The UK's social distancing measures in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused unprecedented changes to individual and social lives.
The necessity of the measures to control the disease is not in question. However, it is becoming clear that the effects of social distancing will hit refugees and asylum seekers harder and in more complex ways than others as the informal networks they rely on disappear.
I am a researcher studying migrant communities in the UK. I have been speaking to people in the UK's Iranian community, including community workers and asylum seekers, to get a better understanding of the situation.
The UK continues to be a destination for asylum seekers. In 2019, the total number of applications from main applicants stood at 32,693. Under the various categories of protection, 18,519 applications were granted, of which 40% were children.
Refugee and asylum seeking children are entitled to formal education in the UK. However, destitution, lack of school places (as well as schools' unwillingness to admit them), the language barrier and complex caring responsibilities mean that they have great difficulty in entering and staying in formal education. The situation is made worse by unsuitable accommodation and limited access to technology, entertainment and social networks.
Asylum seeking families rely upon an extensive, often informal network of individuals and organisations for vital educational and social services. These include tuition in English and other subjects, health and social care support, support with legal matters, support with mental and physical wellbeing, and social and cultural activities.
Cut off from support
My research has looked at how the informal educational practices of migrant communities improve the education of migrant children and combat the disadvantages they face in the formal system.
In the Iranian community, organisations such as the Iranian Association and Hadaf School, and individual outreach workers, have worked tirelessly to maintain and expand these networks. Their services increasingly extend to non-Iranian immigrants. Social distancing means these services have now ground to a complete and indefinite halt.
There is a real sense of anxiety among practitioners about the immediate and long-term effects on the most vulnerable, whose isolation they liken to a form of imprisonment, if not a total disappearance from social life.
Outreach worker Mehrnoosh Khorsandi told me about a Kurdish family of four crammed into a single room in south London. They have no internet access or television. One of the children is an autistic toddler and the other a newborn. The toddler and father have COVID-19 symptoms, and the mother is experiencing heavy bleeding due to complications in giving birth. She is, however, unable to get medical attention because she cannot speak English. She is also afraid that if she complains about not being able to cope, social services will take her children away.
Ordinarily, informal support networks would have helped this family access medical help and regular, if basic, educational and social activities. But none of this is now possible. Furthermore, the family cannot access medical help. NHS 111 does not automatically provide interpreters. Khorsandi told me that she tried to contact the family's GP but was told she needed to be physically present with them, which is not possible under social distancing rules. For families like this one, social distancing amounts to a total silencing.
Other practitioners report similar worries. The Iranian Association has suspended all its classes and group activities, many of which are aimed at elderly and disabled Iranians. They, Hadaf and other organisations are doing their best to stay in telephone contact with people.
The longer-term effects of social distancing are still unknown and are likely to be far greater than we can appreciate at present. This is because some of the organisations themselves now face an uncertain future as a result of financial pressures. They also warn of the dangers of the loss of education, since for refugee families education is about more than the acquisition of skills. They see it as a lifeline and it gives them hope for the future.
In the midst of these difficulties, many asylum seekers blame themselves and believe they have no moral right to ask anything of the government or wider society. "This country is so kind, but we're the ones who have come here. So we can't be a burden," a 26-year-old Iranian asylum seeker told me.
The race, gender and any disabilities of refugees and asylum seekers intersect with other important factors such as poverty, lack of English, health problems and age, as well as their complex political status. This creates a perfect storm of disadvantage.
In times of public crisis, this produces unimaginably difficult short-term circumstances and a range of serious long-term health and social problems. Social distancing is vital. But when responding to the coronavirus pandemic, the UK must be conscious of the challenges faced by the most vulnerable.