by Orson Gard
The nature of displacement often means refugees are forced into a transitory existence. Forced to leave their homes, many embark on perilous journeys to seek refuge elsewhere. Yet despite this, refugees are often faced with more uncertainty upon arrival. In the UK, newcomers must contend with an austere and complex system which has little regard for the wellbeing of those who have sacrificed so much to come here. A 2013 report, published by the Scottish Refugee Council, highlighted the ways in which the UK asylum system has a detrimental impact on the mental health of newcomers, indicating that social isolation and the inability to access employment are key determinants of mental wellbeing.
The continued spread of COVID-19, and the UK Government response to the pandemic, will only serve to exacerbate these issues. Many newcomers rely on third-sector organisations to provide services such as translation, legal advice, and advice on accessing social services. Furthermore, many community-based organisations, such as The Welcoming, Bikes for Refugees, and Refuweegee, provide essential services and opportunities to engage with the local community, supporting inclusion which is important for mental wellbeing.
However, with the continued national lockdown, many of these services have had to temporarily close or restrict their operations. Furthermore, hundreds of newcomers in Glasgow are being forcibly moved from their accomodation into hotels, with little explanation given by authorities. Home Office assessments have been paused and appeal hearings have been restricted, leaving many feeling uncertain about their legal status in the UK.
Of course, NHS services remain free at the point of use to all, regardless of immigration status. However, with resources being diverted to tackling COVID-19 and mental health services being chronically underfunded before the outbreak, the scope for newcomers to access substantive mental health support is limited.
The Scottish Refugee Council has undertaken research into how the lockdown is impacting newcomers, with Ana’s story illustrating the anxieties that may be encountered:
“Ana is a single mother with three high school age children, two of whom were due to sit important exams in May. The family are still in very basic asylum accommodation, with just some furniture, and one smart phone between the four of them with very limited data. Ana told our team a number of times of the struggle of practicing self-isolation and social distancing with teenagers with no access to the internet and only one device between four people. They are bored, isolated and lonely. The two eldest children should be engaging in online learning and turning in coursework to the school online, but they have absolutely no access to devices fit for this type of activity. They’re anxious about how this will impact their education. The family are really struggling and Ana is finding it hard to cope on her own despite being a super resilient and strong individual.”
Thankfully, community organisations are adapting and managing to provide vital support for newcomers at this time. The Scottish Refugee Council has set up a COVID-19 Refugee Support Fund, which will provide families with essential items and support, as well as donating laptops, computers, and smartphones to help families like Ana’s to continue their education and access services and support. Refuweegee have changed their service and are now providing packs of essentials to newcomers with a ‘zero-contact’ policy. But we must remember that of the anxieties many of us face today, including disruption to education, paying rent, and employment problems, most are issues that newcomers experience on a daily basis.
At COLOURS of Edinburgh, we support our partners across Scotland in providing these services and will always advocate for the compassionate and inclusive treatment of newcomers. The challenges faced by newcomers are unique and compounded by poor national policy and the current COVID-19 crisis, which undoubtedly has an impact on mental wellbeing. As such, it is our duty to support organisations who are adapting to the current situation and to continue to pressure the Government to rethink their approach to asylum.
To all newcomers, we at COLOURS of Edinburgh say this: we stand with you in these difficult times.
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We're raising funds for Choose Love/Help Refugee's Emergency Coronavirus Appeal. We know money is short for many at the moment. However, if you do find yourself with some spare change, please consider giving at the link below.
Learn more about our campaign, 'Leave No One Behind' here: https://www.coloursedinburgh.co.uk/covid19-leave-no-one-behind