FOIs by PPR show that NI Health Trusts failing in providing a safety net for homeless migrants. Government must use all existing powers to ensure the rights of asylum seekers.
In responding to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) recent consultation ‘Ending Homelessness Together: Homelessness Strategy for Northern Ireland 2017-22’, PPR uncovered worrying information indicating the extent to which the NI Executive is failing the migrant community.
The circumstances of migrants who cannot access homeless assistance vary widely. They could be a student from India, a Canadian on a spousal visa, and increasingly since 2014, un- or under- employed EU migrants. Should they fall homeless, they don’t have the right to access a hostel bed, even in a women’s refuge for those fleeing domestic violence.
One group who are in a particularly precarious situation are asylum seekers. Asylum seekers can get limited support from the Home Office (£36.95 a week), but this can be taken away at any point for a range of tenuous reasons – if you leave your house without ‘permission’ (i.e. to visit relatives in England), if they think you have other sources of income (i.e. during inspection they see something ‘expensive’ – like a games console – in your house), or – most commonly – if they don’t believe your asylum claim (i.e. they say that Afghanistan is a ‘safe’ country for LGBT people). And unlike most other migrants, asylum seekers are not allowed to work. In this way, many fall into destitution. Housing 4 All, a local group of asylum seekers, who have been documenting this issue and campaigning for change since early 2016.
The lack of attention given by the NIHE to the issues of migrant homelessness is stark. The previous homelessness strategy (2012-2017) contained a 175 word section (1.68% of the document) on ‘migrant workers/persons from abroad’. But fear not, this new strategy gave an entire 328 word section (2.9% - progress!) to detail the complexities that different migrants face in terms of homelessness. That the strategy allocated such scant attention to the tens of thousands of migrants who live here, and of all the barriers to housing that their various immigration statuses can entail, shows that they are not a priority.
The new strategy does highlight a narrow support pathway for homeless single without dependants. The NIHE can refer migrants to social services for an assessment, and if they find that the person has “eligible needs for care and support due to a disability, illness or mental health condition” then they may have to provide them with accommodation and/or financial assistance.
Thrilled to see this included, PPR used Freedom of Information legislation to ask all five Health Trusts how many referrals they had received from NIHE staff for homeless single migrants in this situation over the past two years. The responses were disappointing.
South Eastern Trust:
The Belfast Trust indicated they may have received referrals, but had no process for capturing the information.
The NIHE said that in 2015-2016, there were 1106 homelessness applicants who were refused homeless status because they were ‘ineligible’ migrants, but as they don’t record the data it would cost £13, 825 to provide data on how many of those went on to get referrals for assistance from the Trusts.
These revelations show that every Trust except Belfast had received NO referrals, and had helped no single adults in this situation – with Belfast not being able to provide the information. This confirms what PPR’s work with asylum seekers and refugees has shown – that while this support pathway exists, people are not being referred. The under-utilisation and lack of awareness of these duties among staff in NIHE can have devastating consequences on individuals, especially considering that this support is designed for those in the most vulnerable situations.
Ultimately, any laws that withhold essential services from people based on where they come from can have no part in a democratic society. We need a new approach, and a homelessness strategy that provides help to all in our community, regardless of nationality or immigration status. Those with responsibility for housing and health issues must act now to ensure this.