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Lessons from lock down: The Welsh Refugee Council

May 22nd 2020

Holly Taylor, Executive Director of Policy and Communications at the Welsh Refugee Council, explains the ways in which they have had to adapt their service provision during lock down and how it is has highlighted existing issues in the asylum and refugee system

Welsh Refugee Council have provided high quality support to empower refugees and asylum seekers to build new futures in Wales for over 30 years. Much of this support has been delivered face to face – providing play activities for families, educational workshops and English lessons, or help accessing housing and financial support. In a usual month we support over 300 asylum seekers and refugees in our offices in Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and Wrexham.

The Coronavirus pandemic meant we had to transition to telephone support and online delivery. For us that included:

  • moving our casework service to a telephone advice line;
  • contacting those receiving our destitution support to help them access newly available support;
  • contacting over 100 families across Cardiff who access our play services;
  • setting up Whatsapp groups and Zoom ESOL classes supported by an online resource directory;
  • creating online resources advising asylum seekers and refugees what a hate crime is and how to report with an online video and information available in 12 languages, supported by a Whatsapp group;
  • working with partners to translate information on NHS guidance into community languages.

The lack of face to face contact

The team very quickly adapted to the new way of working and we all became very familiar with using Teams to keep in touch.

The telephone service receives over 750 calls a week. Our team has found that work which can be done in an hour appointment in the office can take up to five times as long over the phone, particularly when helping new refugees navigate the challenging processes of applying for bank accounts and financial support. While much can be done online while on the phone, much depends on the service user having a phone and being able to afford mobile data.

The overwhelming message from our frontline staff is that it is much better to offer a service face to face. It is easier to build a relationship with that person and to gain their trust, and it is much quicker to be able to help them make applications if they are in front of you.

Our team have been proactively keeping in touch with our current clients to see how they are, to offer any support we can and to make appropriate signposting or referrals.

How asylum seekers and refugees are coping with Coronavirus

The crisis has exacerbated existing issues within the asylum and refugee systems and has been shown to disproportionately affect those from BAME backgrounds. Asylum Support of just £37.75 a week is clearly not enough during a crisis where the price of essential goods is rising. We’re seeing families with limited play space impacted by the closure of schools, community centres and shared open spaces. Outside, gardens in properties aren’t adequately maintained, while for others living spaces is shared between more than one family. Some are telling us they don’t have toys – one family even said they didn’t even have paper and pencils.

One of the key issues for us has been access to the internet for our service users. While many services sought to make applications possible online, to communicate through messaging services, and to share information with some organisations such as Public Health Wales making sure that information is available in multiple languages – this has proved difficult to access for families dependent on expensive pay-as-you-go mobile data or with no access to laptops or tablets.

We have found that our staff have responded brilliantly to the crisis and the new way of working, and our ever resilient service users have continued to find ways to support themselves and each other during the crisis. We continue to find positives in the crisis and some of our partnership working has grown stronger, but lessons must be learnt, and asylum-seeking and refugee children particularly should not be disadvantaged as a result of this disruption.

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