From around June 2021 asylum seekers arriving here, whose accommodation is the responsibility of the private firm Mears Group under contract from the Home Office, began to be placed in hotel rooms around Belfast and further afield. While people were told this ‘contingency accommodation’ in hotel rooms was a temporary measure, some have reportedly spent upwards of four months there.
Hotels are wholly unsuitable for lengthy stays, particularly for families; the UK government’s Homelessness code of guidance for local authorities, for instance, calls such accommodation “particularly detrimental to the health and development of children” and recommends it be used for families in particular “only as a last resort and then only for a maximum of 6 weeks”.
People placed in hotels are deprived of interaction with local neighbours, lack indoor or outdoor communal space or play facilities, and in almost all cases are unable to store food or cook anything for themselves or their dependents. As the spaces are generally very small, families are often split up amongst several different rooms, at times even on different floors. The resulting blockages to normal family life, local interactions and integration, and the inability to do the most basic things for themselves and their families, violate a host of internationally recognised human rights. They also risk causing harm to people who may have already been traumatised on their journeys or by the events and environments from which they fled.
In Scotland, where this policy was rolled out earlier, tragic incidents of violence amongst people placed in hotel accommodation for long periods led to increased public concern, and the 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. But here, aside from a few press reports occasioned by extremist protests against asylum seekers’ presence, very little has been said about the new practice.
PPR used Freedom of Information requests to try to find out more.
At the end of June 2021, according to Home Office statistics, there were 885 individual asylum seekers in NI in receipt of Home Office section 95 asylum support. In response to an FOI request, the Home Office said that at that time that of these, 14 asylum seekers – less than 2% – were “housed in Hotels / Contingency accommodation in Northern Ireland”.
Three months later (and after the airlift of Afghan refugees from Kabul and a pledge from the NI Executive to support the UK’s promised Afghan resettlement scheme), those figures had risen to 1,021 individual asylum seekers receiving support in NI, of which over one third (a total of 356, including 79 minor asylum applicants under the age of 18) were being housed in hotels.
Fast forward to end December 2021, and Home Office figures show 1,437 people receiving section 95 asylum support in Northern Ireland. By FOI response it indicated well over half of them (807 applicants) were being accommodated in hotels in Northern Ireland.
Local duty bearer involvement?
Despite this sharp rise, and unlike in Scotland, authorities here have been silent about the new practice. According to a July 2020 Home Office fact sheet on asylum accommodation, “historically, providers have used contingency accommodation during peaks in demand and the contracts allow for this…. we continue to consult local authorities about hotel use and where we place new asylum seekers entering the support system”. A later fact sheet on “the use of temporary hotels to house asylum seekers during Covid 19” reiterated that local authorities were involved in identifying “suitable temporary accommodation”.
In reply to FOI requests however, the Executive Office, the Department for Communities (DfC) and the Housing Executive here (as well as the Northern Ireland Office, to which the DfC had referred us in response to our FOI requests) all said they did not hold any relevant information.
Up until August 2019 the Housing Executive had a formal role overseeing provision of asylum accommodation, which was provided by private company Serco. However, when that contract ended the Home Office awarded the Mears Group the £113m Asylum Accommodation and Support Services (AASC) contract until August 2029, and the explicit role of the Housing Executive in asylum accommodation ended. The DfC under which it sits retains responsibility for housing overall, and for the Decent Homes Standard, housing fitness standard and other relevant policies.
Significantly, consultation on the Executive Office’s draft integration strategy for refugees and asylum seekers has just ended. The draft strategy refers to the Office’s “work with the Strategic Migration Partnership (NISMP) in the oversight of these [asylum] contracts” – yet does not have a single mention of the shift to use of contingency accommodation in hotels or its impact on asylum seekers. (See PPR’s consultation response here.)
According to the NISMP webpage, however, the NIHE, DFC and Department of Health all sit on it alongside the Executive Office, with the overall aim of “foster[ing] collaboration between the Home Office, NI Executive & government departments … to ensure that appropriate provisions on migration are understood and fully considered across all sectors in Northern Ireland”.
So clearly questions remain. Further updates will be posted here.