Asylum seekers in hotels due to accommodation shortage - UK Home Office tells Derry reps

The British government Home Office was accused of treating Derry City and Strabane Council with ‘a lack of respect’ by People Before Profit councillor Shaun Harkin during a discussion on accommodation provision for asylum seekers in Northern Ireland.
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The Foyleside elected representative made the comments following a deputation on housing for asylum seekers by Michael Martin and Thomas Barwick from the Home Office and Michelle Magee from Mears Housing to Derry City & Strabane District Council’s Health and Community Committee.

Councillors were told during that meeting that people were being housed in hotels longer than would be desired due to a shortage of housing.

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Speaking during the October monthly meeting of the committee, Councillor Harkin said: “We have the British Home Office and Mears on here today and they couldn’t provide us with a report so we could prepare for this meeting in advance.

The Home Office.The Home Office.
The Home Office.

“We have all sorts of individuals and organisations who come in here to do deputations and the vast majority of them who are much less resourced than your organisations provide written reports so I think there is a lack of respect first of all for this council and for this meeting.”

Colr. Harkin said he was ‘very concerned about the direction of travel of the new Home Secretary, Suella Braverman and her comments’ made at the Conservative Party’s recent conference in relation to sending asylum seekers to Rwanda.

“This is sickening stuff and it fundamentally goes against the way our council views asylum seekers as human beings who are fleeing war and poverty and climate chaos,” the Derry representative said.

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Responding, Michael Martin, Assistant Director for Resettlement, Asylum Support and Integration (Home Office, UK Visas & Immigration) said he was ‘stung’ by the comments.

People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin. People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin.
People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin.

“I’m really, really sorry you think there is a lack of respect from the Home Office, I can assure you that is absolutely not the case,” he said. “There is absolutely no lack of respect so far as myself and Tom are concerned and we are your immediate contacts within the Home Office in this part of the operation.

“I’m not going to comment on policy or politics, that’s not my role, I’m here to make sure that the contracts delivered are delivered in the best possible way so that the people who are in our care have the best possible outcomes.

“We have a narrow focus in this area and that’s to try and maintain the best possible standards of accommodation and support for folks in this part of the world.”

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Addressing the hybrid chamber, Mr Martin spoke about the pressures faced at present.

“The levels of asylum intake across Great Britain and Northern Ireland have been extremely high, unprecedented in recent years and that continues,” he explained. “We are in a position we don’t want to be in and that’s accommodating lots of people in hotels,” he said.

“We accept fully that hotels are not the place to accommodate people but unfortunately there is a shortage of properties for people to move into and as a consequence people are having to stay in hotels much longer than we would like before they are moved into what we refer to as dispersed accommodation.

“Our priorities right now in Northern Ireland as well as everywhere else in GB is to increase the amount of properties we can procure in every local authority area and as far as we can procure suitable accommodation for people to live while their applications for asylum are being progressed.”

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SDLP councillor Lillian Seenoi-Barr spoke about the issue of suitable housing, stating that she refused to accept that there is a shortage.

“I have been contacted by several people who hold properties and have been trying to secure a contract with the Home Office and also through Mears.”

Colr. Seenoir-Barr said she had heard reports of suitable accommodation that is available to provide asylum seekers good comfortable homes being turned down by those some of those engaged by Mears because of pricing.

Stating he couldn’t comment on the individual relationships Mears enter, Michael Martin added: “My sole interest is that all the accommodation that Mears procure, whether they buy the property outright themselves or enter into lease arrangements with a private landlord or whosoever, that the standards within that accommodation must comply with the contract we have and they are at least the minimum legal standards.”

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Michelle Magee, Initial Accommodation Operations Manager for Mears offered to show any of the councillors around any of the hotels and family homes Mears has in the city.

She said: “I have welfare officers in the hotels from 9am to 5.30pm every day supporting every single service user living there, helping them with their welfare needs, their vulnerability, trying to help them with their GP registration forms and even when I look in there, the atmosphere in the hotels is lovely. They always say to me that they feel well supported.

“I would welcome the opportunity to bring anybody with me, take you around the accommodation, meet the service users and show you what we do and the service we provide.

“I have to say we work to a very high standard, the needs of the service users are our full front priority every day we work in Mears.”

Environment & Regeneration Committee Chair, Councillor Steven Edwards agreed to take Ms Magee up on her offer.

Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter