UNHCR UK FAQs on COVID-19 in Relation to Refugees and Asylum Seekers

The following text offers answers from UNHCR staff to frequently asked questions on the response to COVID-19 in the UK (as well as suggested resources) related to UK asylum policy and support for refugees and asylum-seekers.

What measures to counter COVID-19 are in place in the UK?

The UK Government announced on 23 March that people must only go outside of their home for food, exercise, health reasons or work (those who cannot work from home). People may be subject to fines for violating the rules. The advice is to stay two metres away from other people and to wash your hands as soon as you get home.

The Government has announced support for employers, employees and the self-employed affected by this crisis. It swiftly introduced a Coronavirus Bill, which enables action in key areas including increasing the available health and social care workforce and easing the burden on frontline staff, reducing unnecessary social contacts, for example through powers over events and gatherings, and strengthening the quarantine enforcement powers of police and immigration officers.

What health and self-isolation advice is available to UK refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups during the crisis?

Doctors of the World have translated Coronavirus (COVID-19) NHS guidance on Covid-19 symptoms for patients into 34 languages; they were produced in partnership with the British Red Cross, Migrant Help and Clear Voice. The translations are here. On 23 March, the UK Government released additional guidance for the general population and this will be translated on the Doctors of the World’s site soon. Public Health England has also published Covid-19 stay-at-home guidance in different languages here.

Are refugees and asylum seekers included in health and Government welfare support?

Those granted refugee status in the UK are entitled to free NHS care for their health needs. They have the right to work and can claim some state welfare benefits for which they are subject to the same restrictions as UK nationals.

Asylum seekers are entitled to free NHS treatment. However, very few are allowed to work and most rely on state support – £37.75 weekly for essentials, with basic accommodation provided. Once an asylum seeker receives refugee status, they are given 28 days to ‘move-on’ from their property and find work or apply for welfare benefits in the mainstream system. The 28 day ‘move-on’ period is widely regarded as insufficient for many newly recognized refugees to find a job, or to navigate the system and transfer to regular welfare. Most refused asylum seekers do not receive welfare support and are not formally covered by the NHS.

UNHCR has recommended that steps be taken to ensure that refugees do not fall into homelessness and destitution at the end of the ‘move-on’ period. Likewise, UNHCR has recommended that health services be provided free of charge regardless of a person’s immigration status. The Government has since clarified that no-one in the UK, including anyone living in the UK without regular immigration status, will be charged for treatment and testing for COVID-19 if required.

Most groups assisting refugees and asylum seekers remain open, but support activity is moving online where possible, or into raising funds for emergency packs.

What changes have occurred in asylum and statelessness policy in light of COVID-19?

Home Office asylum information is available here and here.

There have been changes to asylum procedures on a practical level. The Home Office is enabling asylum claims to be registered with limited contact. Some screening interviews and all substantive in-person interviews have been cancelled; the Home Office is looking to expand using digital technology to conduct interviews remotely. For most, immigration reporting requirements have been suspended for three months. The requirement for so-called further submissions -- new evidence requirements where asylum claims have been refused or withdrawn – have shifted to the post or online. The Home Office has said that it cannot currently support assisted returns for people who require a level of assistance upon return home from the UK.

The Home Office is currently unable to process any statelessness applications or make any decisions on Stateless Leave applications due to capacity issues.  Statelessness interviews have also been suspended. Online applications can still be made and the Home Office will seek to resume this work as soon as they are able to.

UNHCR is also working on a set of recommendations aimed at supporting refugee status determination procedures under the current, challenging, circumstances.

The Refugee Council will continue to update its website with changes in policy in light of COVID-19.

What about accommodation for people in the asylum system and people with insecure immigration status?

Various initiatives are underway involving charities, local authorities and private groups to ensure that those who are homeless and destitute can find shelter. A key coordinating charity is NACOMM.

UNHCR has joined the rest of civil society to advocate that the Home Office:

  • Suspend asylum support terminations, including evictions from Home Office accommodation in line with Government policy on private and social landlord eviction. All asylum support applications from people who have applied for asylum or received a negative asylum decision should be granted, and support provided as quickly as possible;
  • Rapidly increase suitable contingency accommodation so that people seeking asylum have somewhere safe to be and, if needed, to self-isolate; and
  • Remove barriers to accessing Local Authority support that people face due to their immigration status.

The Government is looking at increasing its capacity to safely accommodate people regardless of their status in the UK and will continue to monitor the situation.  Please consult the Refugee Council website for updates. 

What is the status of immigration detention?

The UK is one of few European countries with no time limit on immigration detention. The government is reviewing the basis for ongoing immigration detention. Cases of COVID19 infections in detention centres have been reported. NGOs have written to the Home Secretary, calling for the release of those in immigration detention amid fears about the ability to contain the virus within the facilities. Legal action was also pursued to secure the release of detainees vulnerable to infection and the suspension of new detentions. The Home Office has since halted the new detention of those liable to administrative removal to 49 countries, including Jamaica, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and Albania. New guidance was also issued for the management of COVID-19 within the Immigration Detention Estate available here. A significant number of immigration detainees have already been released after the urgent review of their cases. UNHCR welcome’s these steps, but is urging the government to provide those being released from the Immigration Detention estate with suitable and safe accommodation, care and financial support without delay in line with the above mentioned asks.

What does UNHCR do in the UK?

Unlike in many other countries, UNHCR has a limited ‘operational’ role in the UK, where a strong NGO sector provides much of the non-governmental response across the country. In the UK, UNHCR provides advice, guidance and training on refugee and asylum law and policy to the government and stakeholders, advocating as necessary for improvements to law and practice; where appropriate UNHCR takes up cases directly including in the courts.

UNHCR partners with the UK Government and the IOM in refugee resettlement, for which the UK has one of the largest programmes globally.

UNHCR advocates on behalf of refugees, stateless persons and internally displaced people globally, seeking political and financial support for its activities worldwide.  UNHCR also communicates with the general public to foster inclusiveness and empathy.

Does UNHCR have a hotline for refugees and asylum seekers with questions?

UNHCR UK’s Legal Protection Unit continues to function despite the current restrictions and can be contacted at any time via email on [email protected] or via our switchboard at 0203 761 9500 from 09:00-17:00 Monday to Thursday and 09:00 – 15:00 on Fridays.

What steps has UNHCR taken in the UK to respond?

Since the start of the crisis, UNHCR has worked with the Home Office and the NGO sector to identify gaps in the government’s response to COVID 19 as it applies to asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants, and recommend measures to address them.  UNHCR is a member of a working group, led by the British Red Cross, whose purpose is the sharing of information, collaboration and advocacy over COVID19-related issues in the sector.

Our staff are liaising with the government to coordinate reaction in the areas of detention, resettlement, asylum decision-making and statelessness. We are contributing to related Parliamentary enquiries

What has happened to refugee resettlement to the UK?

As is the case globally, resettlement to the UK has been temporarily suspended by UNHCR, the IOM and the government. Local authorities are being updated through strategic migration partnerships about the impact on service providers. The Government has signalled its intention to restart resettlement as soon as possible.

What about Family Reunion and Dublin?

The Government has announced its intention to seek an arrangement with the EU to preserve the right to family reunion for unaccompanied children seeking international protection in the EU or the UK, and has signalled that it will continue with Dublin III transfers of asylum seekers from Europe as well as processing in-country applications, where possible, despite COVID-19. The closing of airports, reduction of flights and reduced capacity across the board mean that few if any transfers are possible at this time.

How many refugees and asylum claimants are there in the UK?

As of end 2018 there were 127,000 refugees in the UK (UNHCR data). According to Home Office data, asylum applications in 2019 reached a 16 year high with 35,566 applications (44,494 individuals). In 2019, 20,703 people were granted protection in the UK through the asylum system or resettlement programmes, the highest number in a single year since 2003. Of these 12,565 were grants of asylum, up 64% with notable increases in grants to Iranian (up 143% to 2,723), Sudanese (up 168% to 1,625) and Eritrean (up 113% to 1,785) nationals. More asylum seekers are waiting longer for decisions. There were 40,018 asylum applications waiting for a decision at the end of 2019 (a 47% increase).