Asylum and immigration are reserved matters, under the remit of the UK Home Office. In Northern Ireland (NI), responsibility for asylum accommodation has been subcontracted to the private firm Mears Group, under the £113m Asylum Accommodation and Support Services (AASC) contract. The contract runs until August 2029.
Up until the middle of 2021, the way this generally worked for asylum seekers in NI was that people were usually placed briefly in ‘initial accommodation’ and dispersed within a matter of days into group flats or houses located in amongst the local community.
In the second half of 2021, the practice changed dramatically, with people placed instead in ‘contingency accommodation’ in hotel rooms around Belfast and further afield. While people were told this was a temporary measure, some have reportedly spent upwards of four to five months there.
At the end of June 2021, according to Home Office statistics, there were 885 individual asylum seekers in NI in receipt of Home Office section 95 asylum support. In response to an FOI request, the Home Office said that at that time that of these, 14 asylum seekers – less than 2% – were “housed in Hotels/Contingency accommodation in Northern Ireland”.
Three months later (and after the airlift of Afghan refugees from Kabul and a pledge from the NI Executive to support the UK’s promised Afghan resettlement scheme), those figures had risen to 1,021 individual asylum seekers receiving support, of which over one third (a total of 356, including 79 minor asylum applicants under the age of 18) were being housed in hotels. A clarification of the number of asylum seekers including their accompanying dependents is still pending.
Fast forward to end December 2021, and Home Office figures show 1,437 people receiving section 95 asylum support in NI. By FOI response it indicated well over half of them (809 people, or 56% of the total) were being accommodated in hotels, 168 of them children under the age of 18.
On 1 April 2022, according to Home Office figures, there were 1,067 asylum seekers housed in 14 initial accommodation (IA) contingency hotels.
Why the shift to hotels?
While the Home Office is responsible for all matters related to asylum, it claims to consult regularly with local authorities. According to a July 2020 Home Office fact sheet paving the way for use of hotels as asylum accommodation was underway during the pandemic, for instance: “historically, providers have used contingency accommodation during peaks in demand and the contracts allow for this…. we continue to consult local authorities about hotel use and where we place new asylum seekers entering the support system.”
…by mid-February the Home Office had written to NGOs across the UK informing them of its plans to fast-track moving asylum seekers out of hotels and into long-term accommodation. In light of this, it is worth asking why the NI trend is in the opposite direction.
A later fact sheet on “the use of temporary hotels to house asylum seekers during Covid 19” reiterated that local authorities were involved in identifying “suitable temporary accommodation”.
In response to a Freedom of Information request from PPR asking about the policy basis of the practice, the Home Office wrote on 22 April 2022: “operating hotels as contingency accommodation for asylum seekers is not something the Home Office (HO) want to be doing and is not a long-term solution.” (FOI ref 69027)
Indeed, by mid-February the Home Office had written to NGOs across the UK informing them of its plans to fast-track moving asylum seekers out of hotels and into long-term accommodation. In light of this, it is worth asking why the NI trend is in the opposite direction.
Living conditions in the hotels
People placed in hotels are deprived of interaction with local neighbours, lack indoor or outdoor communal space or play facilities, and in almost all cases are unable to store food or cook anything for themselves or their dependents. As the spaces are generally very small, families are often split up amongst several different rooms, at times even on different floors. The resulting blockages to normal family life, local interactions and integration, and the inability to do the most basic things for themselves and their families, violate a host of internationally recognised human rights. They also risk causing harm to people who may have already been traumatised on their journeys or by the events and environments from which they fled.
Families living in the hotels came together on 26 April to tell the wider public about the difficulties they and their children are facing. Mears declined to be present, but some duty bearers (from the Department of Justice and the Department for Finance, for instance) were present to hear them, as were elected officials from Belfast City Council and politicians from four political parties: Alliance, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Green Party.
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