On 22 February Kind Economy activists convened a follow-up to the initial gathering in October where hotel residents introduced their human rights defenders monitoring. A wide range of duty bearers - from the Executive Office, the Department of Health, the Department of Education, the Education Authority, the Department for Infrastructure and the Department for the Economy were in attendance.
Campaigners presented an overview of the last few months of solidarity from community groups towards their asylum seeker neighbours banned by the Home Office from working: event catering, Christmas care packages, training, craft activities, performing arts events, legal casework, mental health respite, awareness raising and more. Many of the organisations involved in this vital and vibrant work attended on the day, their very presence a demonstration of support for the people barred by distant policy makers from participating fully in community life.
Image caption: None of the duty bearers (and private contractors) responsible for implementing UK Home Office policy attended
Asylum seekers presented findings from the latest round of 22 official complaints (from nine individuals and 13 families with 28 children between them), covering issues such as overcrowding; rooms too cramped for children’s wheelchairs to move; broken heating systems; intermittent water service; people prevented from following doctors’ advice; and poor hygiene standards leading to skin complaints. Campaigners noted that an increasing number of these complaints are accompanied by evidence from GPs or secondary health care practitioners.
An activist working to help families find places for their children in local schools reported on her work amongst hotel families, and several women described the very difficult living conditions they face.
The first round of monitoring back in October had produced a set of recommendations, and there was progress to welcome against some of them, like better access to GP services; improved health and social care attention to families with children under 5 (a Belfast pilot); access to primary school places; transport assistance to primary pupils; access to leisure facilities (Belfast City Council); and improved access to effective remedy for rights breaches (thanks to legal casework by Children’s Law Centre and unannounced site visits and follow-up by MLAs).
Ongoing positive work by Belfast Metropolitan College was noted, as was the need for more English as a Second Language places and transport support to older students. In this context the potentially precarious situation of young people over 16, isolated in securitised settings in hotels without access to either school or work, was highlighted, as was the lack of play spaces and normal outlets for expression and communication for smaller children. The harm caused to children’s development by isolation and by repeated enforced moves between accommodation and schools was raised by several speakers, as was the failure to require enhanced checks of all hotel staff.
Image caption: Former Belfast City Lord Mayor Kate Nichol attended the event
When duty bearers took the floor, more fundamental questions arose. They discussed changes to Home Office dispersal practices which are making placements of asylum seekers far more widespread than before. They reported being unable to set up systematic and coordinated efforts to reach and care for new arrivals, due to the Home Office’s and Mears’ failure to provide full data on people they are placing and even in some cases to disclose where they are being placed.
To receive the attention, services and protection these children are entitled to by law, authorities here need first to know that they exist, and second, where to find them.
According to inaccurate Home Office responses to PPR’s Freedom of Information requests, in September 2022 there were 1,200 asylum seekers in contingency accommodation here – and by February 2023 that figure had not shifted one iota. But we know from concrete experience that many new people have arrived since September, and have heard reports of multiple new accommodation venues opening and filling up. Subsequent research and analysis of online Home Office data sets have revealed that the number of asylum seekers in all types of accommodation in NI was 1,710 in September 2022, rising 80% to over 3,100 by end December 2022. No wonder our Children’s Law Centre colleague expressed concern for the potentially hundreds of children at risk of falling through the gaps in communication between the Home Office, Mears and departments here. To receive the attention, services and protection these children are entitled to by law, authorities here need first to know that they exist, and second, where to find them.
So ultimately, the information exchange that asylum seekers had foreseen when they invited duty bearers to attend last week’s meeting didn’t happen in quite the way they’d expected… but for all that, more people have been alerted to vitally important and ongoing safeguarding issues, not just in Belfast and other major hubs, but increasingly in communities around the north.
Please continue to watch this space and sign-up to the Kind Economy network today.