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The UK’s Covid-19 response can become a defining moment for changing our approach to refugees

Written by Rabia Nasimi


The Covid-19 pandemic presents major challenges for us all, but in the UK vulnerable people and socially isolated communities whose first language is not English are feeling its worst effects.

Refugees and other migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and other central Asian countries are a small but growing community and comparatively new to the UK. Ongoing conflicts in countries of origin often result in trauma and health issues affecting settlement and integration here. Support networks and organisations, including the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA) where I work, are few and relatively underdeveloped. Despite all its challenges, the Covid-19 response is also creating an opportunity for governments and civil society to take stock and finally reset our approach to refugees.

The impact of Covid-19 on refugees

Refugees and other migrants are often low paid, work in the gig economy or are self-employed. Social distancing and self-isolation measures are having the greatest impact on families reliant on these low and intermittent incomes.

Many refugees are experiencing more mental health issues due to loss of jobs, emotional stress, loneliness and bereavement of relatives and friends. They are frightened about the impact of the disease itself, especially given that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities account for over a third of Covid-19 deaths across the UK.

It saddens me that we have been reporting many cases of deteriorating mental health amongst the younger Afghan refugee community in the UK. One young lady who we work with mentioned how because she lives with her grandparents who are vulnerable and unable to step out of the house, lockdown has had a significant impact on their mental health, which is an additional burden she has taken on. It just shows the virus can cause as much emotional as physical damage.

Language and employment barriers cause further isolation

Public information circulates in English – not the first language of refugees – leading to confusion and uncertainty. Poverty, poor literacy (in mother tongue and English) and poor English language skills mean there is no real digital alternative, creating further isolation and barriers to accessing services. Many in our community do not access information in mainstream ways and can be misled by misinformation and misunderstanding online and hearsay. They are reliant on community organisations such as the ACAA for accurate and timely information and advice.

Nonetheless, it is important to highlight that not all refugees have poor literacy in their mother tongue as well as English. Refugees are capable and skillful and want to be integrated and contribute to British society. There is no doubt that there are refugees who require more support, particularly for the least educated, but this should not be generalised. We should treat refugees differently, depending on their backgrounds. However, thousands of refugees cannot prove they have degrees and those that do struggle to convert them to secure jobs in the UK.

A report (PDF) on The Afghan Muslim Community in England by the Change Institute found that “many Afghans have experienced a loss of social, economic and professional status in exile” because their academic and professional qualifications (for example nursing and other medical degrees) are rarely acknowledged. A lack of training opportunities has left them to find employment that is generally much lower in status than previous roles occupied in Afghanistan, such as cab driving and restaurant work. I have met many men and women through the ACAA who have shared similar experiences.

Five ways to support refugee integration

This poses a big question: what can be done to help the refugee community find the jobs they deserve? Covid-19 has highlighted our dependence on essential workers both during times of crisis and recovery. However, the lack of holistic support to refugees is stopping them from developing the necessary skills to continue their profession post-migration.

The government and civil society need to work together to accelerate systemic change. We need to start thinking about how to recalibrate and offer new solutions to old problems.

Here are five ways we can support refugee integration in the UK and beyond:

1. Refugee health workers must be included in the Covid-19 response, as recommended by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Council of Europe. In France, for example, refugees with non-EU certification have been allowed to practice in the healthcare field.

2. Deal with mental and physical health issues early. Post-traumatic stress that results from living through conflicts in countries like Afghanistan, coupled with cultural differences and a lack of language skills, exacerbates poor health and prevents refugees from being able to integrate.

3. Make sure foreign qualifications and work experience counts. For example, Germany’s “early intervention” scheme assesses asylum seekers’ professional skills and competencies through samples of their work, building on their declared work history.

4. When dispersing refugees, consider whether the jobs available in regions they are relocated to match their skills. For example, in Sweden migrants are matched to localities based on their overall profile.

5. Build on civil society to integrate. I think this is one or UK’s greatest strengths, but it can still be further strengthened. Organisations such as the ACAA can deliver projects supporting those hardest-to-reach and marginalised people where demand for vital grassroots, culturally sensitive and tailored services are highest. These include English language classes, art, therapy, dealing with domestic violence, events and days out to London sites.

The Covid-19 crisis has drawn attention globally to how refugees can be vital assets to any country. They are not burdens. This now must be translated into more investment in these capabilities. Such investment will not only help our economies in these challenging times. It will also help us become a more tolerant global society and improve the wellbeing of so many refugee communities who are desperate to integrate.

This blog is part of the ODI at 60 series, which aims to push decision-makers and thought leaders to think radically about the future that faces us as we plan for recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic and rebuild for a more sustainable world. Central to this is ODI’s commitment to amplify the voices of those traditionally left out of debates that transform societies.

Join the conversation on Twitter @ODIdev #GlobalReset #ODI60.