The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health crisis of almost incomprehensible scale. Not only has the number of confirmed cases in the UK reached 9,529, 465 of those who tested positive have now died. Whilst the introduction of strict social distancing measures is hoped to dramatically slow the spread of infection, current projections hold that the number of deaths will reach around 20,000.
Asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic for a number of reasons. From healthcare to housing, the assistance available to them is largely insufficient, leaving them exposed to issues such as poverty, ill-health and social exclusion. With all these issues set to be intensified by Coronavirus, it is imperative that those seeking asylum are given adequate support and are safeguarded from its impact.
In the absence of Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR), asylum seekers are unable to access mainstream benefits. Instead, they must rely on the paltry level of financial support provided by the government, which currently amounts to £37.75 per person per week. Regrettably, this often leads to destitution becoming a fact of life- research from Refugee Action found that many asylum seekers were unable to afford essential items such as food and medicine. In light of the ongoing pandemic, having access to both of these things is even more vital than ever.
With the current subsistence rate failing to protect against destitution, the work of charities provides asylum seekers with an indispensable lifeline. Food parcels, supermarket vouchers and cooked meals at day centres all act as a safety net from starvation, particularly for those with an entire family to feed. Yet due to the impact of COVID-19, a considerable number of day centres have now closed, leaving many of those in need without a crucial aspect of their support network. As touched upon, food poverty is already a pressing concern for many asylum seekers- a study by the British Red Cross found that many participants experienced hunger without being able to satisfy on a weekly basis. It is immensely important that COVID-19 does not worsen this situation, yet widespread food shortages are already disproportionately affecting the most destitute in our society.
The housing provided to asylum seekers is often substandard, and not conducive to a healthy existence. An inspection by the ICIBI found that issues such as pest infestations, leaks and damp were fairly commonplace in the properties that were surveyed. As Coronavirus is a respiratory disease, living in such conditions makes asylum seekers more likely to experience serious symptoms were they to be infected. Further to this, displaced people are often forced to live in overcrowded accommodation. Women have reported being allocated bedrooms containing up to seven or eight others, with one Eritrean asylum seeker remarking that her room was ‘so small’ she could not keep her things in there. Such cramped and overcrowded living arrangements deny residents the ability to self-isolate, leaving them vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19.
Due in no small part to living in such bleak conditions, ill-health is unfortunately common amongst the asylum seeker community. However, accessing high-quality healthcare is often far more difficult than it should be, with a number of barriers standing in the way of medical assistance. One such barrier is travel costs- asylum seekers are often housed a considerable distance from the nearest hospital, necessitating the use of public transport. One pregnant woman seeking asylum in London told the Equality and Human Rights Commision that it costs her nearly £20 to travel to the hospital- in light of the current financial support rate, such costs are simply unaffordable. With the impact of Coronavirus growing wider by the day, the need for easy access to healthcare could not be more acute. Particularly for asylum seekers, who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 for a number of reasons. It is absolutely vital that, during this time of crisis, they do not fall through the cracks.