The Kind Economy & Human Rights: a Report on the State of Education in Contingency Accommodation (pt. 1)

This autumn 150 residents living in contingency accommodation presented evidence of human rights failings to local political and human rights institutions. Dr Brigitte Anton  |  Thu Nov 10 2022
The Kind Economy & Human Rights: a Report on the State of Education in Contingency Accommodation (pt. 1)

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 on education

The Human Impact

Barriers to formal education were a huge concern at residents’ meetings. Even if children and young people have a place at school or college, lack of transport to and from school is a big problem, as one parent described: “my children’s school is far from the hotel without transportation which is a very big problem for us, especially now winter is coming soon”.

People seeking asylum who live in contingency accommodation with meals provided receive £8 per week. Young people who have obtained a place at college, for instance to learn English at Belfast Met (Belfast Metropolitan College), are unable to attend due to transport costs, especially if their hotel is outside Belfast City Centre. One of them explained, "Belfast Met has facilitated access to courses for many of us – these are a lifeline for us! But due to distance from the hotel, we cannot afford to attend”.

Belfast Met was awarded the first College of Sanctuary status in Northern Ireland on 15th May 2019. In August 2022 it announced a new scheme for full scholarship places for a number of asylum seekers commencing the following month. This really matters to residents, because they put a high priority on young people being able to further their education.

Residents reported that they spoke to Belfast Met to provide them with transport, but the college cannot do this. This means that residents cannot attend those English classes, and have to rely on English classes in their hotel which are not sufficient and which do not facilitate their contact with and integration into the wider community.

This can have wider impacts, as a resident from a hostel setting in a hotel outside of Belfast explained: “we cannot commute to Belfast to attend English classes as we can’t afford public transport. Living in a place away from all social, cultural and educational activities has really isolated us from the society. This has caused many of us isolation and poor mental health.”

since January 2022 all children and young people (5-21 years old) living in Scotland  – including asylum seekers and refugees – can apply for free bus passes.

There have been good practice examples in other devolved nations. The widerWales Nation of Sanctuary plan has been followed up by a pilot scheme set up this year for free bus/ train passes for people seeking international protection. Also, since January 2022 all children and young people (5-21 years old) living in Scotland  – including asylum seekers and refugees – can apply for free bus passes.

The Human Rights Context

The UK Government ratified the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights in 1976. The rights it protects – including that to education (art. 13) – apply equally to everyone, regardless of birthplace or legal status. All government bodies, including local councils, departments, public authorities, elected representatives and public officials, are duty bearers charged with progressively realising these rights.

UK Government guidance to asylum seekers is that children aged 5-17 must attend school, and NI schools have enrolled many children from these families though some issues remain. The NI Executive Office draft Integration Strategy refers to initiatives such as the Education Authority’s Intercultural Education Service, which includes support to asylum seekers and refugees (p. 35).

The Education Authority, with support from the Department of Education, is taking steps to facilitate children’s transport to school. Moreover, in line with the provisions of the 2015 Children’s Services Co-operation Act (NI)  mandating cooperation between departments to foster well-being of children and young people (2.1), the Education Authority has lodged a query with the Department for Infrastructure about transport support for asylum seeker parents to accompany small children to  school.

Residents’ recommendations to improve access to education

To the Home Office:

  • Support NI education and transport authorities to enable them to meet the needs of asylum seekers’ children, so that these can fully access their right to education

To the NI Executive Office and departments:

  • Carry on with co-ordinated efforts towards providing bus passes for schoolchildren (Education Authority / Department of Education) and accompanying parents (Department for Infrastructure) in the interest of child well-being
  • Provide bus passes to asylum seeker young people attending classes at Belfast Met (Department for Infrastructure)

To the oversight bodies (NIHRC, NICCY, NI Equality Commission, NIPSO):

  • Use all of your powers to investigate the state of access to education (including transport issues) to people placed in contingency accommodation
  • Work with education officials to help them understand and fulfill their human rights obligations to those members of the public who are asylum seekers and refugees
  • Make your findings and your 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