Women who have sought asylum in the UK have been forced to live without food and sleep outside, or on buses during the coronavirus pandemic, a report has found.
The analysis, carried out by a coalition of women’s organisations, warned that the public health emergency has made asylum-seeking women more at risk of hunger and ill health.
The coalition named ‘Sisters Not Strangers’, which includes organisations working with refugee women around the UK, found that three-quarters of women seeking asylum went hungry during the pandemic, including mothers who found it difficult to find food to give to their children.
A fifth of women polled were homeless, which meant they were either forced into precarious temporary living arrangements with acquaintances or were sleeping on the streets or on night buses.
Image credit The Independent
About a fifth said they were anxious about going to the NHS even if they fell ill with suspected coronavirus symptoms, or a family member developed potential COVID-19 symptoms.
Approximately eight in 10 women said their mental health had deteriorated in the wake of the pandemic because of being isolated and unable to access support services.
Jennifer*, an asylum-seeking woman who was homeless in London during the lockdown, claimed: “I have serious health conditions that mean it would be particularly dangerous for me to catch the virus.
“For a week during lockdown, I slept on buses. I went from one side of London to the other because it was free to travel on the bus then. I didn’t have any money for hand sanitizer or a face mask. It feels for me as a woman that life is one big cycle of abuse.”
Jennifer also said she came to the UK to seek safety but was instead forced into more exploitation – spending many years homeless or being “abused for work” before managing to get any basic support.
This changed after meeting a solicitor who supported her to submit an asylum application based on the danger she suffered in her country of origin, as well as teaching her about trafficking and processes to apply for asylum.
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“The Home Office gave me accommodation,” she added. “I hoped that this would be a new chapter in my life, but it was no better. The accommodation was filthy and overcrowded. There were cockroaches and rats everywhere and we didn’t have any hot water. I was in that accommodation for the start of this lockdown and I felt so unsafe there.”
Image credit Morning Star
Jennifer added that, despite her serious health problems, which mean she is at risk of severe complications if she gets sick with the Coronavirus, it was impossible to self-isolate there.
“I was terrified because men kept coming into my room without permission, even while I was sleeping,” Jennifer explained. “I felt so stressed and my depression got worse. I had been submitting complaints about the accommodation for months, but the Home Office wouldn’t listen to me. In the end, I felt too afraid to be there, so I left.”
After a week, the local authority placed her in a hotel which was housing homeless people, but the walls were mouldy and there were bed bugs.
“Because of my serious medical problems, I can’t eat the food that they give us,” she said. “For the first two weeks, I had almost nothing to eat, until a charity gave me a supermarket voucher. Nothing is easy. Now I am here, it is hard for me to get to my medical appointments because the hotel is so far away from the hospital. I would like the government to respect us, let us be safe and treat us with dignity as human beings.”
The frontline service providers who wrote the report, which demands a drastic overhaul of the asylum process, had all helped women cooped up with abusive partners or trapped in exploitative situations during the lockdown. This included women who had been forced to do unpaid work to have some form of housing.
Asylum seekers in London receive emergency food from a Red Cross centre in Dalston. Image credit Andy Rain/EPA
Edna*, a domestic abuse victim who has been refused asylum, said: “Being destitute during a pandemic is the worst feeling ever. It makes you feel like you are just a box and if someone wanted to kick you, they could; you are just an object, not a human with feelings. It’s not easy relying on other people for food and shelter and it has caused me a lot of mental health issues. I have thoughts about harming myself. It’s not been easy at all for me during the pandemic – not being free, not being able to do what I want. Everything comes with a restriction.”
Loraine Mponela, chair of Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group, which was involved in drawing up the report, said the issues raised in the research are problems that asylum-seeking women are experiencing “on a day-to-day basis".
She said: “It’s not drama; it’s real life. We need to build solidarity to carry us through this crisis and also enable us to work together after the pandemic to create a more equal and safer society for women.”
The Sisters Not Strangers coalition, who spoke to 115 women currently living in England and Wales who have claimed asylum, includes organisations working with refugee women in eight different cities across the country.
Image credit David Donnelly/CBC
Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women, said: “Previous research has established that almost all women who seek asylum in the UK are survivors of gender-based violence. Even before this crisis, we have seen how they are forced into poverty, and struggle to find safety. During the pandemic, they have too often been left without basic support, including food and shelter. It is now vital that we listen to these women and ensure that we build a fairer and more caring society.”
*Names have been changed to protect people’s identities
Source: The Independent