Covid-19 Community Reporter Paris Ali-Pilling interviewed two refugee women, Abi (real name) and Ann (pseudonym) about their experiences of living in the UK during lockdown, alongside Samantha Hudson, Communications Manager at Women for Refugee Women who connected S&C with Abi and Ann.
Samantha told me there are many toxic narratives surrounding refugee women in the mainstream media. One of the reasons Samantha was happy to work with S&C to arrange an interview with Ann and Abi, who are part of Women for Refugee Women’s network, was that it is important for the voices of refugees to be heard.
While neither Abi or Ann live in Portsmouth, their stories are typical of the experiences of refugee women across the country.
‘I can’t overemphasise the vulnerability of some of the women that we work with,’ Sam said. ‘They’ve survived extreme persecution, sexual and gender-based violence, rape [and] torture in their countries of origin and then have come here looking for safety. But the hostile asylum process at so many different points puts them in further danger in the UK.’
Since the beginning of lockdown, Abi has been living in a church locker room and showed me where she currently resides, using her phone’s camera.
‘I live in the church premises where I sleep on the floor…which is not comfortable. Every day I wake up with aches all over my body. I don’t have any mattress that I sleep on. I only put down a duvet on the floor that I lay on. Now that it’s cold, I have to [use] old towels that I no longer use to sort of block [out] the draught’.
As Abi and Ann have no recourse to public funds, they rely on their communities and charitable donations to survive. Abi said, ‘most times I go hungry because there’s no food. The ones that come [from] the foodbank… [were] tinned processed food, which is not part of what I eat. If you’re in Rome, you behave like the Romans, I’m not in my country. I can’t expect people here to eat what I eat, I have to abide with whatever they have to supplement my own, but eating processed food all the time, it’s not good’.
Ann said, ‘before the pandemic, [it] wasn’t really easy, but better than [now] because [before], you can go out, go to the charity, eat in some charities, stay outside so you don’t need to consume any electricity or gas.’
Now, due to the lockdown and restrictions on movement, Ann said, ‘You stay inside. You can’t meet friends. You just stay [where] you [become] mentally ill. You can’t afford to buy food. You can’t afford to buy anything, [you’re] scared if something happens to you, you will die inside the room.’
I asked how Covid-19 affected them financially. Abi said that she had noticed a price rise in certain foods that she used to buy during the lockdown period, ‘The bonnet pepper [and] tomatoes that I bought, [they] went up to £5.’
Ann said that financially she was finding it hard to pay for ways to communicate with her friends and family.
‘[I] struggled because everything [is] dependent [on the] internet and Zoom. You don’t have money [to] top up [the] internet, so if the charity doesn’t give us money to preserve internet so we can use Zoom, we will go crazy, because you just sit in the room. You have no communication, have no money to speak to your friends because if you can’t go see [them], you need [to] at least have some chat, “how are you? what you are doing?” You feel alive.’
I asked about Abi and Ann’s families and how being far away from them had affected both women.
‘You feel lonely,’ said Ann. ‘You feel completely isolated…what happened to them? Do they have [the] same problems… [are they] infected by Covid-19? Will [they] die? What will happen to you?’
Abi said, ‘it’s been stressful because not all the time did I have credit on my phone to call my children…I only [have] my children back home because I’m an orphan, I lost both parents… It has not been easy, communication-wise’.
I asked how Abi and Ann’s mental health had been affected by Covid-19.
‘Luckily it did not affect me because through the lockdown, I stayed indoors. I didn’t go anywhere,’ Abi said. ‘The only places I went to [were] the shop around the corner where I live and the markets … so I’ve been lucky’.
Abi also said she was a medical professional and as a result of her work she has been giving herself psychological reassurance by, ‘either picking up my phone to chat with my children or put on some music on my laptop’.
Ann said, ‘sometimes you feel some suicidal thoughts [and think] is this the end? How [do] you get out from this? You have to call [a] friend, you go out in the park, something like that. This is a way to manage’
I asked how Abi and Ann felt asylum seekers and refugees were portrayed in the national media.
‘We are represented as liars,’ Ann said, ‘as people who come [here] to take jobs or people [coming] to do nothing and take benefits. And this is not the reality. A lot of immigrants already work, and they contribute taxes and enrich the economy. But they don’t give asylum seekers any right to work, and I feel this is inhumane’.
Abi told me, ‘the Home Office don’t actually believe asylum seekers or refugees are [telling] the truth, even with all the physical evidence they still [don’t] believe. For instance, my country’s in a very bad mess, which is obvious to the whole world. [I] can’t go there now, they kill people ’.
Abi said she had been on the receiving end of abuse while out in public.
‘I’ve been harassed at the bus stop before. Someone came out of the building opposite the bus stop I was standing at and threw a tomato towards me, but I ducked it. [They were] saying “go back to your country. You’ve come here to steal our money, steal [our] work”… I had to get on the next available bus that was not going my way, just to get out of that place. So, a lot of harassment which is just so depressing.’
I asked for their thoughts on the UK Immigration System and what, if anything, they would like to see changed.
‘I’m considered to be illegal in the country,’ Abi said. ‘I have the will, I want to work, but I can’t do that [under these] circumstances.’ She would like the Government to look into allowing asylum seekers who are able to work to be given permission to do so.
‘There are asylum seekers who are still young and agile and have got the strength to work, I think they should allow them to work. Give us that. That priority to find something to do, to earn money for ourselves, rather than live off [charity] with peanuts.’
Ann agreed. She said the Home Office believe, ‘you are lying until you prove [otherwise] and this is completely wrong…we need equality…Give [us] the right to work, so [we] can work and prove we are good people and contribute, this will enrich the economy.’
Finally, I asked if there was anything Abi and Ann wanted to tell me that we hadn’t covered.
Ann said there is, ‘a lot of trafficking inside the UK’ in regard to refugee women’.
Abi wanted to talk about the destitution that refugee women are falling into due to having no recourse to public funds.
‘No Recourse to Public Funds is not helping, it is making life stressful for us, and at the same time, making women destitute. Destitution is not good for women. I know women who are destitute with babies, because they have [been] raped or forced to have sex just to have a roof over their head’.
If you would like to find out more about how Covid-19 and the lockdown have affected refugee women, research was conducted by Women for Refugee Women with the #SistersNotStrangers coalition that documented 115 women’s experiences during the pandemic.
S&C has been awarded funding from the European Journalism Centre Covid-19 Support Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on diverse communities and sectors in Portsmouth:
- voluntary sector, including charities, community groups and social enterprises
- small businesses and self-employed people
- BAME communities
- people with disabilities
We have also been awarded funding from the Public Interest News Foundation Emergency Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on migrants, and asylum seekers and refugees.
Image by Women For Refugee Women.