Michael is a former Calais camp resident who now has refugee status in the UK. Over the past months, he has supported refugees and asylum seekers in London and has spoken to more than 100 people about the difficulties they have experienced due to the Covid-19 situation. In this blog, he outlines some of the issues that emerged from these conversations. In particular, he reflects on the Government’s latest decision to resume evictions of newly granted refugees after the so-called 28-day-period.
Resuming the evictions of vulnerable people
Why would the government on the one hand say that people need to stay alert to stop the spread of the Covid-19, but on the other hand start evicting vulnerable groups of people in the middle of a pandemic? The Government did a good thing by halting these evictions during the spring, but it is now making a big mistake in restarting the process again. Because of this decision, newly recognised refugees will once again have just 28 days to find new accommodation, before they are evicted from the asylum accommodation. But they often lack strong English language skills to navigate the housing market, many don’t yet have a job, and have no idea how to find another accommodation solution.
Instead of seeking solutions for them, I feel that the Government is trying to give them more problems. People with newly granted refugee status are at very high risk of becoming homeless in this context, and this means they would be very vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus and possibly become critically ill.
28-day period during Covid-19
I do believe that, in 28 days, it’s difficult to find a job, open a bank account, find a landlord who is happy to host a refugee, pay a deposit on a room, and pay one month in advance on the rent. I don’t know – but I think even super heroes, and even native British people, might not be able to manage that, especially in this current Covid-19 situation.
It’s impossible for majority of newly recognised refugees to find a job now, in order to pay rent and deposit. They did not have the right to work while they were still waiting for the outcome of their asylum claim, and now many people would need to start a very simple job like being a kitchen porter or cleaner if they lack language skills and work experience here in Europe. However, and all the restaurants and small businesses have been closed due to Covid-19, so where could they possibly find a job quickly? It makes me wonder, does the Government want to push people into destitution or criminal activities? I don’t understand. Moreover, some of the help organisations that used to support refugees with many of these things are closed, or have reduced their services for refugees, as they are following the Government’s Covid-19 instructions, which again makes it so much more difficult for people to deal with the 28-day period.
Similar issues arise with the opening of a bank account. You need a proof of address, an ID – and you need to know how to do it! The language barrier and, again, the lack of usual support from help organisations make it more difficult. The language barrier is more difficult to overcome if you speak to someone over the phone or internet instead of speaking to them in person, so it is difficult to open a bank account when most staff are not working in the bank during this time due to Government instructions.
If you don’t have your own income, you need to apply for Universal Credit, which also includes the housing benefits. But it can take five to six weeks until you get your first payment, and that’s more than 28 days! And then comes the difficulty of finding a landlord who accepts you. Discrimination has so many faces. Finding a landlord who accepts refugees or simply accepts housing benefits can be very difficult for us. In my experience, and from what I have heard, many of them say no. Resuming evictions during the current Covid-19 crisis period is really problematic. I don’t know what the Government is actually thinking. I am really speechless.
General difficulties for asylum seekers during Covid-19
Many of the people I’ve spoken to have been so scared of going out because they don’t have many social relationships here, so they are afraid that they might die without having family or close friends around them. Death is a scary thought, and that’s one reason why they’ve been so worried recently.
Many asylum seekers and refugees have endured very difficult journeys and traumatic events. They sometimes suffer from mental health difficulties, with little external support outside of their circle of friends, whom they met on the journey or in the asylum accommodation. Not being able to socialise with each other and seek support from each other can make it unbearable during this period. They are staying isolated in the accommodation and this has impact on them. They get so stressed. They are in a new country and they are often scared during this Covid-19 period.
Some of the people I have spoken to have said that the doctor wasn’t be able meet them when they called 111. It can be difficult for them to explain to the doctor on the phone in English, so they would need an interpreter, but this is more difficult during lockdown.
They see the number of infections going up in the UK, and they don’t hear about any treatment and about people getting better. Many of them don’t have access to a TV so they need to find out about the latest news on their mobile device through YouTube or Google but they might not always have Wi-Fi so it would cost them a lot to use mobile data and internet on their phone. This is also a difficulty for them. They are forced to decide whether to spend their small weekly allowance on the internet or on food.
Indeed, just over £35 per week which asylum seekers receive from the Government is not enough, especially when the price of some of the items they want to buy have gone up because of Covid-19. Many people I’ve spoken to also have to take the bus to the supermarket, which will also cut out from the 5 pounds per day.
Protecting society’s most vulnerable groups
Instead of restarting the evictions of refugees from asylum accommodation in the middle of the pandemic, why would the Government not try to make a deal with the local council or borough to ensure people are moved to another accommodation for now? It makes me wonder what the Home Office’s intention is, behind this decision. Is the Home Office attempting to make them homeless? Many questions come to your head, but no one has an answer, only the Home Office has the answer.
As someone who has been in this position, I know that asylum seekers and refugees have a lot of problems, but instead of finding good solutions for them, the Government is giving them more bad things. We ask the Government to take back its decision to start evicting people again. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that we are all in this together, and we cannot leave anyone behind if we want to tackle the spread and harm caused by this virus.