Spending time in an allotment was permitted as a form of exercise throughout the COVID-19 lockdown, and as it eases, provides a physically distanced way of socialising. In this blog, researcher Jo Biglin outlines the vital role these spaces play in the mental and physical wellbeing of asylum seekers and refugees, and suggests policies to better protect, and make use of, existing urban green space.
- Allotments help alleviate feelings of loneliness and social isolation among refugees and asylum seekers.
- Local and national policy is needed to make better use of existing green space.
- This includes extending the same legal protections that allotments enjoy to community gardens.
It’s nothing new to point out that local authorities across the country are struggling to support refugees and asylum seekers. Dispersal policies see asylum seekers disproportionately housed in some of Britain’s most deprived areas, and local authorities receive no extra funding to cope with supporting them. Greater Manchester consists of some of the most deprived areas in the UK, yet the region has some of the UK’s largest populations of dispersed asylum seekers. In 2018 Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, wrote to the Home Office urging it to reconsider its dispersal policies, as a result of pressure from local councils to express the mounting struggle relating to shortages in resources that was – and still is – affecting regions across the North.
The Home Office has shown no sign of revaluating its position on the dispersal system. Consequently, local authorities continue to struggle to support refugees and asylum seekers. Exacerbating this are ongoing increases in restrictive policies relating to asylum seekers’ access to welfare and services such as education and the NHS. Furthermore, cuts are being made to integration and enrichment programs; for example, free English as a Second or Foreign Language classes are no longer funded by the government.
Mental and physical wellbeing
Refugees often experience a range of mental health issues, resulting from the trauma of displacement and events that led up to displacement, and these can be compounded by new experiences within the UK. Refugee and asylum seekers experience a number of barriers to mainstream health care, including the dispersal systems moving them throughout the country, and a lack of awareness of entitlement. Therefore, the importance of understanding places of restoration and healing for refugees and asylum seekers is imperative to the improvement of government policies concerned with such issues.
My research focused on an urban allotment run by a charity in Manchester that aims to provide practical, emotional, and social support and advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers. Findings suggested that the wellbeing of the participants was improved by attending the allotment because it alleviated feelings of social isolation and loneliness. It was somewhere to engage in familiar and pleasurable activities and positive nostalgia – as many refugees come from agrarian backgrounds – and was a place to keep physically active and busy, given people seeking asylum are not permitted to work. Finally, the act of nurturing a plant to bearing fruit acted as a metaphor to nurture the self and others.
A new policy response at the local and national levels
This research highlighted how this urban green space had a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers. In the wake of continuing restrictions on asylum seekers’ access to welfare and services, new worries about the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit on funding, and the impact of COVID-19 on local authority budgets, it is easy to see how local authorities might struggle to prioritise something like developing an allotment project over more basic support systems.
While understandable, improving the health and wellbeing of vulnerable people can happen if decision-makers, authorities, and politicians involved with and responsible for the design, planning, development and maintenance of urban green space can work with what Manchester already has – green space. Manchester has a comprehensive green and blue infrastructure strategy and action plan from 2015 – 2025 that recognised the importance of urban green space for the development of the city. The plan recognises where urban green space had the potential to have a positive impact on the city, from the large scale, such as economic growth and investment, to the local level of improving communities’ health and wellbeing. Overall the aim is that ‘by 2025 high quality, well maintained green and blue spaces will be an integral part of all neighbourhoods’. While the plan does include some discussion of community growing spaces, there is no mention of how these, or any sort of green space, can be targeted at specific marginalised groups.
This is unfortunate, as in addition to the discussion presented here on the impact on refugee and asylum seeker populations, there is also evidence of the role growing space can play in improving the lives of other marginalised groups such as people suffering with mental health illnesses and adults with learning disabilities. What’s more, there is also discussion of the positive impact school and community grow gardens can have on children from all backgrounds, but particularly those from deprived backgrounds.
On a national level, the research I have conducted demonstrates how important it is for policymakers to recognise the value in enrichment projects such as an allotment, with the ultimate goal of attaining adequate funding for local authorities and charities so that they are able to provide these services.
More specific policy asks include legislating for a minimum area of open and accessible green space per thousand people, and for councils to be required to provide free community growing spaces. Allotments have extensive legal protection and it is a legal requirement that they are provided by councils. However, this legislation is insufficient to cover the importance of allotments tending to asylum seekers and refugees. Despite the legal requirement to this, there are extensive waiting listings for access to an allotment plot; a report in 2010 estimated a waiting list of around 40 years in some areas. Furthermore, there is a cost associated with renting a plot, reducing the accessibility for many marginalised groups.
Community gardens are not protected by statutory law. Therefore, legislation is needed to protect community gardens/allotments, alongside legal requirements for councils to provide free, open, and easily accessible community growing spaces. Additionally, councils must be required to demonstrate that they are targeting specific user groups and educating them on the benefits of using green space and community gardens and encouraging these groups to use such facilities.
COVID-19 has flung into focus the importance of green and outdoor space to partake in physically distanced exercise, and in doing so, has exposed further inequalities within our society. Those living in small flats in deprived urban tower blocks, with no access to private gardens, also had poor public green space provision. Given the known benefits of outdoor/green space to our mental as well as physical wellbeing, this is something that will lead to health inequalities. The original COVID-19 lockdown guidelines permitted time in an allotment as a form of exercise, with members of the same household, and where physical distancing was possible. Thus, legislation to provide and protect community gardens/allotments could have had a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of marginalised communities in unprecedented times of need.
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