Working to end the loneliness and isolation of refugees will improve integration, says British Red Cross
Zoe Abrams, Director of Communications at the British Red Cross, urges the Government to create an asylum system which is fair, humane, and which reaches quick decisions.
Neil O’Brien, the newly elected MP for Harborough, led a panel of MPs, NGO Chiefs, and refugees as they sought to identify the causes of isolation in refugees and asylum seekers, as part of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness’ latest project.
In the few short months since being elected, O’Brien has already had to deal with many issues related to refugees and isolation in his own constituency.
“I’ve been struck by their desire to contribute to our society. To work, to help people, and to learn. But I have also been struck by the many barriers that stop those refugees from doing so. They range from the absence of family networks, the difficulty in learning a new language, and the difficulties of accessing benefits.”
Stephen Hale, Chief Executive of Refugee Action, argues that it is critical for both refugees and for wider society that more is done to identify and break down these barriers.
“Whether there are 1 million refugees in your country, or just one, it is incredibly important that every refugee has the support they need to overcome the barriers they face.”
“This is really important for them, but it’s also beneficial to the country in which they now live.”
Steven argues that lack of access to English language lessons is one of the greatest hurdles which new refugees face.
“When you come to a new country and you can’t speak the language, it is a barrier to making friends, to making progress, to study, to working and to all of the aspirations that people will have.”
Demonstrating this was Nour Albaarini, a Syrian who had arrived in the UK through the Syrian Resettlement Programme. He had spent many hours learning English, even watching hours of YouTube videos to help improve his skills, and he was clear about the link between language skills and integration.
“When you can’t speak English, that means you are isolated from the outside world. You can’t work, you can’t open a business, you can’t communicate with people, you can’t make friends, you can’t even buy things for your home.”
Nour, who is now well on the way to completing his degree at Birmingham City University, felt lost when he first arrived in the UK, but was lucky to have the support of his family who were also resettled in the UK.
“I know that if I hadn’t been with my family I would have felt extremely lonely and isolated.”
For Zoe Abrams, Director of Communications at the British Red Cross, family isolation is a serious cause of loneliness for refugees, and getting refugees families back together by getting family members out of conflict zones is one of their key missions.
“Family separation is a barrier to integration, and can create huge amounts of isolation.
“Without your immediate family with you, for example your partner or children, all you can think about is their safety. Where are they? How are they? When am I going to see them again?”
As a result, the British Red Cross have called on the Government to create an asylum system which is fair, humane, and which reaches quick decisions. As part of this, they are urging Government to create an accessible system of family reunion, which protects refugees and keeps family together.
Additionally, the British Red Cross have identified that isolation is being driven by financial hardships. Asylum seekers are not permitted to work and only receive £36 per week to live on.
“If you don’t have the ability to have shelter, food and adequate clothing then you will end up severely isolated. You can feel forgotten and it can make you incredibly vulnerable”, says Abrams.
Exemplifying this was Reem Salih, an Iraqi asylum seeker who came to the UK with her husband and 5 children, and faced extreme hardship when she arrived. Having been taken to a hostel for asylum seekers, Reem and her family were made to live under strict conditions, with curfews, mandatory sign ins, and a lack of basic services.
“This made us feel like we were in isolation. At the time, I didn’t speak any English, and I was very scared about what would happen to us next.”
“It was very hard to support my family. As we were asylum seekers we were not allowed to work, or even open a bank account… public transport was too expensive and we often had to walk hours to access services.”
She continued: “This made me feel very sad and not a normal human. As a mum, this was so difficult. I had to pretend to be strong and happy, but inside this was not true.”
Thankfully, her husband has now found a job as a cardiologist in a London hospital, and she is working towards gaining new qualifications on a college course.
Chief Leader Writer at the Observer Sonia Sodha, her voice cracking with emotion, said she was ‘moved and ashamed’ at the treatment which Reem received when she arrived in the UK. She argued that if we intentionally set out to create a system to isolate refugees it would look something like our current system.
“You would make it really hard for them to learn English. You would make it hard to work and use their skills, and you would move them to areas of the UK where housing is cheapest…and put them behind doors that are visibly marked.”
“Even before we get to the step of integration there is so many basics that we are getting wrong.”
Seema Kennedy, MP for South Ribble, and Co-Chair of the Jo Cox commission on Loneliness ended the panel with a dedication to Jo and an announcement on the Commission’s upcoming work on refugees.
“Jo did a lot of work on Syria and refugees and she was a real star… She knew that loneliness doesn’t discriminate, young or old, it is about everybody. That is why we are just about to start our spotlight period on refugees.”
She finished with a call to action.
“This is a call to all of us…the Government can’t do everything. All of us have a duty to reach out to people who are lonely, our friends, families and co-workers, and show them that we are #HappyToChat.”