From structural vulnerability to resilience: A reflexive essay on refugee-led responses to COVID-19

Introduction

There is no doubt that Covid-19 has taken and continues to take a huge global toll on all lives and livelihoods. As of March 27, 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) report shows that there have been over 125.5 million confirmed cases of the novel virus, with approximately 2.7 million deaths worldwide.  Obviously, the UK is not an exception to the pandemic. In fact, it is one of the worst affected countries in Europe with the number of infections, hospital admissions and deaths soaring across the country. As of 27 March, 2021, according to figures from the WHO, the total reported infection cases in the UK passed 4.3 million while over 126 thousand deaths were recorded since the start of the pandemic.

In an attempt to ward off the socioeconomic and health impacts of the virus, the UK government introduced drastic measures, subjecting its people to state-imposed restriction. People’s rights, liberties and freedoms have been suspended, giving way to the imposition of emergency laws as the norm. The application of emergency laws has been particularly difficult for the already exceptionalised categories of refugees and asylum seekers. In fact, refugees have always lived under the ‘rule of exception’ in which they are treated as unwelcome, ‘illegal’ and undeserving categories of migrants. Their systemic precarity is rendered invisible by the state in the same way the virus is invisible to its host. Placed at the threshold of the law with limited access to basic needs and rights, these groups of people are exclusively subjected to, among others, abject destitution, precarious status, loneliness and isolation. These challenges were further compounded by the closure of local charities, which offer invaluable social spaces for refugees by allowing them to use their internet facilities and stay connected with their loved ones. 

So, how do refugees and asylum seekers cope with the multiple axes of precarities weighing down on them? In this blog, we reflect on refugee-led initiatives among Eritrean refugee communities in the UK. We start with the stories of Hayat, Helen and Hagos, the names being anonymised for confidentiality and ethical reasons while other identifiable data are deidentified. 

Hayat’s story

Sorry, I’ve been in bed all week battling with Covid-19. I could only stare at the mobile ringing because I feel broken, exhausted. Do something to help the community understand the dangers this virus causes. Keep fighting for your rights. And please remember your sister in your prayers.

The above words were retrieved from the last text message sent to us by our late friend and colleague, Hayat, at the end of March 2020. A week after the text message, Hayat was in hospital gasping for breath. She could not flex her fingers to text a message, but, instead waved by raising her left hand to say goodbye for the last time. We yearned to be there and put our arms around her, but that was not possible under the lockdown. A few days later, Hayat lost her battle to Covid-19 and died in peace in the presence of the selfless healthcare professionals who were with her until her last gasp. We neither could bury our best friend and colleague, nor could we console her bereaved family in person; instead, we succumbed to a visceral pain of grief in solitude.

Hayat was a lifelong advocate for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. Eritrean by birth, her community work particularly resonated among Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in the UK and elsewhere. Working from the UK, Hayat was extensively engaged in mobilising local communities across Europe to help asylum seekers and refugees integrate in host society. She linked distressed asylum seekers across Europe to reunite with their families and relatives. When teenagers were stuck in the freezing jungle of Calais or in the remote refugee camps of Lesvos, Hayat did her best to help them reunite with their relatives in Europe. In Hayat’s death, we lost a sister, a mother, a colleague and a community leader. 

Helen’s story

Helen works as a cleaner in a busy shopping centre in Manchester. When COVID-19 cases started to rise in early 2020, many of her British colleagues decided to leave their jobs, citing that the work environment was not COVID-19 secure. For Helen, however, leaving her job was not an option. Helen came to the UK under a family reunion visa with a ‘No Recourse to Public Fund’ remark attached to her residence permit. She is entitled to neither a sustainable residence permit nor state benefit. Her status means that Helen has to apply for residence permit every two and a half years until she becomes eligible for a settled status. It’s worth noting that every application incurs huge financial costs, including application fees, NHS surcharge and fees for immigration advice. 

Caught between abject destitution and deadly pandemic, Helen contacted us with the following text message: “Please advise me what to do. I really do not know whether I should continue going to work or stay at home and lose my job. You know, I am not eligible for public funds at all.” By going to work, Helen knew she was exposing herself, her family and the public to COVID-19 infections. Alas, she had a choice but to continue going to work. She is, as the adage goes, ‘between a rock and a hard place’. Consequently, a few weeks later, Helen called us to say that everyone in her family had contracted the virus. 

Hagos’ story

Hagos was an asylum seeker in the UK. He arrived during the peak of the pandemic and was housed in a temporary accommodation in London without any internet access. Thus, when the refugee organisations moved their services to online, Hagos was unable to find a solicitor for assistance with his asylum claim. Nor was he able to seek any help from the charitable sector. His mobile phone was the only lifeline he had. “It was a scary and lonely world”, he recalled, adding, “here, I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t know anything about my case. Nobody seemed to know what tomorrow holds for us. You know, I feel like an encased dog to be honest.” 

Hagos is an outgoing and positive person and wanted to make the best of his time while waiting for determination of his asylum claim. He wants to learn English and be ready to move on when he receives a positive decision on his case. He asked us if we could help him with English language registration, which, for him, was not only about learning English, but also a coping strategy against the state enforced exclusion and bureaucratisation of his life. While we were consulting with local charities to arrange English lessons for him, Hagos was transferred to a remote disused military barracks in Wales.  

Structural vulnerability and COVID-19

Covid-19 does not choose its host, but it operates in a way that exploits our socioeconomic and cultural differences, health conditions, age and gender, and so on.

However, there is one other factor that exclusively exposes people like Hayat, Helen and Hagos to the deadly virus: their precarious immigration status. Viewed by the state as “disease-carrying threat to the nation state” and, therefore, a threat to ‘national security’ and ‘public health’, asylum seekers are being pushed away from public and political spaces. They are seen as the anomaly of the imagined health society and are being warehoused in geographical and political peripheries of the British public. 

Thus, the rhetorical sloganeering of ‘we are together in this’ seems to imply nothing but a mere political posturing. It has become increasingly clear that the ‘we’ is conceptualised by exceptionalising asylum seekers and refugees. 

Placed at the thresholds of the state response to the pandemic, these groups of people are systematically marginalised from accessing essential guidelines, basic services, and fundamental rights. Asylum seekers, for example, are forced to live on £39.63 per week and often pushed around between private companies contracted by the Home Office and local governments for basic services such as accommodation. Notably, new asylum seekers have been subjected to immigration detention by transferring them to remote military barracks or even putting them in vacant hotels. Most worryingly, asylum seekers whose claims are refused (and appeal rights exhausted) are effectively placed outside the law – and, therefore, subject to unconditional elimination from the UK. 

Moreover, as highlighted by Helen’s story, immigrants with a ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ remark on their residence permits also fall into the category of the naked life placed at the threshold of the legal protection. Deprived of public funds, Helen was exposed to multiple layers of exclusive discrimination. On the one hand, she had to work to avoid abject destitution and was required by the state to self-isolate  on the other. The fact that Helen’s immediate family members contracted the virus meant that she might be spreading the virus to the public if she had continued to go to work.

The irony, however, is that the state-imposed destitution on immigrants with precarious status such as asylum seekers and family joiners has never been fit for purpose. It not only fails to protect the vulnerable members of society, but also risks public safety. In fact, this orchestrated systemic injustice remains to be the hidden matrix of the ‘hostile environment’ that is designed not only to exceptionalise immigrants, but also to render them rightless. Hayat’s last plea in her dying moments, “[please] do something to help the community”, emanated from this deep sense of lack, absolute nakedness and rightlessness. Below, we highlight some of the community work we have been doing to help our community survive the multi-layered challenges. We would like to clarify that our work is only part of inspiring community led-initiatives by Eritrean migrants in the UK. This piece should therefore be seen as part, and not representative, of all community-led initiatives to confront the virus. 

Resilience in vulnerability – galvanising community response

We have relied on the community’s exceptional acts of solidarity and collective response to confront the spread of the deadly virus. Yet, mobilising community response was not without its challenges. As services in the statutory and charitable sectors moved to remote service delivery, refugees and asylum seekers, already at the margins of the existing digital divide, either as a result of gaps in digital skills or because of lack of financial means to afford adequate forms of communication technology, were left with the daunting task of navigating a new online world Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in the UK were no exception. 

COVID-19 guidance and related advice provided by the government were not readily accessible, either in  language or format. Barriers to communication, including limited English language skills among refugees and asylum seekers, were not considered important public health issues. As one Eritrean asylum seeker put it: “we are dispersed in an isolated location with no internet or TV access. We do not have access to COVID-19 policy guidance. Sometimes, I ask my friends for information about COVID-19 rules lest I breach the law.” 

In their attempts to negotiate the challenges of the digital gap, some refugee parents were forced to push their children into “adultification” – a phenomenon that involves “contextual, social, and developmental processes in which youth are prematurely, and often inappropriately, exposed to adult knowledge and assume extensive adult roles and responsibilities within their family networks” .  Yet many others were left on their own.


In the hope of filling this gap,we started by setting up a public Facebook page titled COVID-19 Taskforce where we have been sharing COVID-19 ‘Key Messages’ and other relevant information. The page provides summary translation, in one of the Eritrean languages, of new COVID-19 guidance, including social distancing, face covering, and test and trace. We also assisted community members with welfare applications and provided guidance on the immigration and asylum matters. Through our dedicated telephone helpline, we have been supporting members of our community with online form filling, such as job, housing, travel document and benefit applications. We also offer limited support in remote education and online learning for parents whose children are asked to stay at home because of COVID-19 cases in their schools. And for services that need specialised professions, we direct people to qualified service providers while also offering to interpret for them.

In addition to promoting government guidelines and raising awareness, we have actively developed community-centred best practices aimed at reducing the spread of the virus and supporting those who have contracted it. In consultation with some active community members, we devised what we call the TIME—Test, Isolate, Message, Eat—messaging system. Embedded in the TIME messaging system are an informal and yet efficient contact tracing system, adherence to isolation rules and reliance on local support networks. People with the virus voluntarily message their friends and community members with whom they had been in close contact and advise them to isolate and follow the guidelines. As implied in the choice of the acronym TIME, the time, speed and consistency with which the messages are delivered are crucial.  

Once the COVID-19 guidelines were translated to a language the community members understood, it was easy to disseminate the government guidelines and messages. We used popular social media platforms and large virtual groups to target community members having COVID-19 symptoms and encouraged them to adhere to the government guidelines and follow the TIME messaging to reduce the spread of the virus. With every contact traced functioning as a contact breaker, the informal community contact tracing system contributed to containing the spread of the virus within the Eritrean diaspora community in the UK. 

Since the start of the pandemic, our community has been gripped by a palpable pain at the loss of some members and contraction of the virus of others. When the tragic news of deaths such as Hayat’s broke, many Eritreans asked about the funeral procedures. Funerals and burial rituals are important cultural practices in  Eritrean society; surrounded by relatives and friends, the family of the deceased say their final goodbyes, followed by days of people gathering in the bereaving families’ house. Burial rituals are held, prayers said and bereaving families encouraged not to fall into perpetual grief. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has suspended these important aspects of the community’s human-to-human relationality. However, a section of the Eritrean community gathered online to discuss  comforting bereaving families and people regularly made financial contributions, conducted memorial services and offered bereavement counselling to families.

Supporting individuals with the virus during isolation has been the easiest task and a heartening experience, mainly because of the community’s inherent values of radical solidarity and resilience. Following a successful recovery from the virus, Helen described the support she received from community members as follows:

The side of my main door was always filled with bags full of food, toiletries and other essentials bought by well-wishers in our community… With our community, you do not feel that you’re in quarantine.  There is always someone at the door with cooked dishes and your phone rings 24/7. This kind of community spirit and solidarity played a crucial role in helping me and my husband see through the difficult times of our isolation.

These acts of social solidarity are rooted in community trust, relations and collective actions. While the refugee communities continue to remain constitutively excluded from the mainstream society, we rely on our community cohesion, social solidarity and long-established coping strategies. 

Furthermore, alongside other active community members, we were involved in laying the foundations for community-led initiatives such as Shama Baytona. As part of our effort to mitigate loneliness and isolation during the lockdown, we initiated a virtual community space for people to stay connected. The initiative started with a small group of Eritrean refugees and has now developed into an online YouTube channel, Shama Foundation, an important online site where we discuss socio-political, economic and community issues that concern our communities, both in Eritrea and in the diaspora. It is this unique social space that nurtures genuine sociality and communal relationality which, in turn, serve as a cohesive social glue  that brings people together. 

Alongside our community responsibilities, we are also involved in co-organising academic workshops and seminars. Among others, we led an online discussion entitled ‘Spotlight Eritrea’ on the 75th anniversary of UNESCO’s founding in London and co-organised the Decolonising Forced Migration seminar series. Organised by UNESCO Chair Refugee Integration Through Languages and the Arts (RILA), the 75th UNESCO anniversary celebrated Eritrea’s tangible and intangible socio-cultural contributions. It was an honour and humbling experience for Eritreans in the UK to have Patrick Grady MP tabling an early day motion in the UK parliament and Professor Alison Phipps roasting traditional Eritrean coffee in zuria dress. The event created a warm social atmosphere where host and guest communities discussed ideas and shared gifts. Professor Alison Phipps opened the inaugural lecture of Decolonising Forced Migration – a seminar series we co-organised with colleagues at the University of Leeds – with her fascinating talk on the theme of Why Integration is a Delicate Art that Needs Everyone’s Language. 

These events and seminar series were the highlights for many of our community members. As stated, the collective acts of solidarity and unconditional hospitality overshadowed the prevailing ‘hostile environment’ against undesirable immigrants and, undoubtedly, contributed to the refugee community’s resilience. 

Conclusion

As shown, structural violence operating in tandem with COVID-19 has deprived the Eritrean migrant community in the UK of the very meaning of community life and their right to an orderly life. Despite the multi-layered structural vulnerability, however, the Eritrean refugee community has shown extraordinary resilience in dealing with the deadly virus. Carrying out  Hayat’s last exhortation to  “do something to help the community” and in fighting for our rights, we continue to make what Groeninck et al. call  “resilient moves” or “relational practices based on negotiation between practitioners from, and in various relationships to, refugee families and the material world.” The support we have received from the Eritrean community in the UK, the host community, professionals and local charities was exceptional and humbling. 

With the extraordinary work of scientists in developing a protective vaccine against the virus and the NHS successful inoculation campaign, we hope the end of the pandemic is now in sight. However, as migrant communities adapt to new ways of living in a post-COVID-19 world, it is important that they are not again left behind. And, we also believe that our work with marginalised communities is essential, and given the necessary financial and scholarly support, we hope to develop the work we have started even further.

References:

Mieke Groeninck et al., “Resilience in Liminality: How Resilient Moves Are Being Negotiated by Asylum-Seeking Families in the Liminal Context of Asylum Procedures,” Journal of Refugee Studies 33, no. 2 (June 1, 2020): 5, https://doi.org/10.1093/jrs/feaa031.

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