Investigating isolation and loneliness amongst asylum seekers and refugees during COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold, the Scottish Government allocated some £5 million in funding for universities to develop and carry out research to combat the virus and limit its impact on society.

As part of this initiative, QMU’s Dr Alison Strang, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Global Health and Development, and Dr Olivia Sagan, Head of the Division of Psychology, Sociology and Education, received £64,098 to research the impacts of COVID-19 restrictions on isolation and loneliness amongst asylum seekers and refugees.

With the support of the Scottish Refugee Council and local authorities around Scotland, Dr Strang and Dr Sagan’s team carried out more than 50 in-depth interviews with asylum seekers and refugees living in Scotland. Additionally, an online questionnaire was set up to gather national data on refugees’ social networks.

Dr Strang said:

"For more than 20 years QMU’s Institute for Global Health and Development has been involved in researching the psychosocial wellbeing of people forced to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. We already know there are many pressures on people as they try to manage their lives and integrate into their new communities during the period of asylum seeking or resettlement. So, it seemed very likely that the additional challenges of the pandemic and its restrictions on these groups would be enormous."

“We were pleased to receive the funding from the Scottish Government’s Chief Scientist’s Office in May 2020 demonstrating their commitment to understanding and addressing the extra pressures faced by refugees as a result of the pandemic.”

For Dr Sagan, who has been involved in researching loneliness for some years, this research presented an opportunity to explore the experience of being in the eye of the perfect storm: a global pandemic, a loneliness pandemic and the complex and profoundly lonely experience of losing one’s home, country, family and community ties.

Dr Strang said:

“Our research investigated the ways that the sudden rupture of already limited connections (for example, the closure of facilities such as schools and libraries, the sudden absence of community groups and the dependence on phones and computers for almost all human contact) impacted people’s capacity to cope with their challenging lives. We have learnt about the many creative and active ways refugees have been managing everyday stress; however, we have also seen the profound sense of isolation experienced by people with limited English. Even trying to participate in online language classes often created more stress than benefit with the challenges of trying to keep up with the conversation and navigate computers in English.”

“The sense of powerlessness in an uncertain situation where it is difficult to know how to access trustworthy information, or how to keep safe, can be overwhelming and very damaging to mental health,” Dr Strang said.

“We learnt about a wide range of different experiences from our interviews. For some, their suffering was being compounded by a profound sense of isolation and hopelessness. Yet there were others, like recently reunited families, who were thankful for the chance to hunker down safely together. One man, whose wife had arrived in Scotland just before the pandemic struck told us about the joy of being able to spend so much time with his wife – ‘a walk in the park together almost made it possible to forget about coronavirus,' he said.”

“Refugees and asylum seekers, like all of us, seek to live their lives as best they can, managing the challenges and making the most of opportunities. Our research has deepened our understanding of the social connections that refugees in Scotland are either able to access or are excluded from in the current pandemic conditions. In addition, it has explored the way that people actively draw on their connections to manage and shape their own lives. A sense of control over your own life is crucial to good mental health and wellbeing. Yet in the absence of an understanding of how people such as refugees are experiencing the COVID pandemic, it is only too easy to thwart people unintentionally, even when the aim is to support and enable independence and resilience.” Dr Strang said.

“We have been pleased to present our findings and recommendations to the Chief Scientist’s Office of the Scottish Government, and will continue our commitment here at QMU to improving the experience of refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland and around the world,” Dr Strang added. 

Find out more from Dr Olivia Sagan’s podcast about loneliness