and asylum seekers to survive – physically, mentally and emotionally.

Loraine Masiya Mponela is the chairperson of Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group (CARAG), a community group made up of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants based in Coventry.

A version of this article was first published by The BaRE UK.