Everyday Activism participants speak out about how COVID-19 is affecting asylum seekers in the UK

Everyday Activism campaigners Joan and Loraine have been speaking out about their experiences during lockdown, and the difficulty of not being allowed to work during this crucial time.

“Life in this country has been very tough. I have been here for 15 years and I still don’t have the right to work. Coronavirus is scary. We just sit at home. At least when we went out before, we got a bit more confidence.”

– Joan, from the ‘Right to Work’ campaign group in Bradford.

After 15 years Joan is still waiting to hear back from the Home Office on her right to remain in the UK. Unable to work and living on minimal support from the state, Joan has already had to stay at home for many years. “I never had a time that I could work,” she explained. “If you just sit in the house doing nothing, you forget how to contact someone from the outside.” 

Before the pandemic, Joan had a place to meet up with friends and spend time with her community: Biasan, a space for asylum seekers and refugees in Bradford. Biasan offered a safe place to spend time, chat and cook together, learn English, go on trips, and campaign. 

It was through Biasan that Joan found out about and joined the Right to Work group, co-facilitated by Everyday Activism trainer Sue Balcomb and Mary Brandon from Asylum Matters. The group have campaigned hard to ‘lift the ban’ on asylum seekers not being allowed to work in the UK. Over the past year, Joan has lobbied local politicians, collected signatures to lobby the Home Secretary, taken part in #WalkForWork, and spoke about her story on BBC Radio Leeds and BBC Sunday Politics. She also attended a national gathering in London for the Lift the Ban campaign in March, to connect with other campaigners across the UK and share their work and inspiration so far.

This photo shows Joan and four other people standing together outside a church-like building. Four members of the group are wearing bright yellow T-shirts that say 'Lift The Ban'. Two people are holding blue posters that say: "Life the Ban. Give people the right to work. Right now."
Joan and other campaigners on the #WalkToWork march from Bradford to Leeds in 2019.

Writing about the unique issues facing asylum seekers during this time, Loraine Masiya Mponela (Bootcamp graduate and chairperson of CARAG – see below), also highlighted the importance of community spaces, and the challenges faced by many following their closure: 

“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, CARAG [a community group for asylum seekers and refugees in Coventry] used to organise meetings where we would have a hot meal and chat about anything. We had this safe space where everyone felt welcome, this was the only time for many asylum seekers to have this opportunity to meet and talk with others. 

We are trying to use online platforms like Zoom but it has its own challenges. Very few of us can afford phone credit and data to join a meeting. Asylum seekers live on £5.39 per day provided by the government. We are not allowed to work even though many of us want to work and are qualified to work even in essential services which can save lives during this COVID-19 crisis.”

This photo shows Joan, a black woman wearing a patterned headscarf and a black coat, smiling at a camera at Community Conference in 2020. She is sitting down, holding out her to hold another person's hand, who is sitting at the edge of the photo.
Joan at Campaign Bootcamp’s Community Conference in Feb 2020.

For many asylum seekers in the UK, destitution has only worsened throughout the pandemic. Many were working cash in hand as cleaners, carers and babysitters. Most of these jobs have now been stopped, and are not covered by the government job retention ‘furlough’ schemes.Joan’s daughter, who received her right to remain in the UK as a minor, is working as a careworker during the current crisis. “My daughter has been proud of our campaign. She’s been encouraging us,” Joan says. “She is 24. She knows that we can’t do anything right now, and she is the one supporting us.”

“The Right to Work campaign has been so good. It has been the only time where I have felt that there might be a positive outcome in my situation. Sajid Javid promised that something might change, but things are slowing down now because of coronavirus. It might take a long time for me to get my response from the Home Office. But campaigning has given me a lot of courage to make change. There are so many people who are in the same situation as me.”

Resources and ways to help:

See this guide from COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK: Guide for Supporting Migrants during COVID-19.

Yorkshire Resists is calling for donations to support vulnerable groups affected by COVID-19 in West Yorkshire.

Find out more about the Lift the Ban campaign here.

City of Sanctuary have compiled a list of what you can do from home to support during the COVID-19 crisis.

Find out more about the community spaces featured in this blog: Biasan (Bradford) and CARAG (Coventry)

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