Gateshead: How to engage asylum seekers and refugees

Gateshead Council partnered with a range of voluntary sector organisations to encourage asylum seekers and refugees to come forward for a COVID-19 vaccine. 

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Gateshead Council coordinated pop-up vaccination clinics in partnership with a community group which works closely with a range of voluntary sector organisations and twinned with other support such as a food bank, legal advice, health services and social groups. 

‘Core vaccine offer did not reach these groups’

Asylum seekers and refugees were highlighted early on by Gateshead’s public health team as one of the key groups where vaccine uptake was, based on previous evidence, likely to be lower. 

Programme Lead Louise Harlanderson said:

There is a lot of distrust of authority in these groups. The concern we hear most often is that, if they are identified, they may be deported.

“This is particularly the case for the population of asylum seekers whose application has been unsuccessful or still in process and they have to ground.  

“There was little hope of the core vaccination programme reaching these community members and we knew very quickly we had to gain their trust and the only way to do that was to work with organisations they had trust in.” 

The key partner was the Comfrey Project, a community group which supports the health and wellbeing of asylum seekers and refugees. The project hosted three vaccination clinics over the summer and autumn with a fourth planned in the coming weeks. 

Members of the public health team were on hand to answer questions alongside a paediatric consultant from the Gateshead’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital who works with asylum seekers, while the Comfrey Project provided translators. 

Mrs Harlanderson said:

It was so important to have other services involved. It was a way of getting people into the centre, talking about other things and then just raising the vaccination offer.

“Some people were just popping in for cup of tea or coffee and we used that as an opportunity to engage them.

“At the third clinic we had the health bus there and stalls with information about mental health, cancer and sexual health and even energy efficiency. It enabled us to get these groups interested in other issues too - we even managed to get some people to register with GP practices.” 

But Mrs Harlanderson said it was also important to get the tone right when engaging with asylum seekers and refuges about vaccination. “It has to be done in a very non-pressurised way – you have to take time. Some were not convinced and that is why coming back a second and third time is important. Some just needed a little time to think and we found when we did come back, some were willing to have the vaccine. 

“We did not ask for their address either – that would put many off – so we just asked for name and date of birth so their vaccination status could be registered.” 

Myth-busting and COVID-19 ambassadors

A lot of work was also put into the clinics in advance. Myth-busting leaflets were produced and translated into six different languages. As well as printed versions, digital copies were produced and circulated on WhatsApp and social media. And ahead of the clinics the council joined with a range of different organisations who work with asylum seekers, these included Peace of Mind, Samosa Sisters and Integration Station. 

Mrs Harlanderson added: “We trained people up to become COVID-19 vaccine ambassadors so they knew about the vaccine and how to answer questions. The Integration Station was particularly important. Men can be very influential in these communities and so sometimes you have to work with the men in advance of working their partners. The great thing about working with these groups was that we were able to identify what the myths and concerns were and be prepared for them. Among women, fertility issues came up quite a lot so we did a bit of work around that.

“And another thing we learnt was not to refer to the vaccines by the name of their companies, AstraZeneca and Pfizer. There was a lot of suspicion – for AstraZeneca it raised concerns about blood clots. For Pfizer it was more historical concerns about previous vaccines. So we started to refer to them as the messenger RNA vaccine and viral vector.”

The lessons that have been learnt are now being applied to other settings. Asylum seekers have also been using pop-up vaccination clinics that have been run in community venues, including a leisure centre, a local church and Trinity Square shopping area

“We now have a much better understanding of these communities and how to reach them. We have given close to 300 vaccinations – those are jabs that probably would not have been done if it was not for the work we did with our partners,” added Mrs Harlanderson.

Comfrey Project Director Eleni Venaki agrees, saying the work had been “extremely successful” and showed why it was so important to work with community groups.

“Having an event at a venue familiar to them with many other organisations covering a wide range of topics made it more appealing and removed the focus from COVID-19. Having the translators, most of whom were members of the community, was helpful too, both in terms of feeling that their needs were considered, but also to help make conversations easier.”

But she said there still remained some hesitancy in the community so it was important to keep working together, suggesting smaller sessions may be an effective way to keep the engagement going. 

Contact details

Louise Harlanderson

Gateshead Council

[email protected]