If we are to properly turn the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to ensure that all sections of society are equally protected. Yet asylum seekers are at a serious risk due to the inadequate support available to them.
One of the key issues that asylum seekers have to contend with is poor-quality housing. Due to having ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’, asylum seekers are unable to claim housing benefit, leaving the government’s provision of asylum accommodation as the only statutory safety net.
Regrettably, the accommodation provided via this channel is frequently riddled with issues, and stands in the way of a healthy and positive existence. An investigation by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) found that only two-thirds of the properties that were surveyed actually met contractual standards. The conditions inside the properties are often bleak, with regular reports of bed bugs, rats and other vermin infestations.
Added to this, issues such as mould, damp and poor ventilation are commonplace, all of which create an environment where infections can spread easily. In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, being forced to live in these unsanitary conditions leaves asylum seekers dangerously exposed to the disease. The government’s official guidance on COVID-19 states that all shared spaces should be ‘well-ventilated’, yet many of those living in asylum accommodation are unable to follow this guidance and take the necessary steps to protect themselves.
The inspection hones in one particular example where a married couple and their 3-year old child were allocated a converted basement flat. The flat was plagued with poor ventilation, damp and a water leak, and the NHS concluded that these conditions had resulted in the ill-health of the child. At a time when all possible steps must be taken to ensure that people are safe and well, it is vital that our most vulnerable are provided with housing of the required quality.
Overcrowding is a further issue frequently found in asylum accommodation. A study by Refugee Rights Europe found that a number of female asylum seekers are forced to stay in rooms containing up to seven or eight others. Whilst these living arrangements are problematic for a number of reasons- not least because they deny residents adequate personal space- they are a particular concern amid COVID-19 because they mean that residents are unable to both self-isolate and adhere to social distancing measures. With following these measures so key to preventing the virus from spreading, this constitutes a further example of how asylum seekers are more vulnerable to the pandemic due to the substandard housing provided to them.
As touched upon, living in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions can lead to ill-health. Yet asylum seekers and other undocumented migrants face a number of problems when attempting to access healthcare. One of these problems is cost- with asylum housing often situated a considerable distance from the nearest hospital or GP surgery, getting to an appointment often means using public transport. As the current rate of subsistence provided to asylum seekers is just £37.75 per week, these travel costs are often unaffordable. In the words of one pregnant woman seeking asylum in London:
‘‘I wish I could get accommodation near the hospital. It costs nearly £20 to travel to the hospital. The distance to the hospital – it’s far!’
With the asylum seekers struggling to afford basic items, the phone credit needed to book an appointment is often unaffordable to. This places many in a situation where much-needed healthcare is not sought, increasing the likelihood of the symptoms becoming more serious.
In the middle of a global pandemic, it is absolutely vital that all people, regardless of their immigration status, have access to the treatment they need. If certain sections of society are left more vulnerable to infection, that increases the chances of them becoming infected and passing it on to others. In the interests of public health, asylum seekers need to be provided with high-quality housing and easy access to healthcare.