Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Structural Vulnerabilities, Resilience and Migrant Communities-led responses to COVID-19 in West Yorkshire

In March 2020, when people were asked to stay in their homes, the Racial Justice Network and Yorkshire Resists wondered what our members from marginalised communities with very little income were doing. How were they coping? We began to make calls to our community leaders and advocates to find out.

What we heard led us to launch our COVID-19 response campaign in April 2020. We invited the public to donate toys and activities for children and adults; provided donated mobiles and top-ups, laptops and tablets; and distributed sanitary products, toiletries and antibacterial gel to migrant communities across Yorkshire. So far, we have supported over 600 individuals. We have also convened multiple online meetings with community advocates to hear, support and encourage one another, and set up a WhatsApp group of mutual aid. 

In 2021, we decided to undertake interviews with community advocates because we were impressed with how their communities responded to the pandemic despite facing a myriad of barriers and challenges. We wanted to celebrate and acknowledge the inspiring works by sharing learnings about their resilience, resourcefulness, innovation and creativity that surface when communities who have very little respond to a crisis. Above all we want to recognise the unpaid emotional labour community advocates and grassroot organisations do to support each other with little to no resources.

Our report highlights the resilience and resourcefulness of diaspora communities during the pandemic whilst between a rock and a hard place. It articulates the systemic underpinnings of the pandemic’s impact on migrant communities and captures lived experience, not simply as a vehicle for the expression of traumas, but as a form of agency for influencing structural change.

Below we summarise key themes from the report. Please read and share the rest of our report to find out our recommendations and hear the voices of the community advocates who have taken the time to tell their communities’ stories. We are incredibly grateful to them.

We wish to thank and acknowledge Adelaide A’asante, Fidelis Chebe, Florence Kahuro, Mbuuaraa Kambazembi, Tesfalem Yemane, Sipilien Birani, Wendy Lewis, Sada Abdalla, Junie Kay Khine, Masego, and the grassroot organisations who continue to organise, mobilise and support their communities in order to address racial and social injustices, especially during a global pandemic.

Laws, Legislation and Policies Entanglements 

  • Actions taken by authorities did not address pre-existing social, economic and health inequalities.
  • Migrants have been prevented from seeking vital help from authorities (including lifesaving medical treatment) due to the lack of information in diverse languages and in a simplified English version for non-native speakers in an approachable digital and physical format with regards to 1) lockdown rules, 2) COVID-19 testing and 3) access to vaccines.
  • Surveillance of people subject to immigration control via schools, banks, landlords, NHS and police forces has had a devastating effect on their trust and fear of authorities. 
  • With no access to universal credit, those with precarious migrant status are often forced to work despite having COVID symptoms out of fear of becoming destitute or being threatened at work. 

The Effects of Colonial Legacies During a Pandemic

  • Asylum seekers are being pushed away from public and political spaces.
  • Asylum seekers who arrived between 2020-2021 have been subjected to unsafe and unsanitary conditions which has increased their level of exposure to COVID-19.
  • Deportation of migrant rough sleepers and eviction of those who have lost their appeal – stopped as a matter of public health concern – has been renewed as of April 2021. 

Isolation and Mental Health Including Retraumatisation

  • Some who had migrated from war zones, had been in hiding to avoid persecution, or lived under militia rules, were retraumatised due to lockdown.
  • Another triggering factor was the impact digital inequality had on migrant parents’ ability to support children with their school work due to school closures and self-isolation. 
  • Burn out and a sense of responsibility had a negative impact on community advocates’ mental health, who at times were the only individuals supporting their communities

Lack of Engagement and Due Care From Authorities and Government Institutions

  • Local authorities were slow to adopt, listen or meet needs of the most marginalised in their locations during the ongoing pandemic. Decision-making spaces are not representative of affected communities. 
  • The pandemic’s impact on migrant children and youth was neglected by authorities, and the gap in education attainment has widened.
  • Free school meal vouchers offered to immigrant/destitute children – initially denied at the beginning of lockdown under NRPF6  – either have less value or parents struggled to access them due to rules governing Home Office issued cards.

Resisting and Surviving as a Community

  • Despite all the obstacles and harmful experiences, community advocates and migrant informal networks generated a multitude of strategies to support each other during the pandemic. 
  • Community advocates delved in translation, telephoning and dissemination through informal networks within the diaspora communities to update their communities of public healthcare guidelines about COVID-19, treatment and vaccination access, and lockdown rules without being payed or receiving formal recognition. 
  • Face-to-face meetings allow the personal, not just the professional, to be present and heard. 
  • We want to highlight the spiritual warmth and gentleness as friends and comrades took on family roles and responsibilities. 
  • We have learned throughout the pandemic the act of loving, caring, resisting and selflessness emanating from migrant communities to assist and support others even though they too were struggling

This report was funded by Queen Mary University London’s collaboration and strategic impact fund for the project “‘Digital Sanctuary’: Exploring expansion of biometric data since COVID-19 and impacts on urban residents with complex migration status”. The University of Huddersfield School of Applied Sciences for COVID-19 internal URF funding provided top-ups for mobile data and financial redistribution for the community advocates interviewed and their communities.

The key findings:

The recommendations:

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