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. These are their findings on housing.
The Human Impact
Poor living conditions were at the root of almost all the concerns raised at residents’ meetings. Many families described overcrowding.One mother reported, “my room has only one bed for me and my son. I need another bed for him”, while another said, “I live with three kids (13, 8 and 4 years old) in one small room with two beds”.
People find the small rooms isolating and cramped, but equally report that there is a lack of communal space. They are only allowed into dining areas, for instance, at mealtimes. There is a lack of indoor and outdoor space for children to play, with repercussions for their health and wellbeing. They described how lack of spaces to be with other people can cause particular difficulties for people who are already at risk of isolation, such as the elderly, those with disabilities or mental or physical ill health, and new mothers.
Additional concerns like those about hygiene – in particular, uncollected rubbish left in communal areas – were described more fully in the first in this series of blogs, on health.
All of the above are made worse, people reported, by the length of the stay in the hostel settings set up in hotels. Some residents reported having spent eight months in these conditions, with no idea of how much longer it would continue: “We are waiting for eight months now to be moved into the dispersal accommodation. We are a family of seven living at the hotel”. Some families described lengthy blockages to being able to reunite with immediate family members living elsewhere in the UK.
Image caption: Asylum seeker mother’s makeshift room dividers for privacy for her family in their hotel room
Human Rights Context
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – ratified by the UK in 1976 – recognise everyone’s right to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions (art 11.1).
The right to adequate housing is described more fully in UN General Comment 4, in language directly relevant to the issues raised:
“Adequate housing must be habitable, in terms of providing the inhabitants with adequate spaceand protecting them from cold, damp, heat, rain, wind or other threats to health, structural hazards, and disease vectors. The physical safety of occupants must be guaranteed as well” (para. 8(d))
General Comment 4 also makes it clear that housing law and policy should take fully into account the special housing needs of disadvantaged groups (para. 8e, on accessibility).
For its part, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that “States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure [and] to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child” (Art 31.1).
On the issue of length of stay, the government publication A Home Office Guide to Living in Asylum Accommodation says that “the amount of time people stay in initial accommodation can vary, but around 3-4 weeks is normal, before moving onto dispersal accommodation” (p. 6). The UK government’s Homelessness code of guidance for local authorities calls hotel accommodation “particularly detrimental to the health and development of children” (para. 17.32) and recommends it be used for families in particular “only as a last resort and then only for a maximum of 6 weeks” (para. 17.33).
For its part the Mears contract emphasises the requirement “that shared rooms are appropriately sized for the number of occupants and that occupancy of a room shall not exceed that specified in the appropriate space standard”(Schedule 2, B.12.1.1).
It stipulates Mears’ responsibility in ensuring cleanliness of common and communal areas (schedule 2, B.12.1.7) and sets a 20-day limit for stays in temporary dispersal accommodation (schedule 2, para. 2.5.4). Finally it explicitly states (Schedule 2, para 1.13) that Mears shall comply with the duty regarding the welfare of children imposed by section 55 of the Border, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009.
the use of hotel spaces as asylum hostels came about so quickly from mid-2021 that the NI Executive Office’s draft integration strategy 2022 makes no mention of it at all
However Northern Ireland is apparently not the only place where the terms of the asylum accommodation contract do not appear to be fully implemented as written. Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government has repeatedly written to the Home Secretary to query the increased use of hotel accommodation for asylum seekers. Here, the use of hotel spaces as asylum hostels came about so quickly from mid-2021 that the NI Executive Office’s draft integration strategy 2022 makes no mention of it at all.
To the Home Office:
- Respect the 4-to-6 week maximum stay in hotel accommodation – then move people into homes!
- Provide adequately-sized rooms for families and enough beds, appropriate to the number, age and gender of people
- Ensure the rooms can be heated / cooled as needed
- Provide adequate cleaning supplies and equipment for people to properly clean their own rooms. For communal areas (and for the elderly or ill), ensure that cleaning staff clean regularly and thoroughly
- Allow people to freely congregate and socialise in communal areas to combat isolation, and create soft play places for children
- Facilitate people with immediate family elsewhere in the UK to reunite
- Ensure that people with special needs are moved to houses as a priority
To the NI Executive Office, NI departments and agencies and NI political institutions:
- Continue working to increase housing supply and do what you can to oversee and improve housing conditions in contingency accommodation
To the oversight bodies (NIHRC, NICCY, NI Equality Commission, NIPSO):
- Use all of your powers to investigate the state of access to housing and to family reunification to people placed in contingency accommodation
- Work with public officials in housing and related fields to help them understand and fulfil 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