Refugee Access to Technology During the Covid-19 Pandemic

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By Katy Cottrell, Sona Circle

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have felt grateful for the digital world which has helped us stay in touch with loved ones, informed with important information and constantly entertained. However, recent research from Breaking Barriers has highlighted the discrepancy in digital access between refugees living in the UK and the British population. 

Breaking Barriers’ research showed that only 54% of refugees surveyed had access to a laptop or computer, compared to 88% of the British population. 

Worse still, only 43% of the refugee population had access to both a laptop or computer as well as WIFI in their homes. With alternative means of accessing the digital world, such as libraries or internet cafes being closed during the pandemic, many refugees have been left isolated and unable to maintain regular contact with their support systems. 

Online access is important to help refugees integrate and form stable lives in their host country. 

Many refugees use online resources to search for job openings and to prepare for interviews. Often refugees need to familiarise themselves with British hiring practices and workplace culture before making applications. Additionally, in this period many companies have been conducting interviews over video conferencing software such as Zoom and Skype, meaning that those who do not have reliable internet access are immediately on a back foot and are unable to move forward in the hiring process. 

A lack of reliable internet access also affects refugees’ ability to engage in educational material, for those who are at school or University or are learning English online. With Breaking Barriers also finding that younger refugees were even less likely to have access to a laptop or computer than their older counterparts, it is likely that there are many young refugees in the UK who have struggled to keep up to date with lesson content. 

This problem is likely to continue when term starts again in September. However, this issue has been identified by some local communities. For example, the Phoenix Community Centre in Tottenham found that some unaccompanied minors living in supportive housing had been unable to continue their studies when the colleges they attended moved their syllabus online. Fortunately, the Phoenix Community Centre was able to raise funds to provide laptops for the group so that they could successfully complete their studies. 

It is also important for refugees to have online access as a form of support, particularly during lockdown which has been emotionally and mentally challenging for many of us. 

Not only do refugees rely on informal support from family and friends on social media, but many are also supported by charities who have begun to provide support online. 

For example, Young Roots, a charity which supports refugees with issues such as housing, immigration and emotional support, have converted their youth groups to online sessions due to Covid-19. 

However, they also found that many would be unable to attend due to a lack of access to technology. In response, Young Roots have been raising funds to provide basic phones and data vouchers to refugees so they can remain in contact with them. With the NHS advising that staying in contact with others during the pandemic is crucial for maintaining good mental health, it is important that refugees can continue to receive support from charitable services and loved ones.

Overall, the research from Breaking Barriers has identified yet another additional challenge faced by refugees in the UK. The effects of limited online access are widespread, affecting so many areas of life including employment, education and wellbeing. Until society has returned to normality post-pandemic it is important for businesses, schools and organisations to be mindful of populations who are not able to engage with material and events conducted online.

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