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“I wanted to live here with freedom”: Young Roots respond to the challenges faced by refugees during Covid-19 - #RefugeeWeek2020

Friday 19 June 2020

“I wanted to live here with freedom”
16-year old Eritrean refugee

Refugee Week 2020 blog by Grace Capel of the Garden Court Immigration Team in conjunction with refugee and asylum seeker charity, Young Roots

Grace is a trustee of Young Roots and here she highlights some of the challenges faced by young refugees during the Covid-19 pandemic, explains how Young Roots is responding and the ways that you can help.

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There is great courage in young refugees’ ability, despite experiences of war and persecution, to imagine a better future.  That courage has been evident in their response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  Young Roots has seen many examples of young people helping and supporting each other and the wider community.  

However, we know that many young refugees are struggling to cope during the Covid-19 pandemic.  I want to highlight some of the challenges they are facing, explain how Young Roots is responding and point to some of the ways that you can help.

“It feels so important to me to have Young Roots staff who still think about me and look after me at this difficult time as I don't have family here”.

70% of the young people we work with are in the UK without any family and don’t have strong social networks. During the Covid-19 pandemic, their need for support has increased, yet some young people have reported no contact at all, or greatly reduced contact, from their local authority social worker or personal advisor.

We make regular calls to those young people who attend our youth activities to find out what support they need and want, and we have a daily WhatsApp group, monitored by our Project Coordinator, every afternoon, so that young people can ask questions or request support.  We also have an online Advice and Support Hub, which brings together specialists in a range of areas, from housing law to mental health.

Our dedicated casework team works one-to-one with young people who have particularly complex or urgent needs.  The trusted relationships that our caseworkers have built with young people, means that they are often the first port of call when problems arise. The issues that our casework team have dealt with over the last 12 weeks range from arranging emergency accommodation for a young person who was suddenly made homeless to ensuring appropriate mental health support for a young person experiencing thoughts of self-harm.

“I miss youth club now it is closed because of Coronavirus…Since the lockdown, in my house, I have loneliness…”.

Not being able to attend school, college or youth clubs during the Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly increased young people’s social isolation. We have been trialling different remote activities and the staff at Young Roots have met this challenge with real creativity.  Some of the activities we have organised to ensure young people remain connected with our services, and with each other, are ‘shadow’ boxing, taekwondo, yoga, art classes and quizzes.  At Eid, our volunteers delivered pizzas to the young people we work with in Brent and Croydon and joined them for an online Iftar celebration.

“This has really helped my mental health. I was feeling really depressed and now after talking to all of you here and being together, I feel better.”

Lockdown has had a significant impact on many young refugees’ mental health. As explained by our Croydon Project Manager:

Many feel lonely and isolated. There is also increased anxiety, struggles sleeping and low mood amongst most young people, especially [those] with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. 

This has been exacerbated by limited access to NHS-run mental health services during lockdown.  Some young people have had their referrals to mental health services put on hold, despite a deterioration in their mental health during lockdown. Those who were receiving counselling before lockdown have not always been able to continue their sessions remotely. We are monitoring this carefully, providing regular (and in some cases daily) telephone support and facilitating access to therapeutic support through our experienced partners, including Off the Record and the Helen Bamber Foundation. 

“I really need to carry on learning.  What can I do at home? I am going crazy here all day.”

Although schools and colleges are closed, classes are being conducted online and young people are still expected to submit homework remotely. Some of the young people we work with do not have a laptop or internet access at home and so have been unable to continue with their education during lockdown. When we have asked local authorities to provide laptops and internet access for young people in their care, so that they can continue their education, the response has generally been disappointing. 

H is 17 years old and in the care of social services.  Young Roots asked the local authority to provide her with a laptop to support her continued engagement in her college course. She had not been able to join her classes, which had moved online, since the beginning of lockdown and was worried about falling behind.  There was a long delay of around two months before the local authority refused our request.  Thanks to an external emergency fund, Young Roots was able to step in at that point and provide a laptop.  H is now able to join her college classes remotely and can participate fully in Young Roots online activities; in fact, she recently helped lead our youth club activities. We have now been able to provide laptops to 9 young people. It’s vital that young refugees are not disadvantaged in accessing education or at risk of falling behind their peers because they don’t have the appropriate technology. 

Our experience is that there is a clear need for increased support amongst young refugees at this time. Despite this, the government has chosen to curtail important and hard-fought-for statutory safeguarding duties, creating a real risk that these young people will fall through the cracks.  We are advocating on behalf of young people with their social workers and personal advisors and we are keen to collaborate with local authorities to get young people the support that they need.  We do, however, think that local authorities can and should do more to help.  Along with other charities in the sector, we have called upon the Children’s Commissioner to investigate our concerns about the significant and disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on young refugees. You can find a copy of the letter here.

As the situation evolves, our focus will remain on the needs and wishes of the young people we work with.  We will continue not only to imagine, but to work for, a different, kinder society where young refugees are able to realise their rights and fulfil their potential.

If you’d like to support our work with young refugees, you can donate to us here.  If you’d like to get in touch you can contact us here. And if you’d like to keep up to date with Young Roots’ news or activities, you can follow us on Twitter here.

Thanks for reading.

Grace Capel is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers and a trustee of Young Roots

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