In the summer of 2022, the case of an Iranian asylum seeker family suddenly moved out of Belfast by the accommodation provider Mears, made the headlines. The family had had a traumatic experience since they were not told where they were going until they were left at a house in Derry.
Reports from other asylum seekers indicate that this is not an isolated incident, and at times people are even moved out of Northern Ireland to other parts of the UK, with little notice and against their wishes.
In response to an FOI request made by PPR on the matter, the Home Office said:
“The Secretary of State … is unable to have regard to recipients’ personal preferences as to location. There is no legal bar to relocating those in Northern Ireland to other areas of the United Kingdom where there is a ready supply of housing.”
Its explanation for the relatively recent emergence of this practice here was:
"…this has been policy since inception. Northern Ireland has recently reached the volume cap and so we have started to relocate people out of area. This is not a new policy: relocation was not necessary previously as the asylum support population in Northern Ireland was not sufficiently large to require it.”
In response to another FOI request in April 2022, the Home Office stated that since June last year the intake of NI of people claiming asylum and seeking supported accommodation had increased by over 400%. It said that since it was difficult to source sufficient hotels in NI as contingency accommodation, they had to use additional hotels in Scotland to cater for the increased NI intake. The Home Office also made it clear that no asylum seekers are dispersed into NI from the rest of Great Britain.
Asylum seekers are not equally dispersed in the UK. As the Independent Commission of Inquiry into Asylum Provision in Scotland stated,
“The Home Office’s dispersal policy has been for many years not to provide asylum accommodation in London or the South East [of England] unless there are exceptional circumstances, for example, medical requirements.” (p 15)
Image caption: Frequent moves are not in the interest of asylum seekers’ wellbeing or their integration, which in Northern Ireland falls under the remit of the Executive Office
The Home Office’s private asylum accommodation provider, Mears Group, is contractually permitted to move asylum seekers twice in any twelve month period (Annex C, para. C.2.5), including for reasons such as “to make more efficient and effective use of their property portfolio and reduce costs” (para. C.2.1.1). Such frequent moves are not in the interest of asylum seekers’ wellbeing or their integration, which in Northern Ireland falls under the remit of the Executive Office. In 2022 the TEO published a draft integration strategy for refugees and asylum seekers.
Moving people suddenly from an area where they have just started to settle has a traumatic and disruptive effect on people’s integration, and, in the case of children, on their education. Such cases continue to occur. NI’s former Commissioner for Children and Young People Koulla Yiasouma, commenting on the relocation of the Iranian family to Derry without their prior knowledge or consent, said:
“Every child in Northern Ireland, regardless of their family’s immigration status, has the same rights and should experience those rights to their fullest potential.”
A Scottish Inquiry into the treatment of asylum seekers during the COVID-19 pandemic found that people were moved without proper safeguarding or consideration of their physical and mental wellbeing. They highlighted the absence of local oversight of asylum accommodation.
This absence of local control of asylum accommodation is also a problem in Northern Ireland, and contributes to the harm caused to the integration prospects of traumatised people by being moved around without due care or effort to minimise disruption. Up until August 2019 the Housing Executive had a formal role in overseeing the provision of asylum accommodation, but this ended when the Home Office awarded the Mears Group the £113m Asylum Accommodation and Support Services (AASC) contract.
In Scotland, since the AASC contract involving Mears was implemented in September 2019, the number of people housed in ‘institutional settings’ rose from around 1,500 people to over 31,000 by August 2022. The Inquiry described hotel use in Scotland as being ‘on an industrial scale’. (p 22)
The impact of this on traumatised people is grim. As the Inquiry described,
“People are routinely being moved multiple times, with little or no notice. We heard stories of people who had been moved three or four times in a matter of months, in one case, eight moves in two months.” (p 22)
The fear asylum seekers feel when they are suddenly moved is hard to imagine. People who have fled their home countries and suffered trauma, sometimes torture, are often not told where they are taken to, or if they are to be sent back to their country of origin.
Although lack of hotels and suitable housing have been mentioned as a reason for the frequent moves of very vulnerable and traumatised people, there have been voices who suspected other motives.
As the Inquiry so poignantly stated:
“With its potential to impact on social connections, spatial dynamics, territorial occupation and economic activity, accommodation might be understood both as a tool for community building and as a technology of government to ‘control and regulate’ the displaced migrant population” (p 14)
The Scottish Refugee Council also made it clear that ‘the rights and wellbeing of people in these settings was not considered nearly enough, and that profits for private companies were put above the safety of individuals.’
Making a home is an essential part of your humanity. Having a safe place to live is enshrined in Human Rights legislation, for instance the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In providing legal cover for frequent moves that do not take families’ needs into account, the Home Office is routinely failing in its human rights obligations to vulnerable people.