Thematic funding spotlight: Refugees & Asylum Seekers

The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) launched a new Coronavirus appeal this week in response to overseas humanitarian crises and has identified refugee camps as one of the areas most in need. The appeal will help the most vulnerable people in six fragile states: Yemen, Syria; Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan, where a total of 24 million displaced people live in crowded temporary shelter.

The UK Government announced it would match the first £5 million in donations which was reached on the first day of the appeal. But there is more to be done. The United Nations has just updated it’s COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, a compendium of projects in 63 at-risk countries for 2020. The new UN appeal, the largest in the its history, now stands at over $10 billion USD and highlights the need for a wide range of projects, from wide-scale health and sanitation programmes to supplementary food and nutrition supplies, to projects on mental health and the prevention of sexual assaults.

This new appeal is in addition to the existing UN-coordinated appeals tabled at the start of the year, bringing the total to $40 billion USD for 2020, of which only around 23% has been funded so far.

Each affected country has its own challenges, but all are affected by the impossibility of maintaining social distancing in crowded conditions and little protection. In Yemen – where 50% of health services have been destroyed – the World Health Organization says 1 in 4 people who are contracting Covid-19 are dying.

The appeal also includes the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, which are one and a half times the population density of New York City – but with nothing like the equivalent health facilities or sanitation.

Farah Kabir, Country Director, ActionAid Bangladesh, said that people are very fearful because they do not have access to accurate information and many are not coming forward to be tested – they worry they will be deported somewhere like an isolated and flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, where other refugees have been taken.

With lack of testing and under reporting, it is impossible to know the true scale of the crises in all of these circumstances, but what is apparent is the urgent need to mobilise private assets for PPE for frontline workers and hygiene kits for families to preventing overwhelming loss of life.

The UK government, with a reputation for international development and regularly meeting the 0.7% of GDP target for aid, has announced the merger of DfID and the FCO. This move in the UK has faced considerable criticism from many international aid workers as they see this as a threat to the effective use of British aid. The International Development Select Committee recently published a report for its inquiry, Effectiveness of UK Aid, which stated:

“Our evidence is clear that UK aid has made major contributions to global development goals. DFID has a high international standing, built up over many years, for its excellence in managing and delivering development assistance, and its transparency and effectiveness.

Any reforms to current government systems and structures would potentially impact the fundamentals of what UK aid is spent on, who spends it most effectively, and ultimately undermine our reputation and influence overseas as a ‘development superpower’”.

With such significant changes underway there is therefore a considerable amount of uncertainty surrounding the UK Governments continued overseas development work and the outlook for international aid funding more broadly is challenging, as donor governments face growing tensions between domestic and international demands during the pandemic.

For refugees and asylum seekers already in the UK there are a growing number of challenges from both government policy andCOVID-19. This includes the recent Home Office U-turn on plans to allow child refugees to be reunited with UK families after it was revealed this was part of the Brexit negotiations, as well as resuming evictions of refugees housed in temporary accommodation earlier than the 23rd August date that evictions for social and private tenants has been postponed until.

Organisations such as Refugee Action working on national programmes for refugees says that refugees want the same as everyone – safety, security, dignity – but have been some of the hardest hit by the crisis in terms of difficulties in accessing healthcare, being more likely to have pre-existing health conditions and experiencing homelessness or very poor quality housing, local groups working closely with these communities also need support.

Eleanor Brown, Managing Director of Community Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers spoke of the work her organisation has been doing during the crisis in the UK:

Working with refugees and asylum seekers as they seek to settle and end their experience of forced migration means responding to the inequalities they face: recognising them, being an ally with others who experience similar structural disadvantage, speaking out against them, and taking practical actions to redress the balance. We have always worked closely with the statutory sector, supporting our beneficiaries to access the services they are entitled to. We have also been engaging with our local Council to change our area into one that welcomes and supports all people, no matter the adversity they have faced; and we have remained true to our principle of ‘with not for’, consulting beneficiaries on what they need and want at every step and responding accordingly.

One of our over-riding concerns from the start of the pandemic was the digital exclusion of vulnerable groups. At the start of lockdown, we called more than 250 people to ask what they needed and to check whether they could get online. We found that only 10% had a laptop or other suitable device and no one had ever accessed online learning or support groups.

If you do not have access to the online world, how do you access education, safely socialise with your friends, stay up to date with the news and crucial health messages, book essential appointments with your doctor or your solicitor, manage your finances and pay bills, and maintain a sense of connection around you? We have also found throughout lockdown that the isolation of digital exclusion is further compounded by intersecting inequalities of language barriers, poor mental health as a result of unaddressed trauma, living in locations and accommodation not of people’s choosing, fear and worry about family members living in other countries, and, as with the majority of the population, growing isolation from friends, family and other important social connection.

We want to be part of a society that always listens, always includes, and always values people no matter who they are.

It is clear that there are already significant challenges faced at home in the UK due to COVID, but it is vital to support the international efforts of international bodies and NGOs fighting on the front line for the most vulnerable in the world right now.

And so, philanthropists can get involved by donating to and working with any of these organisations supporting better outcomes from those already driven from their homes by insecurity, violence and financial hardship.