A Liverpool asylum charity, which works with asylum seekers and refugees across the city, has spoken of their first death of the coronavirus crisis and fears that the city's most vulnerable and destitute could be forgotten amid the pandemic.

Asylum Link centre manager Ewan Roberts told the ECHO: "We had our first coronavirus death last week. An asylum seeker with a weak heart.

"We don’t even know if his family have been informed, who will pay for the funeral.

Liverpool's population of asylum seekers are at acute risk of 'being forgotten'

"Has he just moved off the earth with nothing left behind?"

While the coronavirus crisis has seen communities come together like never before, those in the process of claiming asylum remain at acute risk of falling "through the gaps" during the pandemic.

Liverpool's population of asylum seekers and refugees are among the most vulnerable people in our city.

These include those who have travelled from war-torn countries and life-threatening situations and who may be destitute and alone, some with complex health needs and restricted access to medication as well as acute language difficulties, many already traumatised by experiences of isolation and exclusion - people already existing on the fringes of society with scant social provision.

Organisations across Liverpool are continuing in difficult circumstances, reaching out to those for whom an already dire situation is at risk of escalating quickly into tragedy.

We spoke to four organisations working with asylum seekers and refugees in Liverpool, who told of similar issues they've identified that are facing some of the city's most vulnerable and traumatised residents during this unprecedented crisis.

'Has he just moved off the earth with nothing left behind?'

Like other groups across the city, Asylum Link Merseyside, based in Wavertree, is doing what it can to make sure people are not forgotten at a time when social support is being pulled from under them.

The organisation, having already experienced its first tragedy of the pandemic, is working to make sure that they keep in contact with those most vulnerable to complications from the disease.

Centre manager Ewan Roberts said: "This will happen to more and more people, so we’ve been going through our database looking for people with underlying health issues and contacting them to see if they need anything, but more so, just to make sure they don’t feel forgotten.

Volunteers at Asylum Link Merseyside proparing packages for asylum seekers in need

"We’ve been in contact with a few people locally, at the council, in the NHS and other places just to make sure they are not forgotten, and being Liverpool, we’ve been met with a very positive response.

"Practical things we’re doing is ensuring the people on our food list have enough to eat and where we can’t get food for them, money to buy their own but it’s a tough one.

"Essentially, the job for us at the moment is not to let Asylum Seekers slip through the gaps, especially the refused and destitute."

Some of the people Asylum Link are helping have complex health needs without ready supply to medicine.

Ewan said: "We’re getting requests to help isolated people, those with mobility problems, people with dementia who need food delivered. Some people need help to access medication.

"Most Asylum Seekers need an active HC2 medical form to be able to pick up prescriptions and some are running out because their paperwork isn’t in place. This is serious for people with mental health problems."

Keeping people connected is also of prime concern.

Ewan said: "Aside from the survival aspects of just getting food and toiletries to people, their mental health is more at risk.

"We have 26 teachers who would normally work with 100 people across the week. The teachers have formed WhatsApp groups with their classes or are in contact by text and phone.

"Some of the classes have gone online with teaching materials accessed by phone or on the internet. Keeping in contact is key to people’s well being."

They don't have enough money to get their shopping done

The problems of access to food, medicine and the mental health effects of isolation is also at the forefront in Amina Rafique's concerns.

Amina, who works with Migrant Artists Mutual Aid (MAMA), an arts-based group in Liverpool 8 supporting asylum seekers and refugees, including by making and selling art to fund legal cases for those with refused claims, knows only too well the dire situation faced by many asylum seekers.

Amina Rafique, who helps to coordinate MAMA, is concerned at the mental health impact of isolation

Trafficked to the UK from Pakistan as a child, Amina found herself in both the asylum and human trafficking system as a minor with little support. Aged 17, she was detained at Yarl's Wood detention centre.

Narrowly escaping deportation due to a huge community campaign to highlight her case, Amina now has refugee status and was recently given indefinite leave to remain in the UK.

Now 25, before coronavirus hit Amina was about to embark on a degree course in criminology with a focus on social justice. In her spare time she helps coordinate MAMA, which runs regular drop-in sessions for its members as well as a weekly choir.

In the current crisis, all such activities have stopped, and although Amina and her colleagues have been working to keep people connected despite social distancing, it is a situation that she says has many challenges.

Amina told the ECHO: "To be honest it’s stressful - some of our vulnerable members were relying on our drop-ins and weekly choir, especially the ones who don’t have anywhere else to go with no family and friends. Everything is on hold now.

"And people are in lockdown and don't have enough resources to get their shopping done. With no family and friends here they are 100% dependent on community support.

"We recently delivered food to someone who is extremely vulnerable because of health issues. Her support is withdrawn as she has a failed asylum case, but still in complete isolation."

While access to the most fundamental provisions of food and toiletries is high on the list, Amina is also concerned at the mental health impact lockdown and isolation is having on members.

She said: "It is very difficult. We had to do some shopping and we got a few members who are helping to deliver food and I, with my other mates, are helping to get shopping.

"But we are also concerned about some members who don’t have any facilities in their house or room, like TV, internet data or phone top-ups - they don’t have WiFi in their accommodation - and we are trying to sort emergency funds to cover that.

"I think it's just about more than normal support. We are working as family - there is more than food - because migrants with their pending cases don’t have the same support as we have.

"They don’t have any benefits line, Universal Credit , WiFi, TV, phone top-ups - these are the priorities for now to provide them in this crisis.

"I can’t even imagine someone in isolation and with no internet access as that’s the only way to to be socially connected while we are physically disconnected."

A lot of people don't have credit to respond to texts

Rebecca Da Mota, who runs Bridge2, is also trying to make sure that those who interact with the services offered from their Windsor Street base are contacted regularly.

Bridge2 is community organisation that is also home to HIL language academy, an organisation teaching English to refugees and asylum seekers for free alongside paying customers, and even include a hugely popular 'Scouse' class in their timetable. For now, teaching has moved online as the building is shut.

Staff and volunteers of Bridge 2 and HIL Language Academy on Windsor Street

For Rebecca, the focus of Bridge2 during the crisis centres on providing access to basic amenities and communication.

She said: "What we're doing at the moment is just staying in contact with people - this week we got news of funding from the National Lottery Awards for All and Steve Morgan Foundation which will come through in the coming weeks, and will help us get supplies to people.

"It's something we've done before based on donations - given clothes and toiletries but the majority of that has been based on donations from a variety of place s- someone turned up one day with a huge box of toothpaste or sanitary products and other times individuals might give what they can, but we can't do that now.

"People are struggling to get basic items and cleaning products. The cheap products are going so quickly, and if you're living on a minimum amount, your 50p or £1 sprays have all gone and your special £3 or £4 branded stuff is what's left on the shelves, which if you're living on £30 a week is hard to afford.

"One of our main things we will doing is providing those we're already in contact with when needed top-up for their mobile. We've found we're phoning them every week and saying 'how are you?' but a lot don't have credit to respond to texts, and if they wanted to access other things they wouldn't be able to.

"It's also about access to information, data, to get the news - just keeping them in communication with what's going on in the world - so having phone access is really crucial."

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Another big worry is people's mental health.

Rebecca said: ""hose who are from cultures who are in the community a lot, when they are hearing things from home that is hard - a lot of our asylum seekers are from Iran and it's really hard for them to hear what's going on back home.

"We spoke to one girl and 20 family members have died in Tehran with the virus - you're trying to help someone process that but how do you even deal with that?"

In the midst of tragedy, the power of community is getting many through the difficult period, as people help each other in whatever ways they can.

Rebecca said: "One of our ex-students said they'd been buying food for people, I said - how long and for how many families? Eleven families all got together and have been able to chip in and help. There's a sense of community - but as the crisis goes on it's not sustainable for people to be able to do that long-term.

"Morale seems quite high though. I think our asylum seekers and refugees really appreciate contact and communication, it can make such a difference."

Making sure no-one ends up on the streets

While the challenges of getting food to isolated people, keeping a caring eye on those with physical and mental health difficulties, and finding ways to keep people connected during social distancing is a tough battle in the face of the current crisis. Many already vulnerable people are at risk of going without with no means to access support. However, there have been some positives that have emerged from the crisis.

Ewan, at Asylum Link, spoke of the impact of detention and deportation being put on hold and a pause to monthly reporting to the Home Office.

Ewan said: "There are some good things happening: Asylum Seekers don’t have to report like they normally would do.

"Anyone submitting fresh evidence no longer has to do it in person, there will be no evictions during the period.

"What we’re pushing is that the refused and destitute should be housed as well.

"Contrary to what most people believe, refused Asylum Seekers are not sent back but just let go, with no housing, no money and no permission to work."

Siobhan Taylor-Ward from the Merseyside Law Centre
Siobhan Taylor-Ward from the Merseyside Law Centre

At Merseyside Law Centre, solicitor Siobhan Taylor-Ward has been working remotely with colleagues to help clients who are asylum seekers deal with some of the new challenges arising in the current situation.

Siobhan told the ECHO: " Before this week the main issue was evictions and staff on the ground seemingly unaware of the guidance around isolating with the virus."

Although the government has now put a halt to evictions, Siobhan has received reports of on-the-ground instances of confusion as new policies were being rolled out.

Siobhan said: "One family were told they would be evicted as planned, virus or not, despite them having nowhere to go and being in the midst of their isolation period.

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"We had other clients we were concerned about and Housing Options are clearly under pressure. The announcements about halting evictions were so welcome for these clients and this family.

"However concerns remain about how they will be able to find alternative accommodation for when the stay of evictions expires.

"With destitute failed asylum seekers the problem is greater still. These are people with serious mental and physical health problems, sleeping on people's couches, living in accommodation provided by charities.

"People are being asked to leave due to fears around the virus and they have struggled to find shelter."

Siobhan is keen to get a message to anyone facing homelessness at this time.

She said: "Should anyone be asked/told to leave their home, or be refused homelessness assistance they should urgently seek advice and do what they can to stay put in the meantime."

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The council has clarified its position on refused and destitute asylum seekers in the past few days.

A spokesperson told the ECHO: “Liverpool is committed to making sure that no-one ends up on the streets, especially during these unprecedented times.

"We have relaxed the criteria for those who are destitute and would otherwise be rough sleeping and have no reconnection options due to their status and/or travel restrictions.

"They will be assessed through the usual routes and placed in the most appropriate solution, providing there is evidence that they have been destitute in Liverpool.”

For Ewan and many others, while the measures are welcome, they don't go far enough.

He said: "In Portugal, all migrants and asylum seekers are being given the same rights as other citizens while the restrictions are in place – we should do this in the UK too."