12 April 2023

People seeking asylum at risk of missing out on basic healthcare services

Further information

daniellemendel@redcross.org.uk 07711 008 782

For out of hours: 07710 391 703

People seeking asylum in England are at risk of missing out on basic healthcare services because they have limited access to the internet and digital tools, the British Red Cross warns. 

The charity’s new report, Offline and Isolated: How digital exclusion impacts access to healthcare for people seeking asylum in England, is published today. Using a peer research approach, where refugees who have been through the asylum process interviewed people seeking asylum, the report provides a detailed picture of the barriers to online healthcare services.

The report highlights several barriers, including the affordability of devices and mobile data, a lack of Wi-Fi in asylum accommodation, and a lack of confidence in using technology and navigating websites in English.

The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the process of healthcare services becoming digital. For example, you often need to book an appointment online to speak to your GP and it might be carried out by video call. Whilst this can make it easier for some people to get the care they need, equally it can create barriers for others. The British Red Cross warns it can be more difficult for people seeking asylum, who often don’t have smartphones or can’t afford data, to get the medical appointments they need.

The people interviewed for the report said they felt isolated and lonely as a result of not having digital access. Worryingly, some told the British Red Cross a lack of digital access also meant they avoided seeking help for medical problems altogether or went straight to A&E, when they couldn’t get through to a GP.

The charity warns this puts the health of people seeking asylum at risk and adds additional pressure to emergency services.  

Sohaib Hafeez, a peer researcher who worked on the report, commented on the stories he heard from the people he interviewed: 

"Simple things, like access to a GP, became a struggle as they often could not afford technology and internet access, and did not have the digital skills needed to navigate these tools.

“People were instructed to use online healthcare apps but they were not able to for these reasons. It saddened me, sitting through the interviews and hearing people not being able to contact their GP to attain basic care, and not being able to communicate with their family and loved ones."

“I felt so isolated” - people’s experiences in their own words:

Reflecting on living without internet during lockdown, one person seeking asylum from Eritrea said: “I hated it; I felt so isolated. I had no internet, it felt like I was in prison. My mental health was impacted. I suffered a lot. I don’t want to think about that time again.”

One person from Bangladesh described their lack of digital skills: “I never used any technology at all since I do not understand how it works.”

Another person seeking asylum from the Gambia said: “With limited funds, it has not always been easy to go online. [The] communal living environment makes it difficult to have that private space to go online.”

Olivia Field, British Red Cross Head of Health and Resilience Policy, said:

“As all kinds of services move online, from banking to booking healthcare appointments, we’re concerned about the impact on people seeking asylum, who often don’t have digital access.

“Access to the internet, smartphones or computers is not a luxury. These tools are a necessary part of communication in our modern world and increasingly vital for accessing basic healthcare services. Without them, people’s health is put at risk and it's harder to integrate into communities, with an increased risk of isolation. 

“We must listen to the concerns of people seeking asylum. Providing Wi-Fi in asylum accommodation, improving digital literacy training and making sure people have non-digital ways of accessing healthcare services are just some of the small steps the government and NHS can take to make sure everyone can get the care they need when they need it.”

 - ENDS -