Poor healthcare, poor housing: how asylum seekers are dangerously exposed to COVID-19

Author: Cameron Boyle

The COVID-19 pandemic constitutes the most significant public health crisis in decades. With the number of deaths rising each day, there is an urgent need for all people to be adequately safeguarded. Yet for asylum seekers in the UK, barriers to healthcare and the inadequate provision of housing leave them dangerously exposed to the disease and its impact.

Ill-health is harrowingly commonplace within the asylum seeker community. In a British Red Cross study that focused on destitute asylum seekers in South Yorkshire, participants were asked to qualify their health based on five options ranging from ‘very good’ to ‘very bad’. Only 29% described their health as ‘good’ or ‘very good’, yet over a third (39%) stated ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’. These findings stand in stark contrast to those of the 2018 National Health Survey for England, which revealed that around three-quarters of the population believe their health to be either ‘good’ or ‘very good’.

As those with underlying health conditions are particularly susceptible to COVID-19, this evidence suggests that asylum seekers stand to be disproportionately affected by the outbreak. With this in mind, it is imperative that individuals of all backgrounds have access to suitable healthcare; yet there are a number of barriers in place that prevent asylum seekers from accessing medical assistance.

One such barrier is a lack of information- many asylum seekers in the UK are unaware of their rights in relation to healthcare, leaving them unable to navigate the system. In one case study, a Nottingham-based asylum seeker experienced immense difficulty whilst trying to register with a GP due to having no proof of address and an insecure immigration status. Although the NHS is open to all, the absence of clear and easy-to-understand guidance can act as a major deterrent, resulting in many of those in need going untreated. In the midst of a global pandemic, it is crucial that good-quality healthcare is a universal right.

The housing provided to asylum seekers also exacerbates the threat posed by COVID-19. In the absence of Indefinite Leave to Remain, both housing benefit and applying for a council house are prohibited, leaving the government’s provision of ‘no-choice’ accommodation the only safety net from homelessness. However, this accommodation is frequently substandard, with regular reports of damp, mould and poor ventilation.

Living in these abject conditions can lead to health problems- in one instance, the NHS found that poor ventilation and damp had caused the ill-health of a child. Additionally, asylum housing is often overcrowded- residents are frequently forced to share a room with strangers. Such unhealthy living arrangements encourage the transmission of infection by denying residents the right to self-isolate, contravening official government guidance in the process. In order for asylum seekers to be adequately safeguarded from the ongoing pandemic, the provision of appropriate accommodation is an absolute necessity.

As a number of respiratory diseases- including COVID-19- spread quickly amongst those living in overcrowded conditions, a number of migrants’ rights organisations have called on the government to ensure that all asylum seekers have access to self-contained accommodation. The risk posed to immigration detainees has also been highlighted, due to the lack of personal space afforded to those inside Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs).

The UK government’s current course of action is a choice rather than a necessity. In Portugal, all asylum seekers and undocumented migrants have been given temporary residency rights, allowing them the same level of protection from the virus as those with full citizenship. At this time of crisis, having access to public services and social aid is hugely important- it provides a vital safety net from destitution and ill-health.

If society as a whole is to be protected from the spread of COVID-19, people of all backgrounds must be afforded the same level of dignity and care. Immigration status should not play a role in who gets provided for.

Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors/attorneys.