One year later: the impact of Covid-19 on refugees

This report builds upon Breaking Barriers’ previous needs assessment conducted in May 2020. The objective of this research is to understand how Covid-19 has impacted refugees and people of refugee background, and their support needs


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On 23rd March 2021, it will be one year since England first went into lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the course of the year, there have been three national lockdowns and further periods under tiered restrictions limiting the activities of the country, as a result of which refugees and people of refugee background have faced specific challenges. Difficult labour market conditions, low levels of digital access and literacy and ongoing uncertainty have all impacted on the opportunities and experiences of refugees and people of refugee backgrounds.

Labour market

Nearly one in five respondents to our survey (17%) who were in work prior to the pandemic lost employment, significantly higher than 5% of people who had lost their jobs by October 2020 in the UK overall. Future opportunities for refugees and those of refugee backgrounds are also likely to be lower because of the competitive labour market.

According to Indeed, UK job postings over this period have been significantly lower than in previous years, with some sectors employing people of refugee background. The sectors experiencing particularly large falls in vacancies include accommodation, food services, arts, entertainment, and recreation.

Even for clients in employment, being at work has sometimes been difficult. Uncertainty has made even those with employment feel less secure and financially stable, and for those in key worker roles, workplace experiences have become more challenging.

Digital access and literacy

Despite the efforts of the sector, the proportion of refugees and people of refugee background who have access to digital equipment remains significantly lower than for the UK population. 58% of survey respondents had access to a laptop and 37% of respondents report only having access to a mobile or smart phone, compared to 88% of UK households who have access to a home computer and 63% with access to a laptop. This shows a large number of people of refugee background are very limited in their ability to receive support, access services, and achieve goals, exacerbating existing barriers they face. In the absence of this digital equipment, they require more intensive support to achieve their goals.

Digital literacy is also a barrier for refugees and people of refugee background in the current climate. 26% of survey respondents self-report low levels of digital literacy, compared to 22% of the whole UK population (including those above working age) who lack basic digital skills for everyday life.

Support needs

43% of respondents reported that their support needs had changed because of the pandemic, however overall support needs have not changed considerably since our assessment in May 2020.

Employment advice and guidance continues to be the most important and most cited need. In line with challenging labour market conditions, 46% of respondents said Covid-19 had reduced their access to employment, and a quarter (25%) said it reduced their access to employment support, implying though support had mostly moved online, this offering was not fulfilling all needs.

An increased focus on training advice and guidance reflects a change in goals of people of refugee background in response to the challenging labour market conditions caused by Covid-19, and the education and training opportunities available to them.

Data on digital access and literacy demonstrates that this is a primary support need. Access to digital equipment and improvements to digital literacy is important for people of refugee background to access support and achieve their goals.

Respondents expect their priority needs will remain the same in 3–6 months’ time. In light of these challenges and the existing barriers people of refugee background face, it is important for the sector to offer relevant, high quality support, including alternative entry routes and progression opportunities within the labour market and identify actions for improving digital access and literacy.