By Stephen Hale
The Covid-19 pandemic affects us all. We all face the risk of catching this terrible virus. We all live with the constraints of self-isolation. And we can all be a part of a successful response, by respecting government guidelines and helping others around us.
But we aren't equally at risk. Many groups in our society are disproportionately affected by this crisis: people with health conditions, older people, those on the breadline, people of colour, disabled people, flat dwellers and those living alone. Each of these groups faces immediate and specific challenges.
Some are getting considerable attention in the government response. They are recognised as a priority, discussed in the daily press conferences, and prominent in media coverage. I truly hope they will benefit from this.
But others are less visible. People seeking asylum are disproportionately affected. You can't follow government guidelines if this has not been explained to you in your own language, you live in unsafe housing or are destitute, or can't afford essentials due to an impossibly low weekly allowance.
Our concern at Refugee Action is not to bemoan these problems. We're doing all we possibly can to persuade Home Office ministers to put practical solutions in place now, including increasing financial support to people in desperate need.
People seeking asylum in the UK have fled war, conflict and persecution. They have left behind all that they loved and cherished. On arrival in the UK they are housed in accommodation that is often overcrowded and unsuitable, expected to live on £5.39 a day, and given no support to build relationships with the communities around them.
The result for many is poverty and destitution. This is our asylum system. It often fails people in urgent need of support to rebuild their lives.
In the current crisis these failures create more poverty and trauma. The Home Office response to date has been too slow and is putting people at additional risk.
Put yourself in the place of Kemal, who was forced to live on the street while waiting to receive his asylum support. It took a court order to force the government to find him a roof over his head.
Amin has been struggling with his health while living in initial accommodation for five months. John should have been properly housed in January with access to an allowance. Both live in fear while they're stuck sharing a small room with strangers.
Our front-line staff at Refugee Action work with people affected in this way every day. We've radically altered the way we work and are doing everything we can to help those affected. We'll continue to do so. But additional action by government is absolutely critical to keep people safe and meet their basic needs through this crisis.
The Home Office must work with charities to design and deliver an approach that recognises the particular impacts of this pandemic on all vulnerable people and prioritises their needs.
Three actions are particularly urgent to enable people seeking asylum to follow government guidance on public health and ensure they do not go hungry or suffer additional unnecessary distress.
First, financial support must be increased to people in the asylum system. Now more than ever it's impossible for people to live on £5.39 a day. An immediate rise of £20 a week is essential. In the long term the allowance must be tied to benefit rates for UK residents. Second, people must be housed in accommodation that is safe and not overcrowded. Third, people need far better access to information. The lack of up-to-date information in different languages and lack of phones, computers and Wifi means that people are unclear what is expected of them.
These three actions are needed now to ensure that the asylum system complies with the public health imperative. We also need to heed the lessons of all this. When we exit this crisis we must hold on to some simple truths. Everyone's health matters. Everyone's wellbeing matters. The asylum system must be made fit for purpose, so that people who have already been through so much can successfully rebuild their lives in the UK.
Stephen Hale is the chief executive of Refugee Action. You can follow him on Twitter here. The names of the people in this article have been changed.
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