OPINION
14/04/2020 10:44 BST

Many Asylum-Seekers Survive On £5 A Day. Coronavirus Is A Chance To Change This

We will need the skills of migrants and refugees in future. They are keen and ready to help during the pandemic, writes Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor.

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Many asylum-seekers cannot comply with Covid-19 guidelines. Living in basic shared accommodation, they rely on £5 a day for travel, food and necessities.

Across society, voices demanding change are getting louder. Once Covid-19 has been defeated, they say, society, politics and the economy cannot revert to business as usual. The same should be true of asylum and integration.

It has taken this crisis to show how much we rely on the NHS and key workers. We owe them. As a result of history and globalisation, a good number of those shouldering this burden — and sometimes paying the ultimate price — have origins outside the UK. Some had to battle a system stacked against them; many still don’t know their prospects longer term.

Faced with the emergency, the government quickly sought to address some systemic challenges. It has allowed online registration to claim asylum and has suspended requirements to check in with local officials or offices. The government has also halted evictions and kept the borders open. Councils have been instructed to find emergency accommodation for rough sleepers which helps to shield the most vulnerable.

This offers breathing room. But the authorities should go further.

Many asylum-seekers cannot comply with Covid-19 guidelines. Living in basic shared accommodation, they rely on £5 a day for travel, food and necessities. They cannot afford enough sanitary products to wash their hands frequently or disinfect communal areas; most cannot afford books or to access the internet. This threatens their right to an education, hinders access to news and communication with service providers, and jeopardises their physical and mental health. A modest increase in benefits could help significantly.

At times like this, it’s essential that everyone can seek healthcare without fear of being reported. Charges for Covid-19 treatment for all overseas visitors have been dropped. This is encouraging, and we recommend charges and data-sharing with authorities are scrapped for all areas of healthcare, for everyone.

The emergency also shows the system is not geared to nurturing much-needed talent. Most asylum-seekers are prevented from working, while refugees, who have rights to work, are often trapped in menial jobs below their qualifications. Offering asylum-seekers the right to work after six months, and more effective support for refugees to progress, would benefit them, and society.

While the immediate focus remains the emergency at home, it’s important not to forget the 71 million forcibly-displaced globally, most in poorer countries.

Before Covid-19, the number of people in immigration detention had been falling: the last count was 736 on 26 March. The government has been reviewing cases and recently released over 350 detainees. Still, the UK is the only European country without a statutory detention time-limit. Falling through the cracks can mean an unending cycle of enforcement, bail applications, release and destitution. 

Since 2017, UNHCR has been working with the UK on alternatives ― elsewhere these include releasing detainees on parole or after they pay a bond, home visits and check-ins, or monitoring ex-detainees using technology. Countries such as Malaysia, Zambia and Belgium have introduced similar initiatives. 

While the immediate focus remains the emergency at home, it’s important not to forget the 71 million forcibly-displaced globally, most in poorer countries.

In Kutupalong, Bangladesh, more than 600,000 Rohingya survive cheek by jowl in flimsy shelters awaiting the virus — and cyclones. Imagine the population of Glasgow under tarpaulin in a town the size of Maidenhead, with no NHS, shared latrines and little PPE.

Covid-19 is a global challenge that can only be addressed through international solidarity. Everyone should have access to health services and decent living conditions. This a moral and legal imperative and will benefit the whole of society. As the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres recently said, “We’re only as strong as the weakest health system in our interconnected world.”

The UK has long played a key role — and has recently spent £200m — in supporting forcibly-displaced people and their hosts globally, and deserves praise. Working with Europe, the government confirmed last month it would work to keep families together when it came to unaccompanied children seeking protection — this includes 52 children currently stuck in Greece who were cleared to travel to the UK, and we hope the government finds a way to bring them here soon.

At last count, UNHCR estimated there were 127,000 refugees in the UK. There are also around 56,000 asylum-seekers awaiting decisions, according to government data, with another 40,000 subject to removal. That might seem like a large number, but don’t forget the many millions of refugees abroad who are in far worse circumstances.

As we celebrate nurses, doctors and food-chain workers, we should remember we will need their skills in future. Migrants and refugees are keen and ready to help. There will come an opportunity to relegate the hostile environment to history, helping the most vulnerable and strengthening cohesion in society. It will ensure wellbeing for everyone.

Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor is UNHCR’s representative to the UK. The public can help UNHCR’s global response to Covid-19 here.