The Refugee Council has secured vital funds from the National Emergencies Trust (NET) to support refugees and asylum seekers, who have been hugely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. As national project manager for our NET Refugee Crisis Project, I am thrilled to be working alongside our wonderful partners, Scottish Refugee Council, Welsh Refugee Council and Bryson Care, to meet the needs of some of our most vulnerable clients.
Alongside our partners in Scotland and Wales, we are delivering a freephone helpline to take crisis calls from refugees and people seeking asylum who are trying to navigate complex systems whilst many services are closed, or are limited in the support they can offer and not currently working face to face. Whilst a lot of services have moved to online delivery, many of those who are seeking asylum have struggled to access information online, and at the same time have been unable to attend the classes and groups that are usually available, to continue their learning and stay connected with their friends and loved ones. The freephone service provides something for clients to turn to in order to receive vital information and appropriate signposting and referral support.
Our new NET-funded project assists our client group in many other ways too. We offer therapeutic work to adults and children in key hotspots where the need is greatest. We know that during lockdown, our clients’ isolation has had a negative impact on their mental health. Many of the people we support in hotels have needed mental health assistance during this time, as self-isolation and lockdown restrictions have resulted in almost no social interaction for extended periods.
Those seeking asylum are not permitted to work or claim welfare benefits. They can apply for asylum support, which is £37.75 per week per person. This is an incredibly small amount of money and during the pandemic, costs were stretched for clients having to purchase face masks and cleaning products, as well as food, toiletries and clothing. Lots of centres where clients would visit for hot meals or food parcels were closed during the lockdown, which meant their funds had to stretch further than usual.
When asylum seekers’ cases are refused, if they don’t manage to acquire a new solicitor and appeal or launch a fresh claim, their entitlement to asylum support is lost and many become destitute during this time. Information from the British Refugee Council’s Infoline reveals that there has been a significant increase in the number of clients who are destitute; referrals on this issue have increased from 7 percent pre-covid, to 25 percent.
We’ve also seen a marked increase in the number of refugees and people seeking asylum contacting us for support for both mental health and domestic abuse. Social isolation can lead to chronic loneliness, placing individuals at much greater risk of physical and mental illness, particularly depression and in some cases suicide.
In addition to our therapeutic work and helpline project, the British Refugee Council is providing advice and support for care leavers, and for young people who have been incorrectly assessed as adults by immigration officials. We support these young people to challenge these decisions.
We also provide holistic support – such as clothing, access to mobile phones, health briefings, art therapy and other means of social contact – for people seeking asylum in temporary hotel accommodation in Yorkshire and Humberside. Our amazing partners in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are delivering additional projects focusing on digital exclusion, destitution, families and homelessness, as well as employment and education.
Our various projects have already supported hundreds of clients across the UK. In Yorkshire and Humberside our hotels project has supported over 100 clients since the service was launched in September 2020. The project has received a lot of support from local businesses, faith groups and members of the public – with many essential items being donated, all of which were desperately needed. For example, many of those residing in temporary hotel accommodation have little or no clothing suitable for winter weather, often only having the clothes they were wearing when they arrived in the UK. In response, Marks and Spencer and Shoe Zone donated hundreds of pairs of shoes this winter.
Sadly, many asylum seekers’ personal items such as phones are confiscated when they first arrive. Without phones, clients have no way to get in touch with solicitors for legal advice, or with their families back home. Our hotel team therefore also uses its budget to purchase mobile phones and data packages, as well as other clothing items such as underwear and socks. On one of the first days, our hotel worker visited one of the hotels in Sheffield and provided clothing support to 70 clients, which highlights the level of basic need currently experienced.
If you are interested in learning more about our NET-funded project, please visit our website: https://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/