Support funds while Derry & Strabane asylum seekers living off just £42 a week

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Derry & Strabane’s Health and Community Committee has approved the issuing of a tender process to deliver a support service that will assist the integration of asylum seekers and refugees in the area.

The decision comes after £55,000 of funding was made available by the Home Office for this purpose.

However, the direct impact and benefit this funding will have on the lives of individuals was raised by SDLP Councillor Lilian Seenoi Barr who highlighted that asylum seekers receive just £42 a week to live off.

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Head of Community and Leisure at Derry City and Strabane District Council, Barry O’Hagan, brought a report before the committee explaining that historically, the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers is the responsibility of the Home Office and managed locally through a contract with Mears Group.

SDLP Councillor Lilian Seenoi Barr.SDLP Councillor Lilian Seenoi Barr.
SDLP Councillor Lilian Seenoi Barr.

Asylum seekers previously had been accommodated within the Belfast City Council boundary, and Derry City and Strabane District Council is now one of the dispersal areas outside Belfast City Council area.

He said: “I’ve confirmed it will make funding available for councils to support and provide support mechanisms which will assist the integration of our new residents within the city and district.

“Members will be aware that a small amount of funding had been made available for this financial year, which was to be committed and spent by March 2023. Following members’ approval, a Terms of Reference was issued in order to engage an organisation in anticipation of further funding for 23/24. Unfortunately, no tenders were received by the closing date for this piece of work.

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“Following a meeting with TEO (The Executive Office), officers have been informed that the funding for 2022/23 can now be accrued and combined with the secured funding for 2023/24 to provide support for refugees and asylum seekers across the district. A total allocation of £55,000 is expected to be provided to Derry City and Strabane District Council by early March 2023 and we currently have a letter of offer which we’re looking over the terms and conditions.”

Sinn Féin Councillor Michaela Boyle.Sinn Féin Councillor Michaela Boyle.
Sinn Féin Councillor Michaela Boyle.

Sinn Féin Colr. Michaela Boyle, who proposed the recommendation, commented: “£55,000 is a lot of money, but hopefully it’ll go in the right area for the right support to address the issues that come with asylum seekers and refugees who come here to reside in our area.

“There are a lot of issues out there in terms of getting support and getting housing accommodation and getting medical treatment when they come here to seek refuge.”

People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin added: “It’s very important that the council do all it can to welcome asylum seekers and make sure that they get the support that they need because it strengthens Derry, it strengthens our district when it’s a more diverse place where we welcome people.”

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Colr. Harkin also addressed misinformation and hostility towards asylum seekers, stating, “In recent months, it has become evident that even within our own city and district, individuals have been spreading false information about asylum seekers to incite hatred and you see a lot of this stuff online.”

He went on to commend Gary Lineker for his public stance on the UK government’s asylum-seeker policy stating; “I think what he did was absolutely fantastic.”

SDLP Councillor Lilian Seenoi-Barr, who is also Director of Programmes at the North-West Migrants Forum, expressed her concerns about how the funding will directly benefit individuals seeking asylum.

“It’s a welcome development to get funding to support people seeking international protection in our city and district,” she said. “But I do wonder, how much of this money will directly support those who are in hardship?”

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Colr. Seenoi-Barr highlighted the difficulties faced by asylum seekers, explaining that they receive only around £42 per person per week. “Every single one of us is impacted by the rising cost of living crisis, so they will be impacted the same and are living in dire hardship within our city and district,” she added.

The Foyleside representative questioned whether the funding would be allocated to individual organisations or used for administrative purposes, potentially missing the opportunity to support individuals directly, stating: “It’s well and good to get them into programmes but are these programmes going to be of benefit to them in future?”

Acknowledging the growing far-right movement in the city and stressing the importance of challenging it, she stated; “These people are not illegal immigrants. They are people seeking protection within our own country and within our city and district. I’m delighted that our city has welcomed them but if we can be more proactive in challenging such policies whenever they are proposed by the Tory government.”

Responding to Colr Seenoi-Barr, Mr O’Hagan said: “I am not in a position to answer the questions in terms of the tender. The council is a conduit for that money. The TEO and the Home Office have the responsibility and council are playing a role here for our Community Development team to procure a provider to do this. Not until we get the actual tenders in and a successful bidder is appointed will we know what programmes and what the money is actually going to be spent on.”

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Councillor Seenoi-Barr further suggested: “If the council has the privilege of designing a programme for procurement purposes, then guidelines can be provided by the council to ensure that the support provided by whoever tenders for this money will be directly beneficial to people who are targeted.”

She also recommended consultation with the targeted individuals, saying, “It may be wise to consult with them on what kind of support they need and what kind of programmes need to be put in place.”

It was confirmed that such engagement would be included in the tender criteria.

The recommendation to approve the tender process passed with widespread support from the committee.

Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter