Refugees and asylum seekers

Micro Rainbow

The pandemic forced charities that work with refugees and asylum seekers to adapt how they deliver in order to avoid creating risks from the virus. But effectively supporting people who’ve had to flee their countries hasn’t really changed. It takes a mix of practical advice on how to navigate services and systems; legal advice and representation; support to make the most of a new life in the UK and opportunities to build connections and friendships. Spaces to heal trauma, stress and anxiety are also important.

In this overview, we describe how charities have maintained empathetic, person-centred approaches, despite the constraints and uncertainties brought on by Covid-19. The groups mentioned here have been funded through National Lottery grants, the Coronavirus Community Support Fund (CCSF), and Covid-19 Charities Fund.

How are our grantholders responding?

Adapting to the changing legal context

Many parts of the asylum process have continued despite Covid-19 restrictions, but some have been suspended or adapted. The Refugee Council has logged these changes, which include evictions from asylum accommodation being paused and interviews being carried out by video conferencing. Charities have adapted their advice and support in line with these changes.

  • Ongoing legal advice and support.  At any time, quality, independent legal advice and representation is vital to help people navigate the asylum system, get statutory support and avoid destitution. Charities have continued to do this throughout the pandemic through their accredited legal advisors, helping people to understand the steps they need to take for their asylum claim.

    Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network supported volunteers to gain Level 1 accreditation from the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) so that they could help more people. They know that when people get advice early in the process they're less likely to face long cases. Others employ OISC Level 2 case workers who are authorised to handle more complex applications. St Augustine’s Centre in Calderdale secured funding to employ a part-time case worker to support their 600 clients.
  • Help to access emergency support.  Most people going through the asylum process receive support from the Home Office for housing and basic living expenses. People who haven’t been successful with their initial asylum application may be eligible for Section 4 support, which is a state fund for destitute asylum seekers. ​​​​​​​Because of restrictions on international travel and the health implications of Covid-19, more people have become eligible for this emergency funding. Charities like the Govan Community Project in Glasgow have expanded their casework team to cope with increased demand from people who need help with their applications.
  • Legal advice as part of a wider package of support.  A person’s immigration status affects their legal rights and entitlements, from the right to work to accessing healthcare. So most charities provide legal advice and casework alongside a wider package of support. Haringey Migrant Support Centre moved their in-person immigration, welfare and housing advice services to phone and email and have seen a “dramatic” increase in demand. They’ve helped people to find safe accommodation and access state support they are entitled to.

Helping people find their way ​​​​​​​

Drop-in centres, community groups, and advice services are vital sources of support and information. They help people to navigate unfamiliar systems in a new language, and to understand their rights and responsibilities. Although Covid-19 forced many to temporarily close their doors, they continued with their work: connecting with people in their first weeks of arrival and then helping them to find their feet.

  • Helping people to move on from Home Office accommodation. Once someone is granted refugee status, they have 28 days to find their own accommodation; it’s a crucial time for charities to provide guidance and support. This is particularly important now, as there's a backlog of people who were granted refugee status but were unable to move on from temporary accommodation due to the lockdown. In Wales, over 100 people were in this situation in the first two months of the crisis. The Welsh Refugee Council secured emergency funding to enable a team of legal advisers to support newly granted refugees through the “move-on” period, with housing advice and other practical help, like opening bank accounts and finding school places.
  • Helping people who arrived during the pandemic. Harbour, a local charity in Swindon, has worked closely with the local housing provider to contact people who arrived in the city during the crisis and help them to navigate services, like registering with a GP.

​​​​​​​Crisis support

Some people reached a crisis point. Refused asylum seekers couldn’t return to their home country and others who were struggling to make ends meet had to rely on charities for food parcels and essentials. Some grantholders who were already providing these services expanded their capacity to deal with increased and sudden destitution.

  • Providing emergency food parcels.  A team of over 40 volunteers at the Micah Liverpool Foodbank gave out around 300 food parcels a week, compared to an average of 220 previously. All Nations Ministries in Northern Ireland donated food and gave out weekly shopping vouchers to help families with young children to buy essentials like formula and nappies.
  • Essential supplies and services. The Congolese Development Project in Swansea is supporting elderly people living alone. They help with shopping, driving people to health appointments, and spreading awareness of Covid-19 scams.
  • Using existing relationships to identify and support people. Some grantholders are providing emergency support for the first time. Bikes For Refugees in Scotland, who refurbish and distribute donated bikes, contacted people they’ve supported before to check in on them and supply food and essentials, where needed.

Therapy, mental wellbeing and health

Charities are concerned that refugees and asylum seekers are especially vulnerable to the potential mental health impacts of the pandemic. Experiences like trauma and the often difficult journey to the UK can make them more likely to experience poor mental health than the general population. And for some, isolation and social distancing have brought back memories of previous trauma.

  • Delivering socially-distanced therapy outdoors. Family Refugee Support Project in Liverpool have re-opened their garden therapy space where qualified counsellors work with a horticulturist and interpreters to support clients. ​​​​​​​
  • Understanding the relationship between the pandemic and previous trauma. The clinical team at Helen Bamber Foundation work with survivors to understand the impact of their trauma and to manage and reduce its symptoms. The team now support people over the phone and via video content, helping them to manage distressing feelings. ​​​​​​​
  • Specialist maternity support. Refugee women have a higher risk of perinatal and maternal mortality. The peer support programme run by City of Sanctuary in Leeds brings women and maternity service providers together. They’ve taken on 15 new volunteers to provide telephone support to over 30 women.
  • Complementary therapies so people can manage their own wellbeing. Tools for Inner Peace, a group of yoga teachers, psychotherapists, and social workers, use yoga to improve the wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers. They’ve expanded their offer, moving classes online.

Addressing loneliness, tackling isolation

For nearly two-thirds of refugees and asylum seekers in London, loneliness was already their biggest challenge prior to the pandemic. When community projects, drop-in centres, and language classes closed, it took away a chance to connect. We're in a new, still uncertain, phase, and some places are working out how to re-open their doors, as well as maintaining elements of remote provision set up during lockdown.

  • Continuing social groups online.  Micro Rainbow, a charity supporting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTQI) refugees and asylum seekers, run social and wellbeing activities online; from mindfulness workshops to drawing classes, as well as more formal advice sessions.
  • Keeping healthy through connections with others. The Northern Ireland Refugees and Asylum Seekers Women’s Association, known as Bomoko NI, is running English lessons and cookery demonstrations online. The Manchester Refugee Support Network have introduced a ‘Check in and Chat’ buddy scheme to keep people connected and practise their English.
  • Smart befriending services.  HostNation changed from face-to-face befriending to ‘smart’ connections where introductions and initial relationship-building happen through weekly video calls. These are followed by socially distanced outdoor meet-ups when both parties feel ready. A survey showed that new connections have improved people’s wellbeing and self-confidence (85%) and made them feel less lonely (82%).

"You can be yourself and forget about your traumas […] He’s someone brighter, and I’ve learned that there’s hope […] It’s why I’m still alive.” Hostnation befriendee.

Support for young refugees and asylum seekers

Remote learning has been especially difficult for young refugees, who may have missed school in their home countries or during their journey to the UK. Staying at home has also meant missing out on socialising with peers, face-to-face support from teachers, and support from the services that help with adjusting to life in the UK.

  • Support with schoolwork.  Nurture provided free online maths and wellbeing sessions for secondary-level students in Scotland during lockdown. Children and their parents wanted sessions to continue, so Nurture ran the same course over the summer, with English sessions, a buddy scheme and an online space to socialise.
  • Improving digital literacy.  Kent Refugee Action Network, which works with 14-24-year-olds in local authority care, noticed their beneficiaries struggling with the switch to virtual services. They trained staff and members of their youth forum to support young people to improve their digital literacy. They also trained young people who’ve been in the UK for longer as peer mentors to support new arrivals.

Ready to meet demand – now and in the future

Many charities in this sector are small; eight out of ten (79%) have an income of less than £100,000 a year. Like many others, they’ve lost income while costs have gone up and demand for their services has increased. Most rely on committed volunteers - research suggests the average ratio of volunteers to staff is around three to one. But Covid-19 has meant that some volunteers have had to step back from their roles, and while others have come forward to help, many have limited experience or less time to offer.

  • Providing financial stability, so charities can prioritise service delivery. With the closure of the courts, Wiltshire Law Centre’s income from Legal Aid ceased, putting them at risk of insolvency. A CCSF grant enabled them to continue providing free legal advice.​​ ​​​​ArtsEkta, which runs cultural and community events and workshops in Belfast, received a Covid-19 Charities Fund grant to help them to explore new ways to generate income, and continue delivering their services digitally, like the virtual Belfast Mela. 
  • Making the most of volunteers’ time. Before Covid-19, Manchester Refugee Support Network relied on occasional volunteers to run their small bank of food and basic supplies. The increase in demand was difficult to manage so they’ve received a grant to take on a volunteer coordinator to manage donations and allocate volunteer responsibilities.

“What was once a small provision [of food and basic supplies] has now grown into full scale operation requiring a coordinated response to be able to effectively deliver.” ​​​​​​​Manchester Refugee Support Network

What have we learned?

1. Collaboration between services saves time and reduces duplication

Many different organisations and services support refugees and asylum seekers at different stages of their lives, so collaboration helps to save time, and reduce confusion and duplication. Before Covid-19, City of Sanctuary in Sheffield had a single drop-in centre where people could get help from different organisations. Now they’ve developed a Virtual Sanctuary and converted their centre into a phone line. It means people seeking help for the first time can be triaged and receive the support they need without being passed around several organisations. To inform this coordinated support, 11 organisations are contributing to a shared database of referrals and managing a joint pool of volunteers. They’re also bringing different organisations together on a fortnightly basis to share work and information, and identify and respond to needs.

Local networks have mapped changes in needs and services, shared data and referrals, and used this to inform their services. Refugee Action have set up a Covid-19 data hub, to collect and share sector-wide evidence on the impact of the pandemic. They’ve held regular virtual meetings to discuss the findings, enabling charities and providers to work together.

The pandemic has brought organisations in the refugee and homelessness sectors together. Haringey Migrant Support Centre have worked with the Borough’s Strategic Lead on Vulnerable Adults to find accommodation and food for people who for various reasons couldn’t access support from the council before. The two parties are now discussing a formal joint project to clarify or secure immigration status for these people, showing the difference cross-sector partnerships can make.

2. Build trust and understanding to counter racism and hate crime

Racism and hate crime towards refugees and asylum seekers has been present through the pandemic. In July 2020, when the Scottish Refugee Council surveyed 280 refugees and asylum seekers, 48 (17%) said they had experienced racism or anti-social behaviour during their time in the UK.

Waltham Forest Race Equality Council is supporting people from the east Asian community who faced racist incidents linked to coronavirus emerging in China. They encourage people to report abuse and provide information about the process. They also regularly check on people’s wellbeing, and connect them with local groups to build connection and belonging with their community.

Charities carry out preventative work to increase awareness and understanding of other people’s lives and experiences. Belfast Friendship Club runs “Small Worlds” workshops where residents meet volunteers from different countries who tell their stories and answer questions about their lives. People often find they have more in common than they expected, and overcome any fear or mistrust they may have had. One organisation said, “Some come with very strong attitudes about immigrants and asylum seekers and then when they’re faced with a very human story […] it completely counteracts everything they’ve seen in the media. It’s very powerful.”

Often this work starts with young people. Charities teach them what it means to seek refuge using activities such as drama workshops and school assemblies. In 2019, Bradford City of Sanctuary worked with 23 schools reaching 7,000 children and young people. This included staff training on the facts about asylum and immigration, and workshops with children about refugee camps. They also celebrate the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees through art exhibitions and events.

3. Be thoughtful and offer support to make digital services accessible

If digital delivery is to be effective, people need the right equipment and devices as well as support to know how to use them.  Shropshire Supports Refugees have found it hard to provide advice over the phone - it’s taken much longer, and it’s been difficult to involve interpreters, or judge people’s feelings without seeing their faces. At the same time, children have missed out on schooling and without dedicated social workers, some families haven’t been able to get a laptop. To help, the charity bought 20 laptops to loan to Syrian families, enabling children to do their schoolwork and their parents to get meaningful advice.

“We are so used to working face to face, seeing someone's face on video really helps you get a sense of how they really are and how well they're coping. It is much easier when doing complex case work too and when members meet with solicitors, they need to see your face.” Bristol Refugee Rights

Many charities aren’t able to help all of their clients, so they’ve developed distribution systems, giving priority where need is greatest and taking account of things like income and children. Others lend equipment, rather than giving it away. Displaced People in Action, Cardiff have created an IT loan scheme for tablets and smart phones so that refugees in Wales can connect with friends, family and essential support services.

Once people have devices and equipment, there are still ongoing costs to cover. Harbour found their learners were doing English classes on their phone and were often running out of data. So they gave out Wi-Fi routers and tablets. Out & Proud African LGBTI provide phone data, to keep people connected and aware of vital information. 

But it’s important to be aware of the implications of distributing equipment. Ongoing financial or in-kind support could be considered as income, affecting eligibility for asylum support. Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network have provided letters clarifying when devices are given as a one-off gift, or when phone or data credit is paid for so people can access support, to ensure their eligibility isn’t affected.

Charities have started to use electronic alternatives to cash, like pre-paid cards, as a way of making payments remotely when staff work from home. The cards also limit the travel people have to do to get cash payments, and provide more independence. But before choosing one, charities should assess the pros and cons of different cards, taking into consideration the amount of information and identification required from the recipient, where they can be spent, and any costs to the organisation. ​​​​​​​

4. Address how Covid-19 has affected wellbeing

English lessons are vital to help people make the most of life in the UK. Charities have shifted English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes online for now, but many want to offer a blended model in the future. Harbour have adjusted their English classes to address the challenges of online learning. They’ve switched many of their group sessions to one-to-one classes and now share learning materials in advance, as people often attend via their phone, which means it’s not possible to share screens. They’ve also had to be flexible about the timings and frequency of sessions, allowing learners to set days and times that suit their circumstances.

Not being able to work or contribute often makes people feel low. Volunteering can give a sense of purpose, adds structure to a person’s life and simply helps people to feel useful. The Manchester Refugee Support Network trains people in skills they need for volunteering, then supports them to find opportunities to use these skills. Since Covid-19, they have created online modules and recruited new participants online.

Bringing people together to make friends and have fun helps people to feel supported and part of a community. Prior to lockdown, Oasis Cardiff hosted 150-250 people daily, offering English classes, employment workshops, mother and toddler groups, and events. When lockdown restrictions began to ease, they returned to building connections between new arrivals and the host community and introduced a home-based supper club. Volunteers prepare traditional dishes from their home countries, which are purchased by local residents who give feedback online. African and Caribbean Support Organisation Northern Ireland support refugees and asylum seekers and older people from Black, African and Caribbean Communities in Belfast. They are running ten, bi-monthly online sessions where they'll share coping strategies and advice to support participants’ physical and mental health.

We're making sense of what we're seeing and hearing from our grantholders at pace, so there'll be things we've missed, haven't noticed yet or, perhaps, misinterpreted.

We welcome comments or challenge, so that we can continuously improve and develop, and make this work practical and useful.

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This page was last updated: 26 October 2020.