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 findings were presented to elected representatives and officers from a range of government bodies and oversight institutions on 14 October 2022. This report highlights the ways in which people’s human dignity is being undermined in these settings.
THE HUMAN IMPACT
This is the sixth in a series on human rights failings in asylum accommodation. The first piece, on health, described the impact on families of not being able to buy or cook their own food. One father of a toddler described how it felt to him to have to ask for – and be denied – formula for his hungry baby: "having dignity is to be able to provide for your family, to be able to get milk for your child.” Similarly, a mother of two children with disabilities confided, “your dignity as a parent is at stake when you can’t cook for your child and look after their needs.”
Another woman explained the impact of the UK’s ban on asylum seekers working coupled with the minimal allowance – £8/week – that they receive: “relying on food banks and charities means I have no control over my life. There is no dignity in this life.” (Poverty in the asylum hostels is described here.)
Residents expressed how important education – their own or their children’s – is to their sense of self, and talked frankly about the impact of having to overcome barriers around school places and transport as well as unannounced moves to accommodation elsewhere.
They also described the impact of restrictive and over-securitised regimes imposed in the hostel settings where they live: one said, “we feel like we are in prison at the hotel - everything is prohibited”. Another described having no functioning mechanism to seek redress when people’s rights are infringed: “our life is very hard, and they make it harder for us”.
Others said that cleaning and other staff at times entered people’s rooms unannounced or took pictures without permission. A refugee who spoke to duty bearers at the 14 October 2022 presentation of residents’ monitoring work told them that this behaviour continued even after the family moved to a private rental.
Image caption: A refugee reported, "a coded box is installed at the door of our house, which contains the key to our house, and the key is for a Mears employee to enter our house whenever they want, without informing us. Every time they are in the house they go to our wardrobe and check our clothes. This is our house, but we are given no privacy or respect.”
THE HUMAN RIGHTS CONTEXT
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". The International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by the UK in 1976, says:
recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world (preamble)
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ General Comment 18 articulates the link between the right to work and dignity that asylum seekers describe when talking about the UK’s work ban:
“The right to work is essential for realizing other human rights and forms an inseparable and inherent part of human dignity. Every individual has the right to be able to work, allowing him/her to live in dignity.”
For its part, the NI Executive Office draft Integration Strategy commits to “uphold the rights and dignity of all refugees and asylum seekers” (p.14). One of the actions it proposes is to “ensure front line staff delivering key services receive training to recognise and respond effectively to the needs of refugees and asylum seekers” (p. 9) – potentially useful in addressing some of the issues described. Even more locally, Belfast City Council’s Council of Sanctuary charter and programmes (such as opening council gyms to asylum seekers) provide a working example of treatment with dignity.
The Mears contract (annex F) and the Migrant Help contract (annex E) both set out four ‘Principles of Procedural Fairness’ (respect, voice, understanding, neutrality) which, if implemented, would effectively equate to treatment with dignity. The problem seems to be the significant gap between the principles as drafted and what happens in practice – the punitive regimes set up in some hostels and the behaviours permitted amongst some staff members towards the vulnerable people who have been placed in their care.
To the Home Office:
- Lift the ban so that people can earn a living with dignity
- Implement in full the recommendations to you in the reports on education, health, poverty and effective remedy referenced above
- Ensure that the regimes set up in hostels, and all employed individuals, including hotel staff, adhere to the Principles of Procedural Fairness set out in the Mears and Migrant Help contracts
To the NI Executive Office, NI departments and agencies and NI political institutions:
- assist in the oversight of conditions in the hostels and insist on full and proper adherence to the Principles of Procedural Fairness in the two Home Office contracts by people working there
- implement the draft Integration Strategy action on responsiveness training for all frontline staff - including Mears, Migrant Help and hotels staff in the first instance
- follow the example of BCC ‘Council of Sanctuary’ in proactively reviewing services and programmes to see how this group can be included
To the oversight bodies NIHRC, NICCY, NI Equality Commission and NIPSO:
- act on your own initiative to use all of your powers to investigate the living situation of people placed in contingency accommodation
- 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