Mears Group’s contract with the Home Office includes the use of ‘contingency accommodation’. By communication of 9 March 2022 to PPR, Mears explained: “Mears is currently providing additional contingency accommodation in hotels in response to the rise in the number of people presenting for asylum in Northern Ireland. This is in line with the Home Office’s approach across the UK.”
In Scotland, where the use of hotels as asylum accommodation was rolled out earlier, tragic incidents amongst people placed in hotel accommodation for long periods contributed to public concern. Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government has repeatedly written to the Home Secretary to query the increased use of hotel accommodation for asylum seekers.
But here, aside from a few press reports occasioned by extremist protests against asylum seekers’ presence, very little has been said about the new practice. FOI requests by PPR about the use of hotels for asylum accommodation elicited a string of ‘we do not hold any relevant information’ replies from the Executive Office, the Department for Communities (DFC) and the Housing Executive here (as well as the Northern Ireland Office, to which the DFC had referred us in response to our FOI requests). (Under the previous Home Office contract, with Serco, the Housing Executive had an explicit role around asylum accommodation).
Significantly, even consultation on the Executive Office’s draft integration strategy for refugees and asylum seekers, which closed in March, omitted mention of the spiralling use of hotels to house asylum seekers. The draft strategy refers to the Office’s “work with the Strategic Migration Partnership (NISMP) in the oversight of these [asylum] contracts” (p. 25) – yet does not have a single mention of the shift to use of contingency accommodation in hotels or its impact on asylum seekers. (See PPR’s consultation response here.)
At the same time, in its March letter Mears Group wrote to PPR*: “We have been working with local authorities and other partners to provide support to service users.”*
Why then did a string of relevant authorities here claim to know nothing? The Executive Office, the DFC and the Housing Executive all declined to attend an event organised by PPR on 26 April 2022, where families were able to speak about the difficulties they face in hotel accommodation here in the context of the wider Kind Economy initiative.
It is worth noting however that the Department of Justice and Department of Finance did send representatives, as did the Alliance Party, the SDLP, the Green Party and Sinn Féin. Belfast City Council’s Lord Mayor attended and spoke from the floor to share her concern.
At the event, people living in the hotels explained to listeners how they are having to raise their children without indoor or outdoor shared space or play facilities, in some cases without the children being enrolled in school. They talked about how the only food they have access to are cooked meals at set times, and about how in almost all cases are unable to store food or cook familiar or culturally appropriate food for their kids. They explained that as the spaces are generally very small, families are often split up amongst several different rooms, at times even on different floors. This, the lack of any clarity about next steps, and the absence of any possible interaction with local people going about their normal living and working lives, make them feel profoundly isolated, powerless and deprived of dignity and in some cases compounds existing physical and mental health issues.
Both the Home Office and Mears claim that local duty bearers are aware of and involved in decisions around asylum seeker accommodation here. We know that the NI Strategic Migration Partnership includes the NIHE, DFC and Department of Health, alongside the Executive Office, with the overall aim to "foster collaboration between the Home Office, NI Executive & government departments … to ensure that appropriate provisions on migration are understood and fully considered across all sectors in Northern Ireland."
It is deeply concerning that [duty bearers] are not more forthcoming about their roles and the way in which they are fulfilling their responsibilities to these particularly vulnerable people.
Moreover we know that local duty bearers should be involved, by virtue of the responsibilities they hold. To give an example, the DFC retains responsibility for housing overall, and for the Decent Homes Standard, housing fitness standard and other relevant policies, while the Education Authority and Department of Health have clear responsibilities towards asylum seekers and their families. It is deeply concerning that they are not more forthcoming about their roles and the way in which they are fulfilling their responsibilities to these particularly vulnerable people.
We know – as an organisation that works with people living with housing stress and homelessness – that there is a severe housing shortage in Northern Ireland, and that its impact is being felt by a wide range of people. Mears Group’s 9 March letter also clarified that "our aim is to use hotel accommodation for as short a time as possible. We are currently working to procure further housing stock to remedy this issue."
We look forward to hearing more about these efforts. From our end we will continue to highlight acute housing need and call for more homes to alleviate it.
We are asking duty bearers, at a minimum, to immediately
- stop putting FAMILIES with kids, or disabled people, into hotels - if they must be there then respect the UK government’s six week limit
- hotels must be TEMPORARY for everyone - no stays of over three months
- give all residents INFORMATION, with transparency around procedures and timelines
- let people COOK, even in turns. Provide access to fridges and microwaves, allow food in rooms
- send children to SCHOOL
- give people adequate financial SUPPORT
- end PERIOD POVERTY, give toiletries
In addition, over the short, medium and longer term we are asking duty bearers to
- support the KIND ECONOMY
- build HOMES