Over four weeks in September and October, people living in NI contingency accommodation joined together to compile evidence of human rights failings and propose solutions. Their report was presented to elected representatives and officers from a range of government bodies and oversight institutions on 14 October 2022. These are their findings around effective remedy.
The Human Impact
Three quarters of the written complaints residents sent to the Home Office, Mears, Migrant Help and the Executive Office in September and October 2022 contained people’s accounts of the difficulties they encountered in getting issues addressed and problems solved.
One person said, "I complained many times to Migrant Help and Mears, they did not listen". Similarly from someone else, “I informed Mears and Migrant Help but there was no reply”. Someone trying to report a fault wrote, "I complained to them about it but to no avail, it worked for two days then stopped again", before adding, "I have children I am worried about".
Even more concerning were people’s reports of being punished after having spoken out: “On the same day I asked again […] the Mears employee called the receptionist at the hotel and they called my wife and started yelling at her raising their hands in a threatening way”
During group discussions amongst hostel residents on 14 and 28 September people reported difficulty in getting through to Migrant Help to complain; lack of responsiveness once they did get through; and very long delays in making basic repairs or replacing basic equipment in the rooms, with serious impacts on residents. The collective comment from another group was “we escaped to come here to complain and suffer?”
Image Caption: Gerry Carroll MLA (People Before Profit) addresses Lift the Ban’s public meeting in October
Human Rights Context
Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by the UK in 1976, protects people’s right to seek redress when their rights have been infringed – either through the courts, or through administrative or legislative means.
The content of this right has been defined further in recent decades. The 1999 UN Declaration on human rights defenders recognises that everyone has the right, individually or as a group, to strive to realise their rights (art. 1), through meeting, forming groups and communicating (art. 5). When rights are infringed they have the right to complain and to benefit from an effective remedy (art. 9), without threats, retaliation, discrimination or pressure (art. 12).
As middlemen between people seeking asylum and the Home Office, asylum accommodation providers or other agencies, it is frequently unclear where the responsibility for problems lands.
However, the dual contract framework set up by the Home Office in 2019 does not facilitate effective remedy. First, Mears Group handle asylum accommodation and support – but any issues are meant to reported not to them but to Migrant Help. People often report complaints to the staff they find on site, without knowing who exactly they are speaking with or what the contractual protocols are meant to be. As a recent Corporate Watch investigation into Migrant Help found: “As middlemen between people seeking asylum and the Home Office, asylum accommodation providers or other agencies, it is frequently unclear where the responsibility for problems lands.”
An even more serious flaw in the dual contract system is that Migrant Help is also responsible for handling eligibility matters and responding to people’s requests for advice about their asylum claims. This has an inherent deterrent effect on complaints, as people fear speaking out could harm their chances of asylum. As the 2017 research that informed the Executive Office’s draft Integration Strategy noted, “many asylum seekers and refugees feel fearful about making complaints to public officials as they feel this may hamper their claim “(p iii (research), p. 25 (strategy)).
The Mears contract (annex H), like Migrant Help’s, both have detailed content about dealing with complaints. But residents’ evidence clearly indicates that the system does not work; and it echoes findings from the UK parliamentary Public Accounts Committee’s 2020 report on the dual contract system, which found that the Home Office was “overclaiming success and justifying a higher fee on the basis of an improvement in the quality of service which it could not evidence”.
To the Home Office:
- Oversee Mears and Migrant Help to guarantee that people can raise complaints with dignity and without fear of reprisal
- Remove blockages to the complaints system functioning; remove the complaints reporting function from Migrant Help and instead allocate Mears staff to respond to accommodation complaints more efficiently and directly. This way people can approach Migrant Help solely for advice and eligibility issues related to their claim
To the NI Executive Office and departments:
- Investigate using existing mechanisms like Decent Homes Standard to evaluate asylum accommodation and ensure conditions are acceptable
To the oversight bodies (NIHRC, NICCY, NI Equality Commission and NIPSO):
- Use all of your powers to investigate people’s ability to access the full range of their rights under the Home Office’s contingency accommodation system
- Make your findings and work public, in the interest of the greater good and to combat misinformation around asylum generally and around the use of hotels for hostel accommodation in particular