On Friday 14 October, the good people at Redeemer Central once again opened the doors of their beautiful building to Belfast’s asylum seekers – something they have been doing regularly for a very long time. This morning was slightly different though, in that asylum seekers from around the city were joined by officials from the Departments of Education, Health and Infrastructure and the Executive Office, as well as elected officials from Belfast City Council and the NI Assembly. The Chief NI Human Rights and Equality Commissioners were also both present, as were representatives of the NI Children and Young People’s Commissioner and the NI Public Service Ombudsman.
Notable by their absence, however, were representatives of Mears Group (the private company hired by the Home Office to manage asylum accommodation), Migrant Help (the private company hired by the Home Office to deal with complaints and advice) and the Home Office itself. Mears did not attend despite committing in writing to do so and to ‘robustly investigate’ all complaints by residents. The Home Office responded in writing on the eve of the meeting with a two-page letter which effectively denied any human rights concerns existed in this ‘contingency accommodation’.
Over the previous four weeks, residents living in hotels commissioned to provide accommodation by Mears Group, had been meeting and documenting the human rights issues they face – overcrowding, poor food leading to malnutrition in some cases, lack of access to health care, blockages in accessing education, poor treatment and broken and ineffective systems for dealing with complaints, among others. These are in clear breach of international human rights law, but also in many cases of local standards and, most clearly, the terms of the Home Office contracts with the two private companies.
Many of the needs of refugees and asylum seekers when they are here are covered by policies and responsibilities devolved to the NI Executive, such as access to education, healthcare and social services. All departments and agencies must recognise their responsibilities towards this group and take their needs into account in providing services.
One father told of the victimisation of residents in the hotel by staff after they made formal complaints, the responses including limiting access to food, toilets and lifts. He told those listening that he was certain he would punished for speaking out. A woman, who was pregnant in contingency accommodation, broke into tears crying as she explained how she was denied nutritious food while pregnant and denied baby milk and winter clothes for her baby. Residents showed local officials and representatives photographs they had taken of overflowing bins, mouldy food, broken washing facilities and skin conditions linked to poor hygiene. Parents explained the hardship their children faced living for months in small rooms with no play areas and no school places, and set out their difficulties in getting those children who have school places in to school, given the £8/week they are forced to live on by Home Office rules.
The duty bearers present – those with responsibilities to ensure and safeguard human rights standards such as officials in statutory organisations and elected politicians-- to a person voiced their shock and shame at what they had heard, and committed to do all that they can to address the human rights issues raised.
Crucially though, the residents didn’t stop at simply naming and documenting problems. They also put their heads together over the four weeks and collectively developed a set of solutions. These were also presented to the officials and representatives present on Friday – a forward looking, proactive ‘to-do list’ for how to begin to make unliveable situations liveable, in a way that recognises and respects their inherent dignity as people.
These solutions were presented to the people in the room with powers to act on them – so that positive change can happen, not just in response to individual complaints, but in structural ways that benefit everyone going through the asylum system here.
The group will carry on monitoring the conditions they are living under as they have been doing. They will continue to monitor the responses of Mears, Migrant Help, the UK Home Office and devolved institutions to their asks.
The issues in question will be the subject of a series of blogs in the weeks to come, exploring not just the obstacles people are facing, but ways around them, even within the confines of devolved and reserved powers. After all, the TEO’s recent draft Integration Strategy for asylum seekers and refugees notes that
“many of the needs of refugees and asylum seekers when they are here are covered by policies and responsibilities devolved to the NI Executive, such as access to education, healthcare and social services. All departments and agencies must recognise their responsibilities towards this group and take their needs into account in providing services.”
Those present committed to come back together in four months’ time (February 2023) to report on efforts and progress achieved, and to identify what needs to happen next