Here in Europe, whilst we should be sympathetic to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers and promote diversity and inclusion, anti-refugee and xenophobic sentiment has however long reared its ugly head

Anti-refugee and anti-migrant narratives and misconceptions around the numbers and location of refugees and asylum seekers continue to enter conversations, television screens and newspaper spreads. This sadly spreads fear, misinformation and distrust of those who’ve been forced from their homes in search of safety and security. 

Exaggerated numbers with claims of “taking over Europe” and a so-called “clash of civilisations” are all tactics used by the Far-Right and xenophobes alike against the welcoming of refugees and asylum seekers who are merely escaping poverty, conflict and political/religious persecution. 

What many people don’t know though is that 85% of forcibly displaced people are hosted in developing nations such as Turkey, Uganda and Pakistan – not Europe as the media would lead many to believe.  

In fact, refugees make up just 0.6% of the population across the EU. In addition, just 12% of first-time applications for asylum were made in the EU in 2019.

Whether it’s 12%, 20% or even more, we need to dispel the myths and welcome refugees and asylum seekers.

So with that in mind, here are six Covid-friendly ways to welcome refugees and asylum seekers in your local area.

1. Say no to Hate

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If we’re serious about welcoming refugees and asylum seekers in our local area, we must start by actively promote unity within our communities

By championing inclusion and diversity, we can dispel hateful narratives and fight hate crime, ensuring that refugees and asylum seekers are safe and have the chance to integrate into an inclusive welcoming society. 

This critically starts with us at grassroots level, building to local leadership and government level. Here’s how you can spread a little more love:

  • Speak out: Dispel common misconceptions and media narratives within your own circles. When you hear something that’s not right, call it out (if safe to do so)!
  • Encourage inclusive communities: Write to community groups and religious bodies/leaders in your area to encourage intercultural/interfaith collaboration. Ask how they are working to welcome refugees and asylum seekers and perhaps even offer to co-run/suggest educational campaigns on countering hate 
  • Contact relevant authorities: If you witness incidents of hate in your community (either offline or online), contact platform authorities, reporting bodies and the police where necessary. This is critical in enabling refugees/asylum seekers and others to keep safe and for monitoring purposes

We need to ensure that we have the foundations of an inclusive, pluralistic society. 

This is critical in helping to combat various forms of hate – including anti-refugee sentiment, anti-Muslim hate and xenophobia – to keep everyone safe. 

It’s also vital in ensuring that there is much-needed space for refugees and asylum seekers to be able to be themselves and celebrate their identity freely

2. Promote Intercultural Exchange

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Upon arrival in their new country of refuge, asylum seekers and refugees usually have to build completely new social networks, placing them at risk of social isolation. 

By therefore bringing people together, we can break down cultural/religious barriers and prevent social isolation

There are lots of great ways to get started that are Covid-friendly and adaptable once social distancing guidelines ease. Why not try:

  • Running/assisting with (online/digital) language classes/exchanges: Reach out to local refugee organisations, Facebook groups, religious and cultural centres and your networks to set up virtual groups/meetings to teach your local language or take part in a language exchange. If participants are worried about privacy/security, use WhatsApp (rather than Zoom or Skype) as this service is encrypted
  • Setting up a buddy scheme: If learning/teaching a new language isn’t your thing, what about a buddy scheme in the form of a cultural exchange? Set up partnerships based on hobbies/common interests and once social mixing is safe, host cultural functions sharing music, art and food (please be careful of religious/medical dietary requirements). It’s a fun way to learn about each other’s cultures and develop social networks!
  • Building an interfaith network: Interfaith initiatives (including people of all faiths and none) are a great way to bring people together, break down barriers and promote a united pluralistic community. Picture Nowruz parties, Eid celebrations and Christmas carols! Whilst social distancing is in place, you can host Zoom events, publish blogs and build plans for interfaith social action projects such as cooking for the homeless, planting trees or gathering donations for refugees overseas 

Whatever you do, be sure to be inclusive, including both refugees/asylum seekers in planning groups. And remember: publicise your work to highlight positive stories!

3. Support Specialist Services

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As well as setting up/supporting grassroots initiatives centred around socio-cultural inclusion, it’s also critical that we support dedicated specialist services who work with refugees and asylum seekers to overcome a number of economic, social and legal barriers to integration.

Here in the UK for example, Covid-19 is impacting particularly heavily on Black Minority and Ethnic (BAME) populations, including asylum seekers and refugees. Refugees, asylum seekers (and migrants) are more likely to be self-employed or reliant on “intermittent income” and so with social distancing and the closure of services, they’re being affected financially by the pandemic. 

For those also reliant on social support organisations such as churches and drop-in centres that are now closed, they’re also at higher risk of destitution due to the pandemic. That’s also on top of ongoing critical physical and mental health needs.  

Whilst some services have been forced to close, many have found an increase in demand. By offering extra help you can therefore offer critical support. 

Lend a hand by:

  • Donating: By giving money/requested items to local/national organisations such as food banks and refugee advice services, you can critical offer food, mental health and housing support
  • Volunteering: If you can’t offer financial help/physical donations, contact a local organisation and see how you can volunteer your time to help often over-stretched services
  • Sharing information: Raise awareness of these important services with your networks. People may be able to donate or provide referrals to support a refugee or asylum seeker in your area. This also helps raise awareness of the added pressures faced by refugee and asylum seekers

However you can help, it will make a real difference. Post-pandemic, greater physical volunteering opportunities will also appear if you’d like to do more! 

4. Campaign for Change

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An ongoing issue plaguing Europe is refugee children who wish to reunite with settled family members. To support refugees and asylum-seekers in our local area, we therefore need to campaign for these children who may be missing loved ones.

Here in the UK, the call to reunite refugee children with their families was refused late last year. A prior post-Brexit proposal by the UK to the EU to create an agreement on reuniting refugee children and their families was also rejected. 

Under EU law, the Dublin regulation allows for the reunification of families, enabling for example 312 children to request asylum here in the UK in 2019. However, the UK and EU currently have “no formal transfer system”.  

To get involved:

  • Get in touch: Contact/join a human rights or refugee/asylum seeker campaigning organisation in your country and see how you can get involved
  • Write to politicians: Write to the authorities to call their attention to the issue and ask what action they will take as your political representative
  • Contact local authorities: As part of a local group, personally contact your local authority to offer to sponsor the arrival of new refugee families in your area

Wherever possible (safety and privacy permitting), join forces with refugees and asylum seekers in your area to support them and share their stories for this cause

5. Open up Work Spaces 

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It’s not easy having to adjust to a totally new country, job market and a possible new language. 

In fact, depending on the legal guidelines in your country, asylum seekers may or may not be permitted to work and/or volunteer

Individuals with refugee status however will be looking for employment which, along with volunteering, offers critical experience and opportunities to meet other people, strengthen language skills (if needed) and integrate into the local community

You can help by:

  • Providing employment opportunities: If you run a business or organisation, ensure that your hiring procedures are fair and inclusive for everyone – including refugees
  • Setting up volunteer placements / skills training: For those who are not yet legally permitted to work, skills training and volunteer opportunities are highly valuable. During the pandemic, you could offer remote training/volunteering, providing references and certificates of achievement
  • Offering CV assistance: By offering work coaching and CV advice, you can help a refugee or asylum seeker who is looking to volunteer/work strengthen their profile

These opportunities are critical in ensuring the financial, social and cultural wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers in your area. Any support you can give will go a long way!

6. Treat Everyone with Respect and Dignity

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At the end of the day, we’re all human. And that’s exactly what we need to remember when it comes to refugee and asylum-seeking communities.

Having fled hardship and persecution, they simply want to be able to live their lives in safety. 

So, yes please offer support but above all, please remember to treat this community as you would wish to be treated – with dignity! 

A few key ways to do this is through:

  • Engaging in training and education: Sign up for anti-racism training to check for unconscious bias and learn more about the cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds of refugees and asylum seekers in your area
  • Avoiding essentialism: Don’t make assumptions on people based on their ethnic, cultural, religious or national ethnicity. Each person is an individual with diverse experiences. Please don’t stereotype people!
  • Respecting people’s privacy: Don’t ask personal questions or to hear someone’s “story”. This is quite simply none of your business.

Many people have gone through unimaginable psychological, physical, spiritual and/or sexual trauma and should not have to be reminded of this for the sake of people’s (even if well-meaning) curiosity. 

Of course, if someone opens up to you, listen, sympathise and respect their confidentiality.

Don’t carry expectations and remember to avoid “saviour complexes”. Simply be friendly and respectful, aiming to be the best neighbour, colleague and hopefully friend you can be! 

Even during a global pandemic we can take critical steps to welcome refugees and asylum seekers in our local area, so why not give these ideas a go?

You’ll be able to help break down barriers, make new friends and ensure that your town/city is one to be proud of! 

Further information:

To find out more about the issues discussed in this blog, visit: 

Don't stop here! If you would like to learn more about refugees. You might also like "Envrironmental Refugees: Reality Check!"

Author: Elizabeth Arif-Fear

Elizabeth Arif-Fear (United Kingdom) is an award-winning writer and activist passionate about human rights and promoting peace. Her main areas of interest are community cohesion, in particular Jewish-Muslim relations, gender inequality and the rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. In 2015, she founded the human rights and interfaith organisation Voice of Salam which works to promote human rights, interfaith understanding and socio-cultural cohesion.

Author: Jessica Milsom

Jess is a marketer at SPEAK. She is from England, Shanghai, The Netherlands, Taiwan, and now Portugal. But actually, don’t ask her where she is from, it’s a long story. She is a good listener, an open-minded communicator, and a fruitful debater. And her favourite pastime is watching k-pop music videos with a warm cup of tea.

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