Experiences of lockdown for asylum-seeking and refugee women is exacerbating their already challenging circumstances and further damaging their wellbeing and mental health. The gendered responsibilities of parenting and caregiving compounded with a punitive asylum system and the impacts of lockdown have resulted in a distinct crisis, often concealed from mainstream news coverage.
Nonetheless, experiences of poverty, social isolation and poor mental health existed before the pandemic and are continuing to be exacerbated by it. Indeed, the main source of the crisis for these women is not the pandemic itself; rather the pandemic is an add-on to the harmful and exclusionary impacts of the UK asylum system.
As the COVID-19 crisis continues to expose and exacerbate inequalities, the range of negative impacts on gender equality becomes clearer. The increasing incidences of domestic violence and the intensified intersection of work and caring responsibilities are some of the issues that have received widespread attention. Yet, the impact of the crisis on women from specific marginalised groups remains more concealed. One such population is asylum-seeking and refugee women. With restricted citizenship rights, alongside various overlapping social inequalities, these women commonly experience exclusion and isolation. Consequently, their experiences during the pandemic have – in large part – remained out of sight.
During the last 12 months, we have been researching the impacts of the pandemic and lockdown on asylum-seekers, refugees and asylum services. Our research is situated in Newcastle and Glasgow and we have spoken directly with over 20 asylum-seeker and refugee women to collect first-hand accounts of their experiences of the pandemic. This data comes from two ongoing projects – the first about refugee youth and public space funded by HERA, and the second about refugee responses to COVID-19 in the UK funded by the ESRC.
Most of the women we spoke to were with their children, some as single parents, some with partners, and they were housed in self-contained asylum dispersal accommodation, often in marginalised areas of the two cities. For most, the implications of lockdown had exacerbated the difficulties posed by their accommodation, which was of poor quality and often unsuitable for a family with children. An asylum-seeker in Glasgow, who had a baby during the first lockdown, lived in a flat containing only the most basic furniture, much of which was in need of repair. The bed was in such a bad condition that she and her baby often had to sleep on the floor. Due to lockdown restrictions, they had to spend the majority of time in this accommodation, and any repairs they requested were not carried out, all of which was causing great stress for this new mum.
Limited space at home and limited financial resources made homeschooling and extra caring responsibilities very challenging. All of the women struggled financially, and several families did not have sufficient access to computers, smartphones and the internet. One woman explained that she only had one smartphone and a limited internet data package for her three children to use for homeschooling. For some, having limited English language skills also made it hard to assist their children with learning and to liaise with schools and teachers. Keeping children occupied at home with very limited resources was another challenge. For example, one mum talked about how it had been difficult and upsetting not to have enough money to provide her children with more food and forms of entertainment during lockdown.
Alongside having to stay at home, the loss of access to public spaces and to face-to-face activities has increased social exclusion and isolation. In particular, the organisations that women visited for support were no longer able to open their doors. Community groups, religious centres, English classes, counselling services, children’s groups and support groups for food, clothing and hardship funds had to close. For many of the women, visiting these services and organisations had been important for their mental wellbeing and critical for accessing information about the new city and country in which they found themselves. For some, the loss of face-to-face services had made them feel isolated, with no one to turn to for help and no opportunities for social contact.
Asylum-seeking women arriving in the UK during the pandemic found themselves in a very isolated and anxiety-provoking situation, with many of the usual sources of support not available or not as accessible. Many organisations worked very hard to move services online, yet digital exclusion meant that many refugees and asylum-seekers had periods of having no or very restricted access to all sources of support. Finding libraries and other venues that usually provide free internet access closed and no Wi-Fi on their mobile phones, many were cut off completely from the routines they had started to establish.
Waiting and uncertainty – a common feature of the everyday lives of asylum-seekers and refugees – have increased during lockdown. In particular, the long drawn-out process of claiming asylum, contesting asylum decisions and obtaining advice about the asylum system is being further protracted. Meanwhile, for those who had already received refugee status, there was increased waiting and uncertainty surrounding possible employment opportunities, claiming certain benefits and moving into new housing.
The mental health impacts of both the UK asylum system and the pandemic were significant for the women we spoke to. The heavy toll of claiming asylum, such as isolation and poverty, compounded by the effects of lockdown, had had a severe impact on their mental wellbeing. Many of the women suffered depression and anxiety and they suffered significant distress about the welfare of their children and their future in the UK. For most, the impacts of lockdown had worsened their difficult mental health conditions.
There are no easy answers or quick solutions to the challenges we discuss here; this is largely due to the exclusionary nature of the asylum system in the UK. A more compassionate approach to asylum would be one step in the right direction. In addition, we contend that it is crucial to consider the gendered impacts of the pandemic on marginalised groups such as asylum-seeking and refugee women.
Robin Finlay is a Postdoctoral Research Associate and Peter Hopkins is Professor of Social Geography, both in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University. Both are involved in the HERA and ESRC projects mentioned above.
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