How the Refugee and Asylum Sector Responded Rapidly to the Impact of Covid-19

Covid-19 has massively impacted on refugees, asylum seekers and the organisations that support them. The five biggest issues reported by our partners were:

  • Destitution
  • Client mental health
  • Coordination
  • Remote delivery of services
  • Maintaining effective contact with clients

Of these, adapting to new ways of maintaining effective contact with clients seemed to be the biggest single problem, especially in the face of tech poverty.

We interviewed organisations between 16 March (the day the government advised against non-essential travel and contact with others) and 16 April (three weeks after the full UK lockdown had been announced) to inform our Covid-19 support strategy.

Our Findings: The Top Five Challenges

1. Coordination of services

Many organisations recognised that local services would need to work together closely in order to alleviate gaps and maximise support.

But while half of respondents reported good collaboration with partners, or said they were actively working towards it, the other half said they were struggling to do so, either due to a lack of cooperation from partners or that services were simply overwhelmed. This was especially apparent in earlier interviews, carried out on or around 16 March:

“It’s impossible to get in touch with local authorities – they’re too busy”.

“We need leadership from the Strategic Migration Partnership – but they’ve gone quiet”

“People are just doing and not talking to anyone else – it’s total crisis mode”.

We saw tighter collaborative models emerging later on. There were some great stories of positive liaison, especially from GOVAN in Glasgow and City of Sanctuary in Sheffield. Both those organisations pointed to the strength of existing relationships in their respective areas:

“Govan’s neighbourhood is really well coordinated…the Stop Lock Change Evictions collaboration [last summer] has led into a coordinated response.” (GOVAN)

“Good relationships across the sector and the shared space and working of the drop-in and The Sanctuary has led to this coordinated response.” (Sheffield City of Sanctuary)

2. Destitution

Just over half our partners saw destitution and starvation as key risks, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown. On 27 March, councils in England were given 48 hours to find housing for everyone sleeping rough on the streets. But partners were still encountering problems:

“Many city centre hotels have refused to support asylum seekers or homeless. They’d rather close and receive government support.”

“It’s been slow to get people into accommodation. The Council aren’t open about taking people in…there’s a lack of coordination and collaboration. We’ve had to pay for hotel rooms.”

In addition to this, some respondents said that panic buying was creating a new problem for people who didn’t have the space or the money to stockpile food:

“Supermarket shelves being empty are causing panic and stress.”

“People are struggling due to panic buying.”

A large number of respondents pointed to delays and changes in the legal system, and ongoing uncertainty around status and the longer term future, as an area for real concern. Following this, a third of partners specifically cited lack of emergency access to cash as a real worry.

“Clients are losing jobs: we’re already getting emails like “My husband was sacked yesterday, what do I do?”

“Destitution grants are a big issue. We can’t do this at the moment.”

3. Client wellbeing (mental & physical health)

Even though many people are now being housed, there’s increasing concern for personal safety, lack of privacy and general wellbeing, especially for those living in multi-occupancy accommodation, or staying with friends.

“Mental health – there are real issues for people in HMO. If others don’t observe the rules, it creates tensions.”

“We’re concerned for those who are staying with friends. In case it’s not a safe situation, or the friend asks them to leave.”

“Women experiencing abuse is a massive issue.”

Many pointed out how the current situation is putting already at risk groups at even further risk (“crisis is exacerbating crises”). Clients have an increased risk of Covid-19 infection because they are living in shared accommodation and unable to self-isolate. And the closure of drop-in centres means isolated people become even more lonely, and no longer have access to services they rely upon.

Most of our respondents have had to close face to face services like advice centres and community cafes. Despite this, a third are still offering some kind of face to face support such as delivering food parcels, cash payments and triaging vulnerable clients for casework.

4. Remote working

Two thirds of respondents said they’d successfully moved to fully remote working. Some organisations were well organised, saying they’d been planning this move for a while (before full lockdown was announced).

Housing support, financial advice and legal support were still being offered, mostly via phone and email. English lessons (and even a yoga class) were being delivered online. Nearly half of the partners we spoke to had used Zoom for video-conferencing and there were a couple of mentions of Trello and/ or Microsoft Teams for project management. The most popular tool by far was WhatsApp – 80% of partners saying they’d used it.

But a third of respondents were struggling and not set up to work from home. In many cases, people didn’t have access to a server, or would all need new work phones. There were also issues with logistics, such as how to implement health and safety processes within “new style” services, or information sharing with partners and volunteers given GDPR restrictions.

5. Maintaining contact

The single most important issue (mentioned by 80% of partners) was maintaining effective contact with clients. Access to technology and data is a major problem when nearly all services have moved online. Although WhatsApp groups were widely reported to be working well – for example, in Sheffield and Glasgow where Mutual Aid groups have been set up – partners in other areas expressed deep concern about digital exclusion and people not being able to get in touch with the services they need.

It’s not just technology – language barriers can create an additional problem:
“We sent a text on Tuesday – ‘Drop in closed don’t come’ – but many people turned up asking for help to read the text they had received!”

Where did this Journey Start?

Information was being disseminated rapidly and organisations and services were responding quickly to the changing environment. We wanted to capture that response and created the Coronavirus Asylum Handbook for organisations to add to and share.

The role of our team, Good Practice and Partnerships, is to spark, catalyse and facilitate collective problem-solving to help build a stronger, more resilient refugee sector whilst learning from our partners as we go. Our desire is to support and strengthen where we can, helping with capacity-building and skills transfer, as well as sharing, linking and convening as refugee needs emerge and change.

What Next?

Things are moving fast. Many organisations have solved some of the issues they faced at the beginning of the crisis, others are still overcome by demand, capacity and logistical issues. We don’t know what the long term changes will be but we know things won’t be the same as they were. We are inspired by how quickly organisations are adapting their services to meet the needs of refugees and will support them to do this by:

  • Working alongside our partners and the Refugee Action Info and Data Hub to inform our ongoing understanding.
  • Collaborating with our partners to address the key and any emerging issues through design sprints to find quick and practical solutions.
  • Sharing what we create for others to use and add to.

For email and newsletter updates or to get involved, please do get in touch: GPAP@refugee-action.org.uk

Huge thanks to all our partners who spoke to us – we wouldn’t have been able to work and respond this quickly without your collaboration and flexibility. Thanks to Jemima Gibbons for co-authoring this blog.