Alice Arkwright interviews Pauline Nandoo Director of Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers (SDCAS) about what the pandemic has meant for the challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers, and how SDCAS has responded during the crisis.
Prior to the pandemic, Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers (SDCAS) provided what Pauline describes as a holistic service. The centre offered advice on issues including immigration, housing and benefits, a free hot lunch, English classes, art session, employment skills training, a creche, a gardening project, mental health support, and vitally a place for those who are often so isolated from their friends, family and home to come together. Pauline says what they do is aimed at those who have ‘little or nothing’ and I know from volunteering with SDCAS that they act as a vital safety net in the community.
She says when the first lockdown happened in March, they reverted to providing the basics – food. As so many of the support services that asylum seekers relied on had to close their doors due to the pandemic, the staff decided to open a food bank. It was one of the only services they were allowed to provide under the restrictions and knowing their free meals were so important to clients, they wanted to continue with a food service.
It opened on the 1st April and it now serves between 200 and 300 people, including children, every week, providing food, essentials and cash for those who need it.
Pauline says they took the decision to prioritise those with no recourse to public funds, meaning they can’t access most benefits or housing assistance. But the team still have huge concerns that they aren’t reaching the most vulnerable. A lack of means of communication and travel for many people means they haven’t been able to contact the centre during lockdown. Pauline says sometimes they feel they are just touching the tip of the iceberg.
Over lockdown they’ve reintroduced some of the activities they were doing before in a safe manner. They opened a remote advice service and arranged limited face to face advice for emergencies only, introduced payment cards and food deliveries so vulnerable clients don’t have to travel, and over the summer the gardening project could open in a limited capacity. However, it’s far from the holistic service previously offered.
Pauline says the demand for immigration advice has skyrocketed as many legal services have closed during the pandemic or are offering limited support and it’s becoming harder and harder to find legal representation for clients. Yet people are still arriving in the UK and about 10% of the clients they see every week are new to the centre.
Pauline describes the enormous challenges they are facing. Like schools, they’re impacted by the digital divide in the UK. With most asylum seekers living off an allowance of just £5 a day and many living in Home Office accommodation that doesn’t provide Wi-Fi, clients don’t have access to devices or the internet. She says they have managed to source funding for equipment for clients, which has helped with advice and allowed children to keep up with their schoolwork.
In usual times, those arriving in the UK are placed in Home Office accommodation centres, which are often overcrowded and lack proper facilities. They are then dispersed around the country. Instead during the pandemic, they have been placed in ‘Covid hotels’. Pauline says residents have told them there is a lack of food and clothes washing facilities and there have been numerous outbreaks of Covid-19. The conditions can be so bad that some choose not to stay.
Isolation has also been a huge issue for both clients and volunteers. Clients have lost one of the only spaces where they can socialise, and isolation can exacerbate existing mental health issues and trauma. Pauline describes well-being calls with clients where some just cry down the phone and staff members are having to take these calls alone at home. Volunteers and staff are working really hard to ensure clients still have access to mainstream mental health support, but they worry about those they have lost touch with.
The pandemic seems to have exacerbated the problems that refugees and asylum seekers already face – a lack of safe and decent accommodation, difficulty accessing services, homelessness, isolation and being stuck in a sense of limbo. Some of SDCAS’ clients have waited ten, even twenty years to receive a final decision on their refugee status. Pauline says, the pandemic has just slowed everything down at the Home Office. The pandemic will add years on to the time people are waiting for their status, waiting for decisions on where they can live, on whether they will be sent back to violence, on whether they can work, and on whether they can be joined by family members. All of this highlights the need for SDCAS and everything it offers.
Pauline finishes by talking about the generosity of the community during the pandemic and the way the refugee sector has come together to support each other and share advice. She says the huge number of donations and support they received from local businesses and people was amazing and helped motivate everybody to keep going. They have benefitted from support from the GLA, the local council and other sources of funding. However, she says the funding never matches the need and greater co-ordination from local authorities would have helped, for example when so many local organisations were suddenly having to source PPE.
The biggest absence in the conversation on support is central government. This is not surprising from a government that has shown contempt for refugees and asylum seekers, refusing to provide safe and legal routes to the UK. Pauline says the lack of clarity in government guidance on what they can deliver during the pandemic has caused huge amounts of work and uncertainty, but they are also taking policy decisions that are making life harder.
For example, in the middle of the pandemic when people are losing their incomes, the government chose to announce that from 1st December 2020 immigration officials would have the power to deport people for sleeping rough. Amid all the challenges created by the pandemic and the incredible hard work by organisations such as SDACS, as Pauline says, they are ‘making things worse rather than better at a time when we really don’t need it’.
For more information on SDCAS and how you can support them, please visit: http://www.sdcas.org.uk/
Interview conducted and written by Alice Arkwright.