Over four weeks in September and October, people living in contingency accommodation in Northern Ireland convened to bring together 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.
THE HUMAN IMPACT
Lack of school and college places for asylum seeker children, young people and adults were a huge issue at the residents’ meetings. Places in primary school are not the main issue, but places for older children and young people. One parent stated, ‘my son – a 14 year old – did not get accepted into school’, while another parent said, ‘my son, a seventeen year old, has depression issues because he was not able to go to school since the last year.’
If children are not in school, they are not only missing out on their education, but they are stuck in a hotel with little opportunity to engage in play or any other recreational activity.
Image Caption: Art work by asylum seeker children and young people created in the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast
Parents and guardians must go through an application process to get a school place for their child, and often do not have the information and/or language skills to understand the education system here, and to apply for school places for their children, college and ESOL classes. Information is often not getting to the people who need it. Places can be hard to find; one family said they got their child a place only to have their application for transport passes rejected, because the school was ‘too far away’. The Special Needs Department allocate places for children with special educational needs, and often, the process takes a very long time.
Residents are also concerned about the support for children’s learning progress, especially in the Welcome Centres established for children who do not have enough English to go into mainstream education. There are two centres, one at primary school level, the other at secondary level, but at both centres, children are all put together in the same group, regardless of their level of English or age. Sometimes, children with special educational needs are also placed there. Their school day ends early because of transportation and there are no clear criteria or pathways to transfer them to mainstream or special needs education. Parents feel that the children are isolated from local children and are not learning enough, and many would prefer their children join the mainstream classes.
For children under 5, there are few nursery places, although there may be a new process in place for children to get places in September 2023.
Asylum seeker families face other particular challenges. Parents are barred by the Home Office from working, and given £8/week per person to meet all family needs. For these families the uniform grant is insufficient, and delays or blockages in receiving it cause real problems. Similarly, schooling can be greatly disrupted if families are moved to another location.
Image Caption: Belfast Met provide ESOL class for over 16s, but there are not enough places
As outlined in our the first part of this blog, Belfast Met ESOL classes for over 16s are in high demand, but there aren’t enough places to meet the need.
the Minster for Education stated that the Department had not received data directly from the Home Office or indirectly from the Mears Group over the last 18 months, regarding the number of children currently living in contingency accommodation
A blockage to planning for these children’s schooling is a lack of data. In reply to a question by Kate Nicholl MLA in the NI Assembly (AQW 4265/22-27), the Minster for Education stated that the Department had not received data directly from the Home Office or indirectly from the Mears Group over the last 18 months, regarding the number of children currently living in contingency accommodation. Similarly, there apparently are no available accurate data on how many such children are not in school or college.
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.
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 2017 research on which the draft Integration Strategy is based identified a need for fully accredited English classes with childcare (p. 25). The text says that the NI Executive provides free English as a Second Language classes for all refugees and asylum seekers (p. 34), using some Home Office funding (p. 32). There is an explicit action on ESOL going forward, to "ensure asylum seeker needs are identified and recognised in the proposed ESOL strategy, and that the direction proposed takes into account their unique and specific needs and circumstances" (p. 10).
To the Home Office
- Enable better data sharing between the Home Office and the Department for Education.
- Regularly publish the number of children in education and those who do not yet have a place
- Provide more funding for ESOL education
To the NI Executive Office, NI departments and agencies and NI political institutions:
- Make sure every child gets a school place, both primary as well as secondary (DOE and Education Authority). Speed up the processes and provide more information sessions on the education system and application process
- Provide more targeted schooling by age and ability in the Welcome Centres, and develop a clear path for children and young people into mainstream education
- Support peoples’ preferences for Belfast Met ESOL classes, which help them learn the language and makes them feel more integrated by supporting Belfast Met to increase its number of ESOL classes and get people off its waiting list
To the oversight bodies NIHRC, NICCY, NI Equality Commission and NIPSO
- Use all of your powers to investigate the state of access to education, including special needs education, to bring about changes where needed
- Work with public officials working in education and related fields to help them understand and work to fulfil their human rights obligations to 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