Blog: Supporting refugees in the Covid-19 outbreak

Published: 16 Jun 2020

Author: Rosemary Brown
Blog: Supporting refugees in the Covid-19 outbreak

Refugees and people seeking asylum are among the most vulnerable groups facing the Covid-19 emergency, globally and in the UK. The daily challenges that confront them here – poverty, hunger, insecure housing, depression and isolation in an already difficult environment – are intensified by the current pandemic.

"In supporting the Islington Centre to adapt to the current crisis, I am drawing on lessons learned and contacts made during my 2019 Fellowship, which looked at ‘The Language of Friendship: Refugees Learning with Locals’." - Rosemary Brown, Fellow

The charities that provide a lifeline, like the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants where I volunteer, have had to shut their doors. Instead, we are adapting face-to-face operations so that we can continue to deliver vital support to 150 people across London who have fled war, violence and persecution. We have moved our essential services online and we are reaching out to our service users by telephone.

Being asked to stay at home is not easy when 'home' is a sofa in a friend's house, or a bed in a crowded hostel. Getting food and basic supplies is even more challenging – especially for those who have no income and are denied the right to work. Our support is needed now more than ever. One of our service users described what it is like to be a destitute asylum seeker during a pandemic, in a recent article for The Independent which you can read here.

The Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants is enacting a three-point emergency response plan:

  1. Sending emergency support packages to those most in need. These include food vouchers, mobile phone top-ups and transport allowances. These packages allow our service users to buy food and to top up their phones, so that they can keep in contact with their families, with centre staff and with our online language lessons.
  2. Continuing our support service by telephone. Before the pandemic, we were working through a huge number of issues related to housing, asylum and immigration, healthcare and income. These problems have not gone away. Through regular phone calls with individuals, we are able to identify and act on our service users’ most complex needs.
  3. Redesigning our English classes so that they can be delivered remotely. We have been doing this either through online video sessions, or by phone or post for those without devices or internet access. You can’t have a voice if you don’t know the language. Knowledge of English is essential for integration. People displaced from their home countries need to become a part of their communities in the UK. A common language fosters friendships and understanding between people of different cultures and it unites communities.

Rosemary (second on the left) at the Islington Centre for Refugee and Migrants 

Planning for an uncertain future looms large on the centre’s agenda, as we seek further innovative ways to meet the needs of our service users under lockdown. These people are already traumatised by crises in the countries they have fled, leaving loved ones behind and struggling to rebuild their lives.

In supporting the Islington Centre to adapt to the current crisis, I am drawing on lessons learned and contacts made during my 2019 Fellowship, which looked at ‘The Language of Friendship: Refugees Learning with Locals’. My Fellowship took me to Greece and Ireland to research how pioneering community organisations are mobilising volunteers to welcome refugees through language lessons.

We know that a shared language removes barriers to integration and unites communities. We are sharing resources and strategies, along with the Mayor of London’s Social Integration Team, so that refugees and people seeking asylum can continue to learn the language that is crucial to integration, despite the overwhelming challenges of the Covid-19 emergency.

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