Digital connectivity is a major challenge faced by refugees and people seeking asylum in the UK. As the role of technology in community life, education and interaction with the state grows, digital exclusion has become a significant cause of social isolation and deprivation, in the UK.
The Good Things Foundation state that “a lack of digital skills and access can have a huge negative impact on a person’s life, leading to poorer health outcomes and a lower life expectancy, increased loneliness and social isolation, less access to jobs and education. Although this growth predates the coronavirus pandemic, most services have been digitised since the outset of the pandemic.
Many that once offered a mixture of online and in-person access have moved entirely online. These developments have created a ‘digital gap’. A lack of proper devices and digital literacy, combined with language barriers and internet access costs, exacerbates isolation and social and economic exclusion.
The Home Office continues to provide unsuitable accommodation to people seeking asylum in the UK, the majority of the properties have poor facilities, including weak Wi-Fi or are limited to communal areas . In our latest podcast, about digital exclusion, one of the guests who is currently housed in a hotel for people seeking asylum talks about her challenges in accessing Wi-Fi or her data; she said:
“I have to go to the roof of the building to get a connection. Even the few asylum seekers who could afford a broadband contract cannot get one because they do not have a permanent address. Hostile and restrictive asylum policies often prevent people seeking asylum from having a bank account or the financial stability required to pay for internet access.”
Charities like Refugee Action see the necessity of digital inclusion, but external support is vital to help us tackle this. Donations from organisations can bring significant benefits. Just like our partner, Deloitte, who recognised the growing digital skills gap and as a result pledged to donate 7,500 laptops to schools, charities, and community groups, including 250 to Refugee Action.
Mohammad, a husband and dad of two who had been living in temporary accommodation, is supported by Refugee Action and received a laptop. He said:
“When I left Afghanistan, the only thing I could take with me was my life.’ He added, ‘It was tough to manage; four of us had one phone to connect to the digital world. You need a better device like a laptop to join online courses. The other problem was job hunting; it was almost impossible without a digital device. We live in an era where all vacancies are advertised online, job applications are online, and you need a laptop to draft a CV.”
As more companies and organisations move towards total digitisation, most application forms, including those relating to immigration and social welfare, are now only available on digital platforms. Without a functioning device, and wifi or data people just cannot access them. Mohammad added:
“I had to borrow a laptop from other residents to do my work. Our accommodation didn’t have a computer room to access the internet. I needed to go to public libraries to do my essential work, such as filling out important applications. Back then, If I had a laptop, I could study, do online courses, apply for jobs, research, and complete my CV.”
Mohammed received a laptop through Refugee Action’s Pathways to Work project, he has taken multiple online courses and continues with his studies and research. Pathways to Work provides aspirational employability support to refugees and people seeking asylum; it comprises one-to-one support, an eight-week online group programme and a mentor to help you reach your goals.
“I can access Refugee Action resources. For instance, I signed up for a writing course with lots of assignments that needed to be done with the laptop.”
Now, Mohammad is a volunteer senior project manager at an NGO that supports Afghan migrants. He said: “When I was moved to permanent accommodation, I faced another issue: our new home did not have broadband or Wi-Fi. We had to use my mobile data, which is not cheap.”
Many people we work with report similar circumstances, particularly those with children, and are forced to spend a big chunk of their money on data. You may already know that UK users pay some of the world’s highest prices for mobile data. Comparison site Cable found that ‘in the UK the average price per gigabyte for mobile data was £5.12’.
People seeking asylum in the UK receive £5.84 per day, and this makes accessing affordable data challenging. As with access to Wi-Fi, this challenge is exacerbated because people seeking asylum are only given temporary, unstable accommodation, and struggle to get access to our formal banking system – any hope of accessing cheaper, SIM-only contracts is lost and they have to rely on the more expensive pay-as-you-go data plans.
Having a proper device and internet access is crucial in Refugees’ lives. With the support of his local library and community, Mohammad managed to get internet access for his house. “Now I can access the internet, contact my relatives, study, and apply for jobs.” Asylum seekers are locked out of the digital world, even when their well-being and mental health depends on it. The internet is often the only thing that can keep displaced people in touch with loved ones scattered by wars and persecution. They need to access information, and translation tools, keep in touch with family and friends and connect with local communities.
‘These days, all aspects of our life are digitised. For example, I must check my universal credit online. All reports and appointments are made digitally. A while ago, I noticed some suspicious transactions in my account. I reported both transactions, and the bank helped. Just imagine If I did not have my laptop, I properly would not be aware of fraudulent activities, and all my money would be gone.”
Digital connectivity and access to digital tools and devices must be recognised as fundamental to inclusion, integration, and social participation. None of these basic provisions are possible without a device such as a laptop, smartphone, tablet, and some way to access the internet. At Refugee Action, we continue to work with our donors, corporate partners, and supporters to get more of the people we serve connected digitally. One of the ways we work with donors is by creating tailored asks and building them within our project designs and proposals. Our drive to get more refugees and people seeking asylum connected in the UK is a need that was originally voiced by our experts by experience networks.
Thank you to all our partners and supporters that work with us to reduce this digital divide and help our clients in staying connected. If you’re interested in supporting our work through a company or company foundation, don’t hesitate to contact Harbi Jama, on HarbiJ@refugee-action.org.uk. You can also connect with Harbi on LinkedIn.
You can listen below to the latest podcast by our Experts by Experience network, all of whom have experience of seeking safety in the UK.
In this episode, the panel of Experts by Experience discuss Digital Exclusion:
PS: we call people seeking safety ‘experts by experience’ because that’s exactly what they are! Follow @VoiceRas on Twitter to hear more from the experts.