Refugees finding COVID-19 information ‘very difficult’ to understand

Our guest blogger is Cleo Goodall, a Healthwatch Camden volunteer and life-long Camden resident. Cleo studied Pharmacology at the University of Leeds. During August, Cleo interviewed several refugees and asylum seekers who had completed the Healthwatch Camden Survey on their experiences during the lockdown.

Camden residents have been sharing their COVID-19 experiences with Healthwatch Camden throughout the pandemic. We have heard from people of all ages and backgrounds, including refugees and asylum seekers.

Refugees: People who have fled conflicts or persecution in their own country. Asylum seekers: people seeking to become a refugee but who have not been granted refugee status yet.

To find out more about the experiences of this seldom heard group, we conducted follow-up interviews with refugees and asylum seekers.

These are people who have been forced to face the COVID-19 crisis far away from families and friends, having to contend with housing issues, difficulties with asylum procedures, anxiety, cultural differences and language barriers. This blog highlights some of the findings from 12 refugees and asylum seekers who shared their experiences with us through the survey and through follow-up interviews.

Common COVID-19 concerns

Refugees and asylum seekers told us that their most common concerns regarding COVID-19 were: a) fear of contracting the virus; b) feeling worried about the future or the inability to make plans, and c) “life coming to a halt.” Other common issues with most interviewees were lack of social and community interaction, concerns of the health of loved ones, and experiencing boredom.

In addition, the majority found understanding information and guidance from COVID-19 “difficult” or “very difficult.” This is in stark contrast to the responses from all respondents to our survey, only 18% of whom had difficulties understanding guidance.


Distrust of media

Despite TV, national newspapers and online materials being popular sources of information for the refugees and asylum seekers in our survey, many expressed a lack of trust in the media. One person mentioned that they can find the news to be misleading, so they try to avoid watching it too much: “if you are not strong-willed, you will be afraid.”

One individual insisted “98% [of journalism] is useless” and that the media is “manipulated”, with journalists unable to tell the full truth. The same individual insisted during the interview that our phone reception issues were because we were being listened to, signifying an overall mistrust in the government.

Although many interviewees criticised media coverage and mixed messages from the government, one respondent found official guidance on COVID-19 to be very clear and stated that the government “did their best to inform.”

Sources of information

Many refugees and asylum-seeking interviewees did not get information from mainstream media. Over half utilised local voluntary organisations, friends, families and neighbours. With information from the media about COVID-19 often seen as contradictory or false, it is maybe not surprising that some respondents preferred receiving information about risks and how to protect themselves from trusted sources and friendly faces.

Compliance with guidance

Whilst some interviewees expressed their concerns about statistics being manipulated by the government, respect for the government was stressed throughout and many respondents highlighted their compliance and rule abidance.

“[I am] doing [my] best to adhere to governmental guidelines, and [I am] telling others around [me] to do the same.”

“We are trying to [prevent] the spread [of the virus] so we have to comply. The discomfort is worth it.”

No respondents felt negative about the easing of lockdown, nor were they concerned about the actions of others. Their focus was on adhering to guidelines and rules, and many said although they are happy to spend more time outside, they will be avoiding busy places. Although easing of lockdown for many means reuniting with loved ones and returning to work – creating a “new normal” – many refugees do not have families or wider social networks around or job security to rely on.

“I am happy in lockdown or out of lockdown – whatever is required. I avoid busy places and crowds to look after myself.”

Access to healthcare

Another important finding from the interviews with refugees was that only 1 in 4 refugees and asylum seekers used health and/or care services since the COVID-19 outbreak, compared to over 50 percent of all respondents. One of the obstacles for those who needed to access health care, but did not, was not being comfortable on the phone.

One person recalled a situation where his friend was assured they would have a health visit to their home, but after numerous “let downs” they would now be reluctant to seek help themselves. However, most of those who did seek help had a positive experience.

“I had to call my GP instead of going in. I had blood tests done in the practice and we both wore PPE. This was very straightforward.”

COVID-19 is not only a physical health crisis. Most refugee and asylum-seeking respondents said their mental health was impacted by COVID-19, with people reporting depression, anxiety and negative thoughts.

Urgent action is needed. The health and care system needs to ensure the availability and continuation of mental health and psychosocial services for refugees and asylum seekers. It is also clear that targeted outreach and engagement activities are needed to help clarify and inform this group of the latest understanding of COVID-19 and guidelines.

We are in a unique situation where we have an opportunity globally, and locally, to reflect on the society we have built and how we care for those in our community. We must ensure that not only are we caring for the physical and mental health of our residents, but creating an environment where all are comfortable to seek help and advice when they need it.

Resources for Refugees and Asylum Seekers

If you are a refugee or asylum seeker, there are a variety of resources and charities available to you. – HostNation is an introductory service putting socially isolated asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in need of friendship, in contact with local, volunteer befrienders offering friendship. They aim to create interactions between two different populations (UK residents and those seeking refuge) who have problems intersecting. This is an altruistic, social arrangement, not a contractual obligation and there is no payment nor are volunteer befrienders expected to provide any professional services. – Immigration and asylum advice from Citizen Advice Bureau website – Border and Immigration Agency website – The Refugee Council website – St Pancras Refugee Support (SPaRC) – British Red Cross Refugee Support – Children Schools and Families Refugee Forum (Camden Council)

Mental Health Resources

A wide range of services and online support are available in Camden for people with mental health issues.