Effect of the coronavirus pandemic on refugees lives

We have become accustomed to the words ‘unprecedented’ and ‘uncertainty’ when describing the effect, that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our life.

The lockdown has certainly disrupted our work, education and relationships with others. Inevitably, this is challenging our mental health and wellbeing, more so for asylum seekers and refugees in our communities, who constantly live with uncertain conditions.

Traumas experienced before lockdown

These are resilient people, many of whom have experienced unimaginable trauma and have seen major disruptions in their life. Being forced to flee everything they knew (country, language and culture) to seek safety and to re-establish a sense of normalcy elsewhere in unfamiliar settings. They have also faced the lockdown far away from their loved ones, with high levels of anxiety and concern for their families and friends, affected by the global pandemic in far away and very challenging environments.

Sadly, this experience is more likely to amplify further the existing mental health problems faced by asylum seekers and refugees related to their ‘pre-migration experiences and post migration conditions (such as separation from family, difficulties with asylum procedures and poor housing)’.

The reality of emerging from lockdown

In addition, as we are emerging from lockdown to make sense of ‘our new normal’, we are looking forward to reuniting with and hugging our families, returning to our workplaces and reconnecting with friends in social settings. This may not be possible for many asylum seekers and refugees in the UK.  Most don’t have their families and wider social networks around.

In addition, asylum seekers are in limbo, not able to take on higher education studies and not allowed to work (with many refugees under or unemployed) and likely to face loneliness or worse, direct discrimination, within their new communities. This compromises their aspirations and jeopardises their sense of purpose, identity and social connections with long term effects on their mental health. 

We must work with refugees to share their voice

The UK has an international legal obligation to protect and support refugees. Within the Mental Health Foundation, through our public mental health prevention approach, we recognise that we must work with refugees to design solutions that protect and support mental health. We are doing this in Scotland in our voice and visibility work with asylum seekers and refugees, guided by the New Scots Strategy framework. It is vital to provide affected people and communities a safe space to inform thinking and action at policy and strategic level. 

Through a human rights lens, related to the mental health benefits in being connected with your community and influencing policy decisions, we have produced a civic forum awareness video on health, housing and education for asylum seekers. During the lockdown, our volunteers (four women from Syria) wrote letters on kindness to themselves, explaining how being kind has helped them cope during the lockdown. 

This year as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, we called for the current immigration policies developed under the ‘hostile environment’ approach to be replaced by policies that are  shaped by the values of kindness, fairness and dignity for all to help rebuild trust and recognise the benefits that refugees and asylum seekers bring to our communities.

We must adopt an empathetic approach as a society

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It is true, we are at a crossroads globally and locally. We are still going through challenging times and post the coronavirus outbreak it is likely to be difficult. In these unprecedented times, there is a good opportunity to reflect on what kind of society we want to be and adopt an empathic approach by trying to understand the life of asylum seekers and refugees in our communities, asking ourselves “what would it look like if I lost everything and had to start from scratch?”

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Kindness letters by Safaa, Amira, Faida and Noura