Refugees and asylum seekers in the UK are struggling to access help for basics such as food during the coronavirus crisis, while barriers to work are causing financial hardship.
The government’s recent move to raise the weekly Universal Credit amount by £7 excluded asylum seekers, while documentation and long phone queues are further blockers for those for whom English is not a first language.
In Norwich, classified as a ‘City of Sanctuary’ for refugees and asylum seekers, charities say they have been flat out trying to cope with increased calls for help.
“People asking for food is not something we usually have” says Dee Robinson, project coordinator at New Routes, a refugee charity that normally runs language classes and other support services. Now she’s giving out weekly £10 Tesco vouchers.
“We’ve got people who can’t feed their children and are being told they have to wait five weeks for Universal Credit – they can’t wait that long!”
The charity’s weekly free meals have stopped, too – a big blow to asylum seekers, says Robinson, who are not allowed to work and receive just £37.75 a week for food, clothing and all other necessities other than housing.
“They can’t afford to buy fresh food and cleaning materials [to protect against the virus],” says Robison. “The government raised Universal Credit by £7 a week, but not for asylum seekers – it’s appalling.”
With the closure of face-to-face services everything is being done over the phone, says Robinson. Language barriers make this particularly difficult for refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom can’t afford WiFi or phone credit, she says.
“I think everyone is suffering financially right now, but for refugees there is an additional pressure,” says Anas, a Syrian dentist and refugee who is not permitted to practice, and whose family is currently relying on Universal Credit.
Anas, who spent two “horrific” months walking to the UK to escape the war in Syria, has been living in Norwich for five years, but cannot work as a dentist until he converts his Syrian degree. This would cost £4,000 in exam fees – money he doesn’t have. His wife, Razan, a trained pharmacist, faces similar barriers to work.
“We lost everything during the war and the impact of not being able to practice is very stressful. Every day I feel I am losing time and money,” he says. “We have limited money and it affects every single part of our lives.”
Anas used to work for Royal Mail but is now studying and hoping he can take the British dentistry exams. He was due to take one in April, but it was cancelled due to the pandemic and he says he feels like he’s lost another year not being able to practice.
“We want to do something for the country that has welcomed us in, but we can’t. There is a lack of dentists in Norwich and Norfolk and I can’t use my skills.”
The economic impact of Covid-19 is already being felt among society’s most vulnerable, including refugees. Over three million people applied for Universal Credit between March and June 2020, while phone waits to access it reached up to seven hours.
The system’s notorious complexities aren’t helping as eligibility often takes weeks to secure, particularly with the added complications of documentation for refugees.
Bridge Plus+, which acts as a ‘mini Citizens Advice’ for the black and ethnic minority community including refugees, has seen a 25 per cent increase in calls and is giving out more referrals to the Norwich Foodbank network.
“The more independent people were the first we had to help as they’d lost their jobs,” says its executive coordinator, Béatrice Humarau. “The first was a taxi driver in a complete panic, saying ‘I’ve never had benefits so I don’t know how to apply’.”
Meanwhile, demand at Norwich Foodbank has almost doubled during lockdown, says its project manager, Hannah Worsley.
“Most months we give out 600-700 parcels, but in March and April we were doing 1,300,” she says. “It’s been steadily going up the last few years but I’ve never seen it like this. A couple of years ago it had risen to 10,000, but we did 13,500 in the 12 months to April this year.”
The food bank supplies anyone who is in need, but refugees and asylum seekers often have their own dietary needs and barriers, says Worsley, something that has become more difficult to cater to since lockdown.
“Being face-to-face can be helpful [if they don’t speak English] as you can hold up items and communicate like that. But we’ve had to move to deliveries, so finding out what they need over the phone can be a real challenge,” she says.
The lack of face to face interactions also makes it difficult to track usage by specific groups, says Worsley. However, figures from referral charities like Bridge Plus+ and New Routes suggest more refugees and asylum seekers are falling back onto, or have need of, food bank services than before lockdown.
It’s clear that for people on low incomes or reliant on Universal Credit, the pandemic has been a much more challenging time, particularly with children at home to feed. As a refugee or asylum seeker, being far from home, away from family support networks, and your own language, adds a whole additional layer of stress, says Anas.
"Sometimes I feel overwhelmed," he says. "I haven't seen my family for five years. We lost everything and [as a refugee you] are rebuilding your self-esteem, confidence and what you used to be. But giving up is not an option."