Refugee Action: Sanctuary bed

Responding to the needs of people seeking asylum

Case study

The government response to Covid-19 aims to provide a safety net for people most affected, through furloughing, universal credit, and other measures. But people seeking asylum live outside the mainstream safety net. In this case study, Stephen Hale from Refugee Action explains the dramatic change in the needs and risks faced by refugees, their response, and how philanthropists can help.

Most charities have closed and we all know that charities and drop-in services are the only way asylum seekers are able to speak to someone one on one if they have any problems. You can only imagine if someone is isolated and wondering who to speak to, or if they have any fears regarding coronavirus, they will not be able to have anyone to speak to. It is really really very concerning… …Most of us will feel forgotten at this time.


Expert by experience, Refugee Action's ambassador network

The immediate needs and risks

Local charities are a lifeline for many seeking asylum, yet lockdown is dramatically undermining their ability to operate. Small charities are far less likely to have IT equipment, unable to make remote cash payments, and struggle to use interpreters as this role was previously played by face to face volunteers. Many of their clients are also unable to receive remote service delivery even when it is available due to a lack of access to IT and bank accounts. This is having severe consequences for those already at the margins:

  1. Poverty and hunger: Lockdown compounds the already substantial challenges of living on just £37.75 a week. Prepaid cards are only uploaded with credit weekly and can only be used in certain shops. Charities are dealing with a significant number of requests for cash or vouchers from people who are going hungry and expect this to get worse. Families are struggling with a lack of critical resources in this context – the internet for education, phones, and indeed toys to pass time in isolation.
  2. Homelessness and unsafe accommodation: There are significant public health concerns about accommodation for people seeking asylum. Social distancing is difficult and self-isolation impossible for people housed in accommodation with shared kitchens and bathrooms, and indeed bedroom sharing between unrelated adults.
  3. Extreme isolation and safeguarding concerns: There is much confusion and anxiety among people seeking asylum right now. Aslyum seekers often do not speak English well, nor are they likely to have access to a TV, computer or smart phone to stay informed. This is leading to anxiety and isolation as the inability to move freely means people cannot access support networks; compounding existing health and mental health challenges. Children and those living in abusive or violent situations face heightened risk, with many support services now closed or running very reduced services.


How philanthropists can help

  1. Supporting frontline services: Refugee Action and other charities need increased funding now to sustain and wherever possible expand their direct support to people seeking asylum in the UK and meet the increased and urgent needs among this group of people outside the mainstream safety net.
  2. Supporting charities to adapt: Refugee Action’s good practice team is working with local charities to identify the critical issues that are limiting their ability to operate remotely and to develop, test and share solutions to these through agile digital service design. The top priority identified by these organisations is to establish remote destitution payment mechanisms suitable to the needs of this group of clients. Other issues include remote working and access to interpreters.
  3. Advocating for a reformed asylum system: The speed of Home Office decisions and the way in which they are put into practice will be the single biggest determinant of the health and welfare of people seeking asylum over the coming months. We know from experience that the Home Office struggles to make significant policy decisions and implement them without inflicting substantial injustice, poverty and stress. A coalition of national charities including Refugee Action, British Red Cross and Freedom from Torture are working on a collective strategy to influence the Home Office, with individual organisations leading in specific areas.


Do you have a case study to share? Get in touch at For more of our work on advising philanthropists on how to keep charities serving through coronavirus, visit


Photo credit: Refugee Action

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