The pandemic has not made an easy year for anyone, least of all for refugees. Many who rely on help from the community with accessing services have been faced with virus-fighting policies that favour isolation.
“Even before the pandemic it was not easy to understand the medical system or the bank,” said Dr Haytham al-Hamwi, the manager of the Rethink Rebuilt Society, a UK-based charity working to improve the lives of refugees.
“For many newcomers, the issue was that when difficulties would arise, you could see someone face-to-face – so how about working online now or via a telephone? Of course, it has made things more difficult.”
Al-Hamwi, who has lived in the UK for 13 years, initially to study for his PhD and later as a refugee of the Syrian war, noted in particular that many people would often rely on help from others with language skills and experience – but that COVID-19 had put a halt to this.
He said: “Sometimes you can find people to help you or to go with you to the bank or the jobcentre – but now you must manage everything by yourself.
“My GP didn’t send me anything to book for the [COVID-19] vaccine, even though I’m over 40, so I had to go and find a centre to book for myself. Others I know received text messages from their GPs.”
“But, again, it’s the same problem: when everything is closed, you can’t find people to help you. Refugees might not know they have to find a vaccination centre.”
On World Refugee Day, which is marked on June 20 every year, the United Nations is focusing on the power of inclusion. It encourages countries to develop more inclusive policies for refugees in health systems, schools and sport, with a view of recovering from the pandemic altogether.
Al-Hamwi told Euronews that this process has been hampered for many who are particularly affected by a language barrier in their host country, and with all face-to-face classes grinding to a halt.
“Some people haven’t been able to get into a class for a year and a half,” he said, adding that the majority have found alternatives over Zoom or Skype, while others attend volunteer classes held in churches.
Researchers at Lund University in Sweden said in February that refugees in Europe are often faced with “significant obstacles” when trying to enter the workforce, leaving many feeling stuck. They highlighted “extensive” requirements for integration programs, official certification of degrees, as well as experience.
In Norway, the same report said refugees can find themselves stuck in asylum centres for years, even after being granted residency permits, with difficulty enrolling on language courses and gaining help to rebuild their lives.
“The most common issue is finding a new job – it’s more difficult to continue your old job since you need to take many qualification tests,” said al-Hamwi, who was speaking specifically about the UK.
“Even if you are a medical surgeon in Syria for 30 years, you have to start your career from the beginning here in the UK. You need to reach a certain level of English and to pass many exams after that.
“Same applies to other professions. Many jobs require UK experience and you can’t get this experience without working, so it’s a vicious circle. It’s not uncommon to see highly qualified refugees suffering depression or anxiety.”
So what’s the answer?
For al-Hamwi, there are several. The first is to avoid policies that threaten sending refugees (most notably Syrians) back to their home countries in the near future.
This “will increase the stress that Syrians are experiencing and the uncertainty will reflect into more psychological problems,” he said, speaking in response to Denmark’s widely-reported move to revoke residency permits of hundreds of Syrian refugees, and asking them to return home.
Turning to the UK, al-Hamwi suggested the development of an integration plan that could see highly qualified Syrians volunteering in roles related to their field.
“There are plenty of opportunities for qualified people as volunteers in their profession – it speeds up their progress with English skills and also helps them to get to know the system better.”
“Even for their mental health, things will improve because they feel like they are working in their field again.”
Al-Hamwi added that he believed such a programme would have a knock-on effect with changing society’s attitudes toward refugees and asylum seekers in general.
“Why don’t we use their skills to benefit society? That will improve the atmosphere around refugees, reduce the hate crimes and reduce the negative views of refugees and immigrants.”
“Where they are being given benefits, they can volunteer, and then they can also be working towards their goal.”