Hear us: the experiences of refugee and asylum-seeking women during the pandemic

Today, 20 July 2020, the Sisters Not Strangers coalition publish a report which exposes the hardships experienced by asylum-seeking women in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic and calls for far-reaching reform of the asylum process.

The new report, Hear us: the experiences of refugee and asylum-seeking women during the pandemic, shows that women who have sought asylum in the UK, who were already living in poverty before the pandemic, have been made even more vulnerable to hunger and ill health.

  • Three quarters of women surveyed went hungry during the pandemic, including mothers who struggled to feed their children.
  • A fifth of women surveyed were homeless, relying on temporary arrangements with acquaintances for shelter, or sleeping outside or on buses.
  • More than 20 of the women surveyed said they did not feel able to go to the NHS even when they or a family member had COVID-19 symptoms.
  • The vast majority (82%) said that their mental health had worsened during the crisis, because of isolation and being cut off from support services.
  • The organisations who produced the report had all supported women trapped in abusive or exploitative situations during the pandemic, including women forced to do unpaid work for shelter and women living with violent partners.

The Sisters Not Strangers coalition is calling for a grant of leave to remain for all those who have applied for asylum, so that they can access support, housing and healthcare during this time of crisis. It is also calling for an uplift in asylum support, reform of the legal aid system, and the right to work for asylum-seekers.

Lo Lo, an asylum-seeking woman who was homeless in London during lockdown says:

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 would like the government to respect us, let us be safe and treat us with dignity as human beings.

Edna, who is living with no statutory support and relying on charities for her survival in Liverpool, says:

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, says:

This research is so important because when we speak as individuals it can sound as if we are trying to dramatise the situation.
It's not drama, it's real life. These are the problems that we are going through on a day-to-day basis as asylum-seeking women. 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.

Jessica Baker, Family and Asylum Integration Officer of Oasis Cardiff, says:

We are still faced with an outdated asylum system that is in drastic need of an overhaul. Women are more vulnerable than ever during the current social climate, and face further challenges as a result of their asylum status. Moreover, lack of access to basic human needs such as education, clothing, housing, food and internet is simply unacceptable. We need change now and our voices need to be acknowledged and heard.

Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women says:

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.

Read the report here.