“I’m a very active person, and it’s difficult for me to stay in and do nothing,” says “Sarah”, a 30-year-old woman seeking asylum in the UK, who spoke to openDemocracy on condition of anonymity. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit at the end of March, she decided that she had to keep busy by helping others in need. “We” – asylum seekers – “are not allowed to work,” she explains, “but it doesn’t stop me from supporting other people.”
Over six months, for 40 hours a week from Monday to Friday, Sarah joined a small team of volunteers based in the east London borough where her state-provided housing is located. She took delight in preparing and delivering food parcels for families who were self-isolating or unable to afford vital supplies.
Sarah considers volunteering a welcome respite from the tribulations she has faced since first arriving in Britain from Nigeria thirteen years ago. But over the past year, a combination of the pandemic and the demands of the UK asylum system have made life more challenging – a common experience for women in her situation.
Control and coercion
Originally from an impoverished family in Nigeria, Sarah was lured to the UK by a relative, with the promise of a better education. Instead, she was barred from going to school and trapped in a cycle of domestic abuse until she decided to flee six years later.
After being sexually assaulted by a contact she had trusted, Sarah moved from town to town, taking up child-minding jobs whenever she could, with the fear of deportation always at her heels. In October last year, a friend convinced her to apply for asylum.
Once Sarah claimed asylum, she found herself living under strict conditions imposed by the Home Office, the UK government department responsible for immigration control. The 30,000 or so people who claim asylum in the UK each year are typically not allowed to work while their application is assessed. If they are unable to support themselves, then they are sent to live in Home Office accommodation, with most eligible for a support payment that works out to just £5.66 a day.
Shortly after claiming asylum, Sarah was sent to temporary accommodation in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, following a disorienting couple of nights at a hotel near Gatwick Airport. In July, the accommodation centre in Wakefield, Urban House, was subject to criticism over claims of poor hygiene standards and crowded living conditions amid an outbreak of COVID-19 among residents.
Sarah calls her two-month stay at Urban House – before the pandemic arrived – a “nightmare” that she wouldn’t wish on her worst enemies. “I would be dead by now if they didn’t move me out before the coronavirus,” she says. Mears Group, the private housing contractor that runs Urban House on behalf of the Home Office, told the BBC in July that the facility was regularly cleaned and that social distancing guidance was being followed.
What Sarah recalls, however, is dirty and crowded accommodation. “I had to share a bunk bed and there were bugs everywhere. I was bitten all over my skin. The food was also terrible. We got mostly oats to eat. It was totally packed and you couldn’t really move around in the shared areas.” She also recalls a woman being shouted at by one of the property managers for attempting to boil hot water to make baby formula for her child. “They wouldn’t let her use the kettle,” she says. “She was crying because the baby had nothing to eat, and they didn’t care. I had to sneak out to buy a kettle for her.”
A spokesperson for Mears told openDemocracy that coronavirus safety measures at Urban House had been agreed in consultation with the local council and the Home Office. These include reduced capacity, on-site health services and the increased availability of PPE, washing and sanitation supplies for asylum seekers and staff.
According to Victoria Canning, an academic at the University of Bristol, the UK’s asylum system can have a particularly harmful effect on women, who accounted for just under a quarter of claims last year. In her research, Canning documents the way in which what she calls the “banal, everyday stripping of autonomy” imposed by the system compromises the wellbeing of female asylum seekers.
Canning argues that the restricted living conditions and constant monitoring during the asylum process can mirror abusive or intimidating behaviour from a spouse or partner; a practice she describes as “corrosive control”. It can be especially distressing to women who have been abused, trafficked or subjected to other forms of gender-based violence.
For Sarah, the pandemic has added further pressure to an already difficult situation. Since leaving Wakefield, she has been housed in a two-storey building in east London, which she shares with 11 other women, and finds it impossible to keep a safe distance from others. There is a “one-metre space” between her bed and that of her roommate’s, while in the shared kitchen “we can’t avoid running into one another if we want to eat around the same time”.
Asylum accommodation, which is usually outsourced to private contractors including Mears, is frequently criticised for substandard conditions, including reports of broken and collapsing ceilings, rat infestations, and dangerous overcrowding during the pandemic. Sisters Not Strangers, a coalition of organisations that supports asylum-seeking and refugee women, revealed in a report published in July that 15% of 115 women surveyed had to sleep in the same room as someone who was not their family member or partner, and who had coronavirus symptoms.
According to the report, half the women surveyed were living in accommodation provided by the Home Office, with a further 10% in council housing. Almost all the women surveyed were in precarious situations, especially during the pandemic: many of the remainder were homeless or had to stay with someone they knew.
Sarah says that in her accommodation, no cleaning products are available in the bathroom, which “smells horrible. There are insects coming out of it sometimes”. She acknowledges that the building manager has attempted to help them as much as he is able to, but social distancing rules means that he has not visited the house for months. “I have a doctor’s note for my migraines that says I need my own room,” she says. “The Home Office knows about this note but they don’t do anything about it.”
A spokesperson for the Home Office told openDemocracy that they could not comment on Sarah’s situation based on the details provided. The spokesperson said that the department takes the wellbeing of asylum seekers “extremely seriously” adding: “We are fixing our broken asylum system to make it firm and fair. We will seek to stop abuse of the system while ensuring it is compassionate towards those who need our help, welcoming people through safe and legal routes.”
Although the sight of people crossing the Channel by boat has dominated headlines in recent months, the UK does not receive more asylum claims than other nearby countries. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), France and Germany received more than four times the number of first-time asylum applications than the UK, over the most recent 12 months for which figures are available. Globally, the overwhelming majority of refugees are hosted in developing nations.
No Internet, no support
Efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 have shifted the provision of food, services, education and healthcare online in an unprecedented fashion. But around eight million people in the UK – most of whom face economic or social disadvantages – do not use the Internet, which severely impairs their ability to carry out daily activities during the pandemic.
People seeking asylum are particularly at risk of destitution, given their reduced means. Sarah points out that a return journey to the market to buy groceries takes up around two-thirds of her daily allowance.
According to the Sisters Not Strangers report, 47% of the women surveyed did not consistently have phone credit, while 42% were unable to regularly access the Internet. “This is affecting their ability to reach out for emergency help, and our ability to promptly identify the most vulnerable during this pandemic,” says Priscilla Dudhia, Policy and Research Coordinator at the charity Women for Refugee Women.
Some difficulties affect both men and women – Dudhia gives the example of a local council that insisted people apply for social housing via an online form – but women who have experienced gender-based violence are at a particular disadvantage. She stresses that during COVID-19, it has become very difficult for caseworkers to ascertain over the phone if a woman needs help when they suspect that she has been abused. “People do not tell their stories in a linear way even in the best of times,” she says, “but this is especially challenging for traumatised women who have suffered horrific acts of gender-based violence.”
Dudhia also cites several other examples of how digital poverty affects women seeking asylum. “One woman [in our organisation’s network], Jamila, is a survivor of sexually-based gender violence,” she says. “We were particularly concerned about her safety when she shared plans to kill herself. It was difficult for her caseworker, who had never met her in person before, to forge a trusting relationship with her through the phone during this crisis to ensure that she could be properly and safely supported.”
Another woman, Anika, was granted refugee status before lockdown, but did not own a phone or other device that would enable her to claim Universal Credit support online. “There are simply not enough services out there [for these women],” Dudhia says. “Even for those women for whom we’ve secured mental health therapy, most have needed support to access data for a video call with the therapist, who of course needs to be able to see the woman in order to assess her properly.”
Many women seeking asylum find out about sources of support through informal networks, including their friends or places of worship. But this has become more difficult during the pandemic. “Before COVID hit, we had a few women joining our network every week. Since the lockdown though, we’ve had only 20 new women,” Dudhia says. The isolation “limits their chances of hearing about us – especially women who cannot speak English well”.
According to Sarah, there is no Wi-Fi at her accommodation, which initially made it difficult for her to pursue a hair and beauty course that she has been enrolled in since February. “I used to go to the [local] library a lot before, because I could study there,” she says. The pandemic left her temporarily without the means to continue the course, which was shifted online. After the college said it was unable to help Sarah access the Internet, charities including Women for Refugee Women and the Cotton Tree Trust provided her with the money to buy a data plan for her phone. “I am lucky, and being cared for,” she says.
Dudhia says that the challenges posed by the pandemic are about more than providing material support. “How do you translate the safety and warmth of a face-to-face drop-in into a Zoom setting? And crucially, how can you maintain participation and solidarity? These are difficult questions that we are grappling with right now,” she says.
From suffering to joy
These days, Sarah tries to find joy in small things while she awaits a decision on her asylum application. She takes the bus to a market in Dalston, East London to buy ingredients to cook her favourite Nigerian dishes, like jollof rice, and is assiduous at keeping up with her studies. When she talks about her family in Nigeria, she becomes emotional. “I just want to see them again,” she says. “It has been so many years.”
While the food parcel project that she was involved with during the lockdown has since been discontinued, Sarah now volunteers every weekend with the Food Alliance, an emergency response service set up by food redistribution charities in London. I ask Sarah how she finds the energy to volunteer, when she has experienced her fair share of suffering. “If I can put a smile on somebody’s face, I am happy,” she replies.