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Sanctuary in Lockdown

Swansea has been a City of Sanctuary for ten years. It means making the city welcoming to all-comers including those escaping from violence or persecution in other countries. Like many others, asylum seekers and refugees have had particular problems during the coronavirus lockdown. Voluntary groups, local charities and the Council have all been trying to live up to the City of Sanctuary tag, finding ways to carry on supporting them and making them feel welcome despite the difficulties.

At the beginning of March, planning was under way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Swansea as a City of Sanctuary in June. But it suddenly became impossible to hold events, while the venues for the planned exhibition, workshops, etc. were all closed as we all stayed home. More importantly for those seeking sanctuary here, all their face-to-face support services and community meeting places shut down.

Apart from the dreadful effect on those who caught the illness, the lockdown in response to the deadly coronavirus affected people very differently. Some well-off people, retired, “furloughed”, or working from home, have been able to enjoy their gardens and walks on nearby cliffs and beaches and keep in touch by Zoom. Then there are overburdened women trying to home-school in small flats, people on zero-hours contracts suddenly with no income, and of course care workers and others who had to continue working although their jobs put them in danger every day.

Asylum seekers and refugees have been affected in particular ways that most of the rest of us are probably unaware of. At the best of times, while waiting for a decision about whether they can stay in the country, they are housed in poor, often shared, accommodation with no WiFi and given only just over £5 per day person to live on, often not in cash but in weekly credit on an “ASPEN” card to be spent in specified shops during that week. But while people on universal credit have had it increased by £20 per week during the lockdown, there was no increase in asylum seekers’ allowance until after a great deal of lobbying the Home Office recently added an extra 26p – almost an insult considering how prices have gone up during lockdown. No WiFi means no internet unless you can somehow afford a smartphone and phone data, and simple things like phone top-ups are not easy if you can’t do it online, without being able to go to a local shop. All this is particularly difficult for families whose children are not getting their usual free school meals and can’t access their online lessons. The Home Office has frozen most of its work on processing asylum claims, which at least means people are not threatened with eviction. But it increases the feeling of being suspended in limbo, unable to do anything while waiting.

From mid-March, Swansea City of Sanctuary has held regular Zoom meetings bringing together those involved in supporting asylum seekers in Swansea. The sharing of information and inputs from those with direct experience or contact with asylum seekers and refugees has made these meetings invaluable. They have led to better coordination of voluntary help and access to foodbanks for asylum seekers finding it ever harder to live on their meagre allowance. They have also more asylum seekers can get online. The Council has updated the meeting on how they are making sure asylum seeker families are included in their efforts to help all children to keep up with online lessons by schools lending laptops and accessing the Welsh government’s provision of MiFi for digitally deprived households with schoolchildren. Funds have also been raised from various sources o assist single asylum seekers with phone top-ups and loans of cheap laptops, so that they can stay in touch with family and friends as well as local support services, and keep up with public health announcements. Gower College has also taken part in the latest meeting, and is being very supportive in making sure asylum seekers have access to the support they are offering all students during the lockdown and going in to next academic year. Finally, perhaps the biggest achievement has been around free school meals. Following feedback on problems for asylum seekers without bank accounts in accessing the voucher scheme that was planned as an alternative to meal packages, the Council has persuaded the Home Office to top up asylum seekers’ ASPEN cards with equivalent funds from the Council’s budget- a first in Wales!

The need for the regular Zoom meetings is not over. Normal services will not be back for some time, but are likely to continue partly online. It’s not clear when it will be safe to re-start the community drop-ins where 80-100 asylum seekers and local people used to mingle several days each week. At present it’s not known when the Home Office will begin moving people on in the asylum system, and when that does happen there may be sudden needs which are hard to meet. It will be especially difficult to live up to the “City of Sanctuary” label for some time to come.

Alan Thomas
Co-Chair – Swansea City of Sanctuary