"This is not only a humanitarian challenge, but also a public health one"
By Naomi Phillips, Director of policy and advocacy
Recently the BBC talked to Ali, a young man facing the twin challenges of being in the UK asylum system while trying to stay healthy and safe during a public health emergency. Ali is one of many people who escaped the dangers of their homeland to find themselves now dealing with a new threat in a new land. How do those living on the margins of our society continue to afford food, self-isolate and look after themselves and others?
Life in the asylum system can be tough at the best of times. Imagine arriving in a new country. Carrying the anxiety of all you’ve left behind. And navigating a complex system that can make everyday life precarious. Couple this with an unprecedented health crisis, and it’s easy to see that those ‘hidden’ and living on the fringes of our communities are experiencing an incredibly challenging time.
DO YOU PAY FOR PHONE DATA TO SPEAK TO FAMILY OR HELP YOUR CHILD ACCESS ONLINE CLASSES? OR DO YOU BUY FOOD?
Take food for example. Ali and others waiting on the result of their asylum applications are not allowed to work in the UK and rely on just £37.75 a week from the government. This tight budget means you have to agonise over every purchase: to plan your weekly outgoings to the penny.
People struggle to make ends meet normally, but that struggle is now even harder. Many of the places people would typically turn to for help – churches and charity drop-in centres, for food or access to WiFi – have had to close. Do you pay for phone data to speak to family or help your child access online classes? Or do you buy food?
Simple changes, like being able to buy food online, would make a huge difference
That £37.75 is paid onto a special card that people can use in shops to buy basic supplies, or to take money out from a cash point. But it can’t be used online. Shopping locally often means using smaller convenience stores with higher prices. A simple change that the Home Office could make is to enable the card to be used online, so people can reduce how often they need to go outside.
At the British Red Cross we support people through the UK’s asylum process. We help ensure their basic needs are met, like food and emergency financial aid. We’re working with governments and partner organisations across the country to respond to COVID-19, and we are seeing particular risks faced by this already marginalised and vulnerable group. There are simple changes that urgently need to be made to the asylum system so people can keep themselves, their families and their communities safe.
Refugees will not be evicted because of coronavirus, but more needs to be done
Some of those changes are happening. We warmly welcomed the announcement last week by Chris Philp MP, the Immigration Minister, that people would not be evicted from Home Office accommodation, for at least the next three months. This provides some certainty to the nearly 50,000 men, women and children who, without that support, could otherwise be homeless.
But we can’t stop there.
As part of their response to the COVID-19 crisis, the government has increased Universal Credit by £20 each week. This week sixty charities have signed a joint letter asking to see a similar change for those in the asylum process.
Crucially, people must be able to access medical support free of charge and without fear of immigration enforcement. COVID-19 was quickly added to the list of non-chargeable health conditions, but we’re calling for the suspension of all NHS charging for people seeking asylum.
We want the NHS and the Home Office to suspend data sharing to give people seeking asylum the confidence to come forward and be tested if needed, without the fear of being detained or receiving bills they can’t afford to pay.
We are increasingly hearing from people about their fears of not being able to self-isolate or maintain social distancing within Home Office accommodation. Often this housing is overcrowded; whole families live in one room or people using contained communal areas, such as bathrooms and kitchens. Making sure housing is suitable will enable people to comply with government guidance, and allow everyone to play their part in tackling COVID-19.
Refugees and people seeking asylum understand better than most the instant, indiscriminate impact a major crisis can have on a person’s life. People have been forced to flee their homes because of horrors many of us couldn’t even imagine. Sometimes overnight, they must make the decision to leave behind jobs, communities and loved ones, to travel along some of the world’s most dangerous routes in the hope of finding safety. They are now among our most vulnerable people in this country.
This is not only a humanitarian challenge, but also a public health one. In the fight against COVID-19, we all benefit from a less hostile environment and more inclusive communities that leave no one behind.
Director of policy and advocacy
Naomi Phillips is director of policy and advocacy at the British Red Cross and part of its strategic leadership team. Naomi specialises in policy, research, advocacy, government relations, public affairs and partnership working.
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