In the two weeks since the end of the UK Covid-19 travel restrictions, we have been reflecting on the impact of the pandemic on our clients and our organisation. We wanted to make sure we have gone some way to capture the effects of this extraordinary time on some of the most vulnerable people in society, both in the UK and across the world.
On 23 March 2020 when the UK went into the first lockdown we immediately saw the impact on newly arrived families in the UK.
Many families had been planning for their family reunion for months or years and this was suddenly all put on pause as offices closed both in the UK and overseas and flights were grounded. Some sponsors were forced to watch as time ticked by and the expiry dates for their family’s long-awaited visas came and went.
A Syrian client said; “But then came corona. The airport was shut 10 days before my family’s arrival. At first I hoped the closure would be temporary but soon it was clear it would last a while. My family could not come. My world fell apart.” He waited another four months after writing this to see his loved ones.
One mother waited over a year to see her husband and children after their visas expired, and there were ongoing delays in them being reissued despite promises by the Home Office that this would be a straightforward process. Another 20 year old sponsor supported her siblings through their visas expiring, delays in exit visas being issued and flights being rescheduled three times.
As visa processing centres and airlines began to operate again a new set of challenges faced desperate families. Flight cancellations, previously limited to occurrences of extreme weather, now became the norm with last minute route changes or withdrawals becoming routine.
Many of our clients travelling from African countries were at the mercy of three sets of restrictions, for the departure country, a transit country and the UK. Requirements for additional paperwork changed regularly and became increasingly bureaucratic.
In February 2021 as paid hotel quarantine was introduced families who had booked their own flights became unable to afford the costs of entry to the UK. Some only found out about the requirement when they reached the airport check in desk.
One family we worked with faced a bill of over £6,000 for their hotel quarantine, over twice the cost of the flights and an amount that was simply not within their reach. In other cases, vulnerable women faced 14 days alone in a hotel in an unfamiliar country without the technical skills to access vital social support. One diabetic client struggled to get by on the food provided with the family unable to afford to send deliveries to him.
With the removal of hotel requirements and introduction of post arrival testing, clients had the added anxiety of doing the wrong thing and facing consequences from authorities they were already afraid of. Track and trace refused to offer interpreters and often frightened families at a particularly vulnerable time. One client was referred to the police as Track and Trace had not accepted his being rehoused by the local authority.
In the light of all this we carried through our value of being driven by clients’ need. We adapted and expanded our service to better support families that were no longer able to be supported by other organisations.
The number of families we supported increased from 85 in 2019 to 361 in 2021, 1078 people in total. Closures, removal of face to face contact from other organisations and growing knowledge of our services in refugee communities saw the number of self-referrals increase from 8% in 2019 to 65% in 2021. Increasingly we have become the only organisation supporting a family. This has resulted in us having much longer-term involvement with families than ever before and we have created new ways of working to accommodate this.
This increased involvement with clients meant we could better recognise the breadth of their skills and experience and their capacity to deal with the most difficult situations with composure, dignity and empathy for others. These interactions brought about the development of our Front and Centre strategy, a plan to transfer ‘ownership’ of Together Now to those with lived experience by 2025.
Our new board members and volunteers who chose to join us at this most difficult of times are already having an impact on how we deliver services to clients. Now the days of Passenger Locator forms and Covid-19 test bookings are gone we hope to be able to better channel their efforts into getting families off to the best possible start after they arrive in the UK.
Our thanks as always to those in the sector who have worked tirelessly throughout this time, continuing to go above and beyond for their clients. And finally, thanks to the network of peer mentors, community leaders, friends, acquaintances and strangers who have taken the time to navigate the chaos and play integral roles in seeing families reunited. We would not be able to do this without you.