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Opinion

Young asylum seekers deserve a voice in deciding the UK’s future

From a young asylum seeker plunged into homelessness to a refugee too hungry to volunteer for the NHS, this was the reality for young people in lockdown

Levie, 34, is an asylum seeker waiting to be granted refugee status. When lockdown began, Levie was unable to access the free meals, clothing and companionship that usually keep him afloat.

After his claim for state support was rejected, Levie became homeless. He’s been staying with friends when he can, and other times just, “walking around town until morning.” Levie feels like he, and others like him, are losing control of their lives. “We were suffering before the pandemic, and now we are suffering more,” he says.

Levie is just one of those who shared their stories with our small team at Frame Collective CIC, as part of our Conversations That Count project. We set out to listen to communities who were less heard during the pandemic. With the support of partner organisations, we spoke to dozens of people across South and West Wales: people with sight loss; refugees and asylum seekers; and young people facing particular challenges. We hoped to build a picture of the unique ways people have experienced Covid-19 and what their experiences could tell us about how society should move forwards. 

While news stories focused on homeschooling, many other young people were dealing with their own complex challenges. For 19-year-old Ffion, who has two young children, and whose mum recently died, it was a tough time: “Lockdown was hard. I was on my own. It was just me and the kids. Having adult conversations was hard.” 

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Others also faced difficult living situations. Cyra, 32, was living in a hostel without internet access and sharing a kitchen and bathroom with other tenants, several of whom were suffering from addictions. “It felt like a prison,” she says. She worried about keeping herself safe from Covid-19 at home but was fearful about going outside. Lonely and low with nowhere to go, she spent her time looking out of her bedroom window.

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As restrictions began to ease, young people like Liv, 20, didn’t feel ready to work, but there was little choice. With no job security and a university place to save for, she could hardly say no to a shift. Liv works in a bar and her friends in catering; she felt the readiness to blame young people for rises in Covid-19 cases was galling: “The service industries are full of young people, who put themselves at risk to serve the people who wanted to eat out and go for a drink…and they weren’t young people.” 

Many others we spoke to also made difficult choices to meet their families’ needs. For asylum seeker Thomas, 40, the pandemic increased the burden on his family’s finances. Being at home meant using more food, electricity and heating, a stretch for their small budget. And homeschooling meant getting online. Affording data meant compromising other basic needs, but Thomas couldn’t bear for his son to lose out or be left behind: “I had to force myself to get the internet at all costs,” said Thomas. “He doesn’t even know he’s an asylum seeker. I had to do it.”

Despite the challenges, we were struck by how many were determined to support others. Eylo, 41, who was granted refugee status during the pandemic, had been living in a hostel and often struggled to get enough to eat. He had hoped to volunteer with the NHS but was too hungry, and with limited laundry and bathroom facilities, felt unable to stay clean and hygienic enough to look after others. Instead, Eylo found another way to use his skills, translating Covid-19 guidance into Kurdish and Arabic for NHS Wales.

Those whose stories we don’t hear are often the same people who feel they lack the power to influence the future

Across the communities we talked to, the stories we heard highlighted how Covid-19 has compounded existing inequalities. In an emergency situation, designing solutions for the majority has meant that some communities’ needs were not met. For Matthew, 35, navigating street layout changes as someone with sight loss, the pandemic demonstrated what needed to change: “Once you make it safe, you have to make it equal and accessible,” he says. “You make it safe then make it equal—I’d march with that on a banner.”

As we begin to emerge from lockdown, there is an opportunity to involve those who are often overlooked in conversations about the kinds of future ‘we’ want. We’ve learnt how difficult this can be; the challenges people face often make it a struggle for them to think beyond today, from an asylum seeker to a young person struggling for work. We can’t just go back to ‘normal’, but how can we do things differently?

We can no longer shrug and talk about ‘under-represented’ communities who didn’t engage as if their absence was wilful. We have to understand that those whose stories we don’t hear are often the same people who feel they lack the power to influence the future. As we move into post-Covid recovery, there’s an urgent need to reflect on who is starting conversations and who is missing from them. We must be active in reaching out to ensure ‘quieter’ communities are not overlooked and their voices are central in how we shape the emerging future. A fair future is, by necessity, one that is co-created.  

Rosa Robinson and Ellie Cripps are co-directors of Frame Collective CIC, a not-for-profit agency addressing social inequalities through people-centred research and inclusive innovation. Conversations That Count was funded by The National Lottery Community Fund’s Emerging Futures Fund. You can read more about the stories of the people we spoke to at www.framecollective.org.uk/ctc.

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