Lift the Blanket of Fog Surrounding Asylum Seekers’ Mental Health

Campaigners call on GP bodies to intervene so all asylum seekers can register with a GP, as evidence emerges of serious trauma being caused by living conditions. Sara Boyce  |  Thu Jul 21 2022
Lift the Blanket of Fog Surrounding Asylum Seekers’ Mental Health

In his poem Republic of Conscience, written for Amnesty International, the Nobel Laureate for Poetry, Seamus Heaney, contrasts the symbolism of fog with that of lightning:

‘fog is a dreaded omen there, but lightning spells universal good’.

Another Irish poet, Geraldine Mitchell, also uses fog as a powerful metaphor for the particular fear experienced by asylum seekers caught up in a hostile immigration system:

Memo to Ministers Responsible for Housing and Immigration

Remember that day

driving home

in fog,

the stretch of road

unrecognisable,

trees appearing

where there were none.

Remember the fear

In that moment

of not knowing.

An official fog seems to surround the appalling conditions and treatment of asylum seekers currently accommodated in hotels. Conditions and treatment that those in power know are endangering the safety and wellbeing of individuals and families who have been severely traumatised prior to their arrival to these shores.

People of conscience have been standing in solidarity and speaking out.  Investigative journalists are shining a light on what is happening. However, the official response from those with the power to stop further harm being caused, has been a mixture of silence and buck-passing.

Over 1,000 asylum seekers, including 200 children, from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, are accommodated in 14 hotels, mostly located in Belfast. Official data shows that the use of bed and breakfasts, accommodation blocks and hotels to house asylum seekers has risen from 2pc in June last year to 56pc in the subsequent six months.

The government’s position is that this is intended to be contingency accommodation, for a couple of weeks at most. The reality however is that some families have spent up to 10 months confined a hotel bedroom.  Families report being cooped up in one room with children, families split up across different floors of the hotel, issues around access to food, children not being able to access education and a lack of space for children to play.

There is substantial evidence of elevated rates of mental ill health among refugees and asylum seekers. It is estimated by the Refugee Council that 61% of asylum seekers experience serious mental distress and refugees are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the UK population.

Asylum seekers and refugees are also up to 15 times as likely as the general population to be diagnosed with depression or post-traumatic stress.

People report problems getting registered with GPs, accessing necessary medication for diagnosed mental health issues and accessing talking therapies. Parents report that children have begun to self-harm since being placed in hotels.

It is clear therefore that the significant mental health needs of asylum seekers arriving in Belfast and other parts of the North are already well known to the health authorities. Yet, rather than ensuring that people are quickly connected to the necessary mental health supports and services, as has been the approach for Ukrainian refugees on arrival, the treatment of asylum seekers is significantly exacerbating their trauma.

Asylum seekers have described how they ‘fled war, only to enter a new hell’. They report serious unaddressed mental health issues, with some individuals saying they have even attempted suicide. People report problems getting registered with GPs, accessing necessary medication for diagnosed mental health issues and accessing talking therapies. Parents report that children have begun to self-harm since being placed in hotels.

Among those who have added their voices to the calls from asylum seekers and campaigners for these issues to be urgently addressed, have been a Belfast based GP, Dr. Kieran Kelly and the former Mayor of Belfast, Kate Nicholl.

Dr Kelly said he wanted to highlight ‘the lack of facilities and the lack of provision for this community’.

‘In my opinion there needs to be some joined-up thinking here and there needs to be some sort of hub, some sort of facility that has a multi-disciplinary approach and that can provide mental health services, GP services, social services,’ he outlined.

Current barriers that asylum seekers face in getting registered with a GP must be removed. GPs are the gateway to accessing all mental health services, so it is vitally important that every asylum seeker can register with a doctor without delay.

As with the other issues highlighted above, this is one known to the Department of Health, the Belfast Trust and the Public Health Agency.  In April 2022, Childrens Law Centre (CLC) and South Tyrone Empowerment Programme ( STEP) made a joint submission to the Council of Europe, under its Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Yet asylum seekers continue to face difficulties to getting registered.

PPR has written to the South Belfast GP Federation, copying in the Royal College of GPs and the British Medical Association, asking for them to intervene to solve this issue.

By working together, for that universal good which Seamus Heaney spoke of, the blanket of fog around asylum seekers can be removed.

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