Dave Smith
Guidance for Churches working with Refugees and Asylum Seekers during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Because the Covid-19 pandemic is throwing up new problems that had not been encountered previously, guidance soon becomes outdated as government and NGOs offer new responses.

The best way to be kept informed of updates on the Home Office policy and current implementation is to look at the News Section of the Refugee Council Website.

The current situation for Refugees and Asylum Seekers.

Although the lockdown and distancing restrictions are affecting everyone in the UK, there are added issues and dangers for those on the margins of society. This is particularly true of those who are either in the asylum system or those whose asylum claims have been turned down.

Recent Improvements

The current crisis has actually improved the situation of some refugees and asylum seekers in a number of ways. These are some of the positive changes  -

  • Night Shelters have been closed, and the majority of those using them have been given alternative accommodation.
  • No asylum seekers whose claims have been turned down will be removed from their asylum accommodation over the next few months.
  • A large number of detainees have been released from immigration removal centres, although not always to a safe location.
  • Lobbying from refugee support organisations has led to a change in policy for those granted refugee status, whereby they will now continue to receive their £37.75 a week asylum benefits until Universal Credit kicks in. Previously many had had to endure a gap of several weeks with no income. They will also be able to stay on in their asylum accommodation for the time being. This is due to be reviewed in June.
  • Measures to prevent unnecessary travel during the lockdown include a suspension of reporting at IRCs (Immigration Reporting Centres). This will mean a lessening of the stress that usually precedes reporting dates, when the possibility of being detained is ever present, especially for those whose claims have been refused.
  • The same applies to fresh asylum submissions, which previously had to be handed in by the applicant in Liverpool. The Home Office now accepts postal applications, which used to be the case before the new ‘hostile environment’ was introduced when Theresa May was Home Secretary, then Prime Minister.
  • For those making an initial asylum claim, there is a mixture of good and bad news. The bad news is that they will still have to travel to report in person, which appears to contradict general government guidance. However, the travel has been made easier by opening up new, temporary reception centres in Glasgow, Belfast, Leeds, Liverpool, Solihull and Cardiff.

The Refugee Council has now published (Monday April 27th) a very comprehensive, up to date and helpful summary of all the Home Office procedural changes mentioned above, as well as other new measures introduced during the lockdown. You can find it here.

Issues that have become worse under lockdown

Whilst all of the above are positive measures, the reality for many asylum seekers and refugees is that their existence has become even more difficult than before. These are the reasons why –

  • Whereas most people are able to social distance, it is impossible for many in asylum accommodation, where the majority are in shared houses with other unrelated asylum seekers from a variety of countries and cultures. In some cases they are even sharing a bedroom.
  • There are still many asylum seekers in immigration detention, where the likelihood of contracting the virus is much higher than in the general population, and a large number of refused asylum seekers will be sofa surfing in the homes of friends and acquaintances.
  • For those still in the asylum system it will be even more difficult to manage on their meagre £37.75 a week, with usual shopping places closed and shortages in supermarkets. Items such as hand sanitiser and masks will be way beyond their budget. Thus far the Home Office has resisted lobbying to increase asylum benefits.
  • For those who are refused, access to the low paid work in the black economy that keeps them alive will have largely dried up, leaving them destitute.
  • Even if people have refugee status, many are in low paid employment, which makes money management more difficult. If they are on zero-hours contracts or have no job security, then their employment will be even more precarious, and they will not qualify for the new furlough scheme. If businesses are closed, then there is no need for cleaners, waiters or kitchen staff, many of whom are refugees.
  • With the closure of asylum drop-ins, then the opportunity to volunteer, which brings dignity and also often includes hot meals and bus fares, is severely restricted. Similarly the social activities and English classes that these organisations often offer will also disappear. If there is no access to TV and internet, then isolation can become a serious mental health issue.

What are the current needs of Refugees and Asylum Seekers?

  • Money and Essential Goods. Clearly, many will be in financial difficulties, whether they are in the asylum system, refused asylum seekers or newly granted refugee status. Identifying those in need within congregations is vital at this time, none more so if they fall into those categories. Having three meals a day will be a struggle for many, so additional food sources are important. Asylum seekers and refugees also rely on charity shops and drop-ins for clothing, which are now closed. They may not be able to afford supermarket prices for new clothes.
  • Social Connections. As well as financial and other practical help, it is also vital that they are able to stay connected. Although most will have smart phones of some sort, being unable to meet friends, attend places of worship and take part in social events compounds the sense of isolation and loneliness. Many will come from countries where family and community are far stronger than in the UK. Losing access to social events and meeting places, even if it is only the weekly drop-in at a local venue, will therefore be all the more devastating.

What are the needs of local Support Projects?

This will vary, according to how the project operates, but the following are likely to be true for most small charities, voluntary and church-based organisations.

  • Finance: Most small projects rely heavily on voluntary donations. With sponsored events like the London Marathon being cancelled, a major source of income will have disappeared.
  • Volunteers to deliver essential items. If refugees and asylum seekers are not able to access services, then food and other essentials will have to be delivered. This is both more time consuming and resource intensive – and for those organisations that are largely volunteer-led, the chances are that a large proportion of those volunteers are elderly, and therefore should be staying at home.
  • Stress among front-line workers. We all know the pressures that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the general public. For those who work with refugees and asylum seekers, this will be compounded at this time. Having to work from home, without the support of colleagues, will be difficult for some. So will the lack of physical contact with their clients. It is much harder to conduct phone calls with those whose first language is not English than it is to meet face to face, even if there is an interpreter available.

The vast majority of those working or volunteering in the refugee sector do so out of compassion, and the empathy they feel for their clients can lead to vicarious trauma, where they begin to share the emotional distress that their clients have gone through – and, in many cases, are still experiencing.

Well-run refugee charities should have training and procedures in place to support their staff and volunteers. Christian organisations such as the Boaz Trust, Action Foundation and Open Door North East all have excellent staff support systems and would be able to advise in cases where staff and volunteers are struggling in this way.


 How can Churches help?

  • Offer opportunities to connect through online services and social media groups. Churches that are able to offer online meetings to their congregation, whether through Zoom or some other medium, help to alleviate loneliness and isolation. Invitations to join social media groups through things like WhatsApp also help people to engage, though it has to be remembered that many asylum seekers and refugees may find communication an issue. They may also be unable to afford the necessary data allowance for their smartphone.
  • A phone call is even better, as it demonstrates that they are valued as an individual, not just one of the congregation. It will also give the opportunity to tactfully find out how they are coping, and if there are ways in which the church can help. With proper social distancing there is no reason why a food parcel cannot be dropped off at the recipient’s house.
  • Offer help with English. If there is no longer access to English classes, then perhaps those with some spare time could start an online class or some one-to-one mentoring. Most churches have more than one retired teacher in the congregation!
  • Support your local Refugee Project. Local refugee projects will almost certainly need financial help at this time: they may also need significant amounts of food and other essentials, and volunteers to drop them off.
  • Support those who are working on the front line. Those who are supporting refugees and asylum seekers through these difficult times also need support. If you know someone in this situation, make sure you know they are not alone, and ask how you can support them.
  • Pray. Above all, don’t forget to pray for those refugees and asylum seekers that you know, as well as those supporting them. Pray that refugee support projects will not only be able to survive financially, but be blessed by amazing donations and new volunteers at this time. Pray that the positive changes made during the pandemic will not be reversed when it is ended, and that the result is a fairer and more compassionate asylum system.