Loneliness: The Story of Migrants and Refugees in London

22 September 2014
Panos Christodoulou

“This is how it feels to be lonely” is not only the title of the marvellous song performed by Inspiral Carpets; it is also the story of migrants and refugees’ lives in the UK…

The Forum’s work addresses all aspects of the social exclusion of migrants and refugees – we want nothing less than meaningful integration in the UK. Among its actions, The Forum produces research to influence policy and facilitate better understanding and inclusion. Today we are launching our latest research, with the title: This is how it feels to be lonely. It is a report on migrants and refugees’ experiences of loneliness.

Why did we research loneliness? How did we get started on this topic? Our primary aim was to examine the latest challenges of integration that our members were facing. We wanted to see how the integration process could be improved and we thought it was essential to have the latest views of our members. We posed them the simple question: “What is the major challenge that you face in London?” The majority (58%) used answers related to loneliness and isolation: “I am alone”, “I feel lonely”, “I have no one”, “I feel alienated”, “I am isolated”.

These two-word answers triggered a redirection of our research. We decided to focus on loneliness and to explore the question, how does it feel to be lonely? What are the factors which create the feeling of loneliness for migrants and refugees in the UK? How traumatic a process is the migration itself and is government policy leading to a sense of social isolation? What is the cost of loneliness to physical and mental health and consequentially to the NHS?

Undertaking this research was an amazing journey; we held interviews with 33 people who participate in The Forum’s New Beginnings mentoring project and 5 stakeholders with experience and expertise in integration, health, social issues and services. We also used data from our day-to-day basis casework support and from The Forum’s database. Additionally, the research team joined 19 members of The Forum in different activities and educational workshops and had the chance and the privilege to hear from many of them the story of their lives. We are grateful for their kind willingness to share their experiences, even when it was not easy to talk about some of them.

Thanks to them, the research concluded with some remarkable findings. All our interviewees stated that they have faced or they still face problems related to loneliness. Alongside loneliness, other challenges commonly stated that related to loneliness and isolation were: loss of family and friends, lack of social networks, language barriers, lack of access to services and resources, loss of status, loss of identity, loss of job or career, cultural differences, discrimination and stigma connected to being a foreigner, and the isolating impact of government policies.

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These challenges are inter-related and overlapping, trapping those who face them into a vicious circle and leading them into further isolation and loneliness and increasingly damaging their health. Feeling lonely is associated with increased mortality and reduced quality of life.

Loneliness is extremely prevalent among migrants and refugees. When migrants and refugees arrive in the UK, they face a completely different life in a strange new environment. This situation makes migrants and refugees’ journey traumatic and damaging for their well-being. Specific government policies that affect migrants and refugees’ lives can contribute to exclusion and systemic isolation by limiting the right to work and access to education. Restrictions on entitlements to welfare services and exclusions in employment and housing, along with the possibility of detention and removal, are social disconnection factors that are associated with loneliness and can further impact on health and wellbeing. Because of these restrictions, migrants and refugees told us that they feel discriminated, excluded, unloved and lonelier.

The research concludes that improved access for migrants and refugees to primary care and to mental health services in particular is likely to reduce NHS costs significantly. Access to primary care will ensure that health issues are treated early, before any illnesses become serious, and thus more intensive and expensive to treat. The evidence outlined above suggests that the NHS would be under less pressure and would save money if specific policies that affect lives of immigrants were adjusted to create fair and humane environment for all migrants.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Tish Kester, Sue Macmillan and Jeff Samuelson for their support and facilitation of this research through their workshops and educational activities with The Forum’s members; also to Anvita Madan-Bahel and Dr Hamodi Kayal for their advice and for sharing their professional experience in physical health issues and to everyone else who helped to accomplish the research.

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