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City of hope: Bristol’s refugee sector response to COVID-19

Bristol’s refugee sector has joined forces to find practical ways to support people seeking sanctuary in the city amidst the coronavirus pandemic. For many people who are familiar with the city of Bristol, collaborative working especially among its vibrant refugee sector is one of its success stories; it was this partnership work that led to Bristol being declared a City of Sanctuary in 2010. Upholding City of Sanctuary principles and values drives the individuals and organisations who share the city’s vision of creating welcome, safety and hope to all of its citizens, including people seeking sanctuary from war, violence, persecution and those displaced by climate change.

When COVID-19 hit and the Government’s announcement of lockdown to keep everyone ‘safe and save lives’, the refugee sector in Bristol, like many other organisations across the country, stopped providing face to face support.

©Barbara Evripidou/

Realising that refugees and asylum seekers are one of the risk communities in the current pandemic, Bristol’s refugee sector immediately came together through the Bristol Refugee Forum to ensure people seeking sanctuary are supported. The response has been overwhelming. From food supplies coordinated by Aid Box Community through an ‘army’ of volunteers, to welfare calls to members by Bristol Refugee Rights (BRR) volunteers, Borderlands Charity, Bristol Hospitality Network, Project Mama, Refugee Women of Bristol and British Red Cross, the sector is working hard to ensure that nobody falls through the gaps of support.

Project Mama, recognising the impact that this crisis will be having on mothers who have no support, have widened their solidarity to also reach more women, regardless of their immigration or settled status. Some of the agencies are also providing destitution funds to help people buy essentials. It is humbling to see that, despite limited resources and faced with the crisis, the refugee sector are managing to provide support and solidarity to its members (refugees and asylum seekers as they call them in Bristol).

Bristol Refugee Rights have produced information on what each organisation in the sector is doing in the current crisis; information which is available in several languages to make it more accessible. Recognising the technology inequality that many members will be experiencing, and the impact that this will be having on levels of isolation and children’s education, there have been sector-wide discussions to try and combat this. BRR are  running their digital fundraising appeal for data and phone credit, whilst Bristol City of Sanctuary group, which is the glue across the city, have launched on behalf of the sector a Smart Call Out for unlocked smart phones. Campaign group, Bristol Defence Asylum Campaign has contributed financially to top up agencies’ solidarity fund for destitute asylum seekers. Further up to date information on what the sector is doing can be found on a centralised Refugee Support Facebook Page.

But providing accommodation to people has been a huge challenge.  The Local Authority is liaising with the refugee sector to ensure destitute asylum seekers are housed. Amidst COVID-19, there are opportunities. The COVID-19 responses highlighted here are mainly targeted to refugees but across the city of Bristol, the response has been overwhelming.