Thu 24 June 2021

Cut off from public funds, with rising food prices and diminishing charity support, Jonathan Fenton-Harvey reveals the plight of refugees during the COVID-19 lockdown.

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“It’s hard enough being an asylum seeker, waiting for a decision on your status and living in limbo – the Coronavirus had made life harder than ever,” said Rashmi, a single mother in Liverpool with a two-year old daughter, who fled Sri Lanka five years ago after being detained and tortured.

While the Government’s financial package aims to keep businesses and employees afloat, traumatised asylum seekers who struggle to obtain status have been left behind in the Coronavirus crisis. Asylum seekers cannot legally work whilst awaiting their application status – although many wait years to be accepted – due to what rights groups criticise as an unwelcoming and hostile attitude from the Government.

There were 31,589 asylum applications in the UK in the year ending March 2019, up 18% on the previous year. Those in the asylum system receive £37.75 a week if they are supported under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, or £35.39 a week if they are supported under section 4 of the 1999 Act. It is a paltry sum in the most ordinary of circumstances, but soaring prices amid the Coronavirus outbreak mean that food and other essentials are even more unaffordable. 

Feeling isolated during the lockdown, Rashmi cannot now attend her English language classes which enabled her to make friends and integrate and improved her mental health. Every day presents a struggle for her and her daughter.

“As an asylum seeker awaiting status, I get around £5 a day for myself and a little more for my daughter, so money is very difficult,” she told Byline Times. “The local shops have increased their prices – what used to be £1 now costs £2 – and nappies are very hard to find. The ones in the smaller shops are too expensive for us. The television is broken and my daughter hasn’t many toys – they are too expensive for us.”

Samir, a Palestinian man who fled life-threatening conditions in Gaza, has been living in asylum accommodation in Birmingham since August 2019, where he awaits his asylum status. The pandemic has delayed his application. 

The charities and organisations he could rely on for food have now closed and his tiny stipend means that he must choose between buying food and hygiene products. “I don’t demand much, just enough to survive,” he said. “I expected to reach a country where I could feel safe and have human rights. But here I do not have this security. When I see the Government providing help to most other people, I feel that they are looking at us as less than normal.”

Freedom from Torture, which provides support to asylum seekers and advocates for greater Government assistance for them, sent an open letter to the Home Office and Chancellor, signed by 60 charities, at the start of April requesting an increase of £20 a week to their allowance. 

“The response to COVID-19 has meant that many of those already under financial pressure cannot now travel long distances and are relying heavily on local shops where food options are often more limited and more expensive,” the statement said.

The Home Office’s response did not promise an increase in support. 

“The Government is committed to supporting people through this crisis and nobody should find themselves destitute, with £1.6 billion allocated to local authorities to help the most vulnerable,” a Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times. “Many of the other wide-ranging Coronavirus measures we have put in place are not considered public funds and therefore are available to migrants with no recourse to public funds.”

It highlighted that asylum seekers can stay in their accommodation until June, to be later reviewed.

Freedom from Torture believes continued pressure must be applied on the Home Office to guarantee direct financial support for asylum seekers.

“As Home Secretary Priti Patel dithers over urgent decisions, vulnerable people, including torture survivors, are paying the price,” Sonya Sceats, its chief executive, told Byline Times. “For many, this delay will be a matter of life or death. Those seeking protection in the UK deserve safety and basic help during this crisis.”

Freedom from Torture’s petition to the Government can be signed here

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