By Rakhee Gogna

A CONGOLESE asylum seeker who is battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been struck like a bomb after feeling imprisoned in asylum shared accommodation, within the horrors of the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

Laurent David, who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo has growing fears of being at a very high risk of death in a hostile environment, where self-isolation has been virtually impossible.

The Freedom from Torture client who was tortured in his home country and fled to the UK, is currently living in asylum shared accommodation with ten others throughout this crisis.

He describes how he is living in a cramped space with strangers, where it is quite difficult to keep to the recommended government distance of two metres. “Everybody is in one overcrowded space sharing the kitchen, bathroom, bedrooms and communal areas, where social distancing and hygiene measures are very hard to maintain by everybody,” he says. “Drinking from the same mugs, eating from the same plates and cutlery, sitting on the same toilet seat as others are further hygiene concerns.”

Mr David added: “Living in asylum shared accommodation is one of the most horrible experiences of my life, I feel anxious. I feel scared of touching frequently touched surfaces such as door handles, tabletops, remote controls and handrails as they are not cleaned.

“I am still waiting for my case to be processed by the Home Office and feel I am already a victim of this disease, especially living in shared accommodation with these strangers. It’s very dangerous here and I am at a high risk of death being around many others.

“I have to share a room with lots of people. I have to cook and eat together with others very closely. We all share the bathroom and wipe our hands on the same hand towels, and hygiene levels are simply not maintained throughout the house. The rooms are like prison cells. It feels like a very terrifying act of control, as I am simply stuck and have no other choice to go elsewhere.”

Statistics published by the Home Office at the end of March 2020, show there are over 35,000 people with a pending asylum application with the Home Office. Many of them are vulnerable people who have fled torture or sexual violence and are seeking Refugee Status in the UK.

Research shows the majority of asylum seekers in Britain are from a Black, Asian and Minority ethnic (BAME) background. According to the recent data which was released by the Office of National Statistics earlier this month, shows a disproportionate risk of death for people from a BAME background. Figures released show the Covid 19 death rate of British BAME people is twice as more than those of a white background.

A medical expert at Freedom from Torture has now written an open letter to the Home Office with over 50 signatories from charities in light of these appalling results, addressing the major concerns and concrete steps that the Home Office need to take to prevent any further BAME deaths.

Dr Juliet Cohen says: “I believe the current situation asylum seekers have been placed in is creating a ‘perfect storm’ for the infection to tear through and a further tragedy is unfolding.

“Working with torture survivors at the charity Freedom from Torture for over 20 years, my patients are among the most vulnerable people in the UK. So, it was unsurprising when the Office of National Statistics released data showing that there was a disproportionate risk of death for people from a BAME background.

“The disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on people from BAME backgrounds must be a wake-up call for the Home Office. People seeking asylum, including torture survivors, are wholly dependent on Home Office provision to support them through this pandemic, and now we know that they are at even greater risk.”

She added: “Many asylum seekers are housed in unsuitable and crowded accommodation. Some have been forced to share a room, or even a bed with a stranger. Leaving aside the indignity of that situation, it makes isolation and social distancing simply impossible.

“For medical professionals, there is nothing worse than a preventable death. Britain has a proud tradition of giving sanctuary to the most vulnerable. During this pandemic, following the science means we must act now to protect the most vulnerable and prevent any further BAME deaths.

“This includes ending enforced room-sharing in asylum accommodation, raising the asylum allowance, emptying detention centres and removing deterrents such as health-charging that stop people of colour, particularly vulnerable people, from seeking help.”

A torture survivor and refugee from Central Africa, who was once in a similar position to other asylum seekers, has spoken out to tell his story about his past experience and says: “The government must act now to help asylum seekers.”

Akila Gialo said: “I fled to the UK from my home country and now live in South London. As someone who survived war and persecution, I thought I had enough resilience to cope with anything Coronavirus will throw at me. But my symptoms were brutal, relentless and ever-changing. The isolation imposed by the lockdown and the fact that I might be infectious to other people made me feel like a castaway.

“When you are somebody who has experienced trauma, an infection like this is a nightmare. Any perceived threat to life and your brain plays tricks and gives you flashbacks to traumatic events. You are unable to make the distinction between the past and present.

“I am lucky because I am a refugee who is settled in this country now. But I too was once an asylum seeker in immigration detention, who lived in shared accommodation and have had to live off the asylum allowance, where you can barely afford to buy food and paracetamol in the same shop. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to battle that and this virus. The government needs to help asylum seekers – it is a matter of life and death”.

A Home Office Spokesperson said: “We take the wellbeing of all those in the asylum system extremely seriously. In these unprecedented times we have adjusted asylum processes and procedures where necessary and appropriate.

“This includes providing temporary accommodation to ensure social distancing, where free meals, toiletries and other support measures are provided.

“We have moved asylum seekers, where necessary to do so, into temporary accommodation to protect them and ensure social distancing. This is to help stop the spread of coronavirus in line with public health guidance. This is a temporary measure and will be reviewed in line with public health guidance. It will be unwound as soon as it is safe to do so.

“Furthermore, we have issued clear guidance to our accommodation providers which limits movement as much as possible. However, moves can still take place if we need to better assist self-isolation and social distancing, and to ensure that people remain accommodated.

“A list of measures the Home Office has undertaken is available on the Home Office Media Blog factsheet which can be found at https://homeofficemedia.blog.gov.uk/2020/04/26/factsheet-asylum- accommodation-and-applications/.”