24 August 2020

The COVID-19 lockdown measures have revealed the huge digital divide between those who can afford to buy new gadgets and those who hardly manage to meet the ends by budgeting frugally. Refugees, asylum seekers and care leavers have been part of those communities who found it very hard to survive during this calamitous pandemic.

Tech inequality, not having the right devices or connectivity, means that they have been unable to access their courses and studies online. Despite government efforts and allocation of £85 million in this area, refugees and disadvantaged students have not benefited immensely. Newham local authority, for example, have been active in handing new laptops to care leaver students and refugees, but they have not given any Wi-Fi routers or dongles. They have laptops, but no internet connection. What an irony! Similarly, Stockport council have helped 53 care leavers with digital devices in an effort to support them with their education and lessen Tech-Inequality.

Refugees and rent

I personally know some refugees who live in shared accommodation and, despite being charged high rent, are not equipped with Wi-Fi or any internet connection. Their local authority finds properties for young refugees and care leavers, but they do not care about the standard of the house and whether its supplied with basic necessities such as the Internet. One young person told me about his frustration of not having internet and Wi-Fi: “without internet I would describe my life like living in a Jungle, because I am not in touch with the world, family, friends and I am unable to access information like what is happening in the world, to my family and my community.”

The mental health of many refugees and asylum seekers has really been exacerbated in the past few months. Covid and lockdown were overwhelming, and not having internet connection or devices to link up with your mates, family and friends virtually has made it an abysmal experience. Another furious young refugee and care leaver said: “my mental health is getting worse and I am stressed all the time.” An asylum seeker, based in North East England, described his anger by saying: “the lack of Internet and Wi-Fi creates social distancing, social isolation and hinders our education.” Many people suffer from mental health issues, but for refugees, asylum seekers and care leavers it is an utterly different experience. Imagine arriving as an asylum seeker in the UK at the beginning of March 2020 and suddenly you are locked up for several months. The mental pressures would rip you to pieces and make you extremely isolated. Think about those refugees and asylum seekers who were in those situations.

Inequality gap

It is down to local authorities, central government, and charities to narrow the tech inequality gap. Today, we live in a globe where everything is online. Not having access to the Internet is like being in the Sahara and not knowing where to go. We should, as a community, strive to make this inequality less tangible; to help disadvantaged students, refugees, and asylum seekers to have equal access to basic requirements of reliable internet connection and laptops. I firmly believe the Internet is like any other basic food staples that should be in every house. Ultimately, helping these young refugees and asylum seekers will be an investment in the future of this country.

Ahmed Noori is a student at Queen Mary University of London and a 2020 Refugee Week Ambassador. To learn more about tech inequality, read Ahmed’s full report here.

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