Pandemic poses new risks for refugees

Refugee immigration status acts as a barrier to vital support during COVID-19; support which JRS UK is working to provide, explains policy officer Sophie Cartwright.

It feels as though the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the world. These times are challenging and worrying for all of us. And in common with many difficulties, the COVID-19 crisis poses disproportionate risks to those who are already vulnerable. The pandemic poses new risks for JRS UK’s refugee friends, and other people in similar situations: homelessness, inadequate, and overcrowded housing increase the risk of infection and make it impossible to follow public health advice on social distancing and self-isolation. This is especially worrying for a population disproportionately likely to have complex underlying health conditions. We know that many we accompany in the day centre are struggling both with the effects of trauma and torture experienced in their country of origin, of long-term destitution, and often of detention as well. They are especially vulnerable to this virus. And despite government assurances that everyone homeless will be provided with emergency accommodation, we are finding that many refugee friends are still struggling – and are often at increased risk of homelessness because it is now more difficult for them to stay with their friends, many of whom have only floor space to offer; this rapidly becomes unfeasible if everyone is in the house all day, every day.

At the same time, our refugee friends are likely to struggle to access healthcare at a time when it is more badly needed than ever. The NHS charging regime, which is applicable to people refused asylum and many just released from detention among others, acts as a barrier. The regime charges for hospital and other secondary care, often upfront. The testing and treatment for COVID-19 are exempt, this measure is insufficient alone. If you can’t afford a massive bill and are worried about immigration enforcement, you are likely to be deterred from seeking healthcare by a system that includes upfront charging for a raft of treatment. People don’t know what they’ve got when they get sick, and the charging and data-sharing arrangements can be oblique and confusing – I certainly find them so. To effectively identify and treat infectious diseases across a population, healthcare in general needs to be accessible to the whole population. Furthermore, with underlying health conditions need treatment and help to manage them well, now more than ever. But immigration status prevents this from happening.

Immigration detention is again rendered even more dangerous by the pandemic. Detention centres are confined spaces; infection rips through them. The UK government continues to detain people, though others, such as the Spanish government, have released everyone detained under immigration powers, on the grounds that they cannot currently be removed anyway – grounds equally relevant to the UK.

All this occurs against the backdrop of COVID-19’s impact on case progression itself. Navigating the asylum system has always been a struggle, but it is even more difficult in the context of social distancing. This impacts the very workings of the system. For example, how does one gather medical evidence without face to face contact? The Home Office and the courts, like the rest of the country, are likely to face capacity issues as the crisis develops.

It is striking on just how many levels immigration status acts as a barrier to support, as it long has, and therefore now as a risk to public health too. We need a kinder society, a society of solidarity rather than division. JRS UK is both extending practical support, and involved in advocacy for policies that protect our friends at this time.