The desperate scenes broadcast from Kabul airport cannot fail to move us here in the UK. Such pictures can make us feel hopeless as to how to help our fellow human beings.
However, the team at Healthwatch Reading, who are preparing to meet asylum seekers recently placed in our town, know there are concrete things that the NHS, council and others can do to help meet their health and wellbeing needs.
Advice sessions at local hotels
Last week we carried out an initial visit to one of two separate hotels in Reading that between them now house around 200 asylum seekers, a quarter of whom are children. They have been put there by the Home Office, in some cases direct from Kent, where they arrived after dangerous journeys by boat as they fled war zones or persecution, in the hope of finding sanctuary. They are not just from Afghanistan but various countries throughout Asia and Africa, speaking native languages like Farsi, Pashto and Arabic and following Muslim or Christian religions.
Our plan is to hold face-to-face information and advice clinics at the hotel to help asylum seekers navigate health and care services, a task made harder if you don’t speak any English, don’t know which forms to fill in, haven’t got a mobile phone to call and make appointments, and have little or no money to buy over-the-counter medicines.
Learning from experiences
We’ll be building on the experience of sessions we held last summer with more than 40 asylum seekers placed at another Reading hotel as part of the government Covid response. Then, we found people were suffering with pain, insomnia, dental problems, mental trauma and physical injuries. Children weren't eating unfamiliar food and families were stuck in hotel rooms with nothing to do. We advocated for people to ensure they got urgent care or medication that had been stopped or delayed as they were moved. We also campaigned to get all registered with local doctors after delays of many weeks.
"The results of our work last year mean that the NHS and others have a go-to check-list of what needs to happen this time around."
Healthwatch Reading team member Rebecca Curtayne (pictured, left)
There are signs that some lessons have been learned from our work. We hear that asylum seekers are being signed up more quickly with local doctors and we are encouraged to see posters up in one hotel in different languages and showing maps of the local area including the location of GP surgeries and pharmacies.
Giving people a voice
But we’ll only establish a full picture of how asylum seekers are being treated when we return to meet people them in coming weeks. Our work will be complemented by the efforts of other local charities such as Reading Refugee Support Group.
We will give asylum seekers the same opportunities we give other Reading residents to have their voices heard, get the right information and to know their rights. In this way we can replace hopelessness with action and aspiration.