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Supporting refugees and asylum seekers during the coronavirus pandemic

14 May 2020 | by Guest

The following article has been provided by Dr Kim O’Connor on behalf of the Covid-19 Confinement Workstream Group.

Refugees and asylum seekers in the UK may be experiencing the current crisis particularly acutely.

Many people will have endured displacement, conflict (including war) or traumatic experiences in the past, and the arrival of another period of uncertainty may cause distress.

Friendships, networks and daily lives in the UK may be relatively newly formed and the disruption of these particularly hard to manage.

For those who already experienced a sense of alienation in the UK, lockdown may have intensified feelings of isolation.

For some people, practical concerns related to housing and immigration status may have taken on even greater urgency, and contact with friends and family far away may be limited leading to increased concerns about how home countries are coping with the crisis.

On the other hand, previous experiences of hardship, adversity and the unknown may have led some refugees and asylum seekers to develop resilience and coping skills that will enable them to manage the current situation better.

Coping with adversity

While not all refugees and asylum seekers will experience mental health problems (including post-traumatic stress disorder), international research indicates that there is an increased risk of mental health difficulties, and that this is particularly the case for children (Fegert, Diehl, Hahlweg & Prayon-Blum, 2018).

The likelihood of developing PTSD increases with the number of traumatic events experienced, and there is the potential for Covid-19 to act as another adverse event for people who are already vulnerable.

Frameworks such as Maslow’s hierarchy provide a structure in terms of where to focus support to those in need of help.

At the foundation of the pyramid is physiological needs, including food and shelter. For many people temporary housing may be cramped or inadequate and support with food and other essentials more limited than it was previously.

Central to Maslow’s hierarchy is love and belonging: a sense of connection with others, so we need to think creatively about how we help refugees and asylum seekers to connect.

While typically services are delineated by geographical area (such as within a particular council or local authority) perhaps we now need to think at a larger regional or national level to link people up virtually, in order to strengthen relationships with others in a similar position (perhaps from the same country of origin or with a shared first language).

This might be particularly helpful for those with limited access to locally available resources due to language barriers.

Resilience and post-traumatic growth

The positive change that some people can experience after adversity is often referred to as post-traumatic growth. It’s a term that was first used by psychologists Tedeschi and Calhoun in the 1990s as they explored the surprising positive outcomes that can sometimes arise from struggle with extremely challenging life events.

Examples of post-traumatic growth include an increased appreciation for life in general, more meaningful relationships, an increased sense of personal strength, and a richer spiritual life.

Though less well understood, early research into refugee experiences of post-traumatic growth emphasises the importance of helping refugees form a coherent narrative of their experiences (Chan, Young & Sharif, 2016).

Narrative therapies have been shown to be effective in research studies, particularly when the intervention is delivered by counsellors who were themselves refugees (Gwozdziewycz & Mehl-Madrona, 2013).

Social support and the role of individual characteristics (such as optimism and coping styles) also seem to be factors that can facilitate post-traumatic growth.

GQ magazine recently published a fascinating article by Steve Ali, a refugee who left Syria in 2013.

In this he highlights the strengths and meaningful previous experiences with which refugees might face the current Coronavirus crisis, as well as what we can all learn from the refugees and asylum seekers in our communities.

Practical support

There is a range of information available online for refugees and asylum seekers. For example, the Refugee Council publishes updates on a range of relevant practical issues such as legal matters, detention and housing.

In addition, Doctors of the World have translated the latest NHS guidelines related to Coronavirus into 51 different languages.

Right now taking care of mental health and employing strategies to minimise stress at a personal level takes even higher precedence than usual. There are many resources freely available to support mental health and wellbeing, although most rely on internet access in some form.

For example, Happy City, a collaboration with Bristol City Council, have created The Little Book of Wow.

This highly accessible booklet focuses on the NHS 5 Ways to Wellbeing approach.

Organisations such as Refugee Women Connect are adapting the way they provide support and advice for refugees, with many services adapted to a virtual format to ensure that there are still opportunities to connect.

ARTConnects runs creative workshops to empower refugees and asylum seekers and is using Zoom to enable ongoing participation.

For refugees with children, nurturing connections with their child’s school and key adults within school is crucial to protect community relationships that can be beneficial for the whole family.

And, as of 06 April 2020, eligibility for free school meals support was extended to some families with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) for a temporary period, with the government affirming that the extension will end only when schools have reopened to all children.


Dr Kim O’Connor is an Educational Psychologist and member of the DECP committee.

Her interests include promoting the psychological wellbeing of children and the adults who support them, improving outcomes for looked after children and evidence-based practice.

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