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Derry councillors voice major concerns about asylum seekers ‘left homeless’ and challenge housing provider over standards

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The council meeting was held at the Guildhall. Photo: Martin McKeown.

The council meeting was held at the Guildhall. Photo: Martin McKeown.

The council meeting was held at the Guildhall. Photo: Martin McKeown.

Derry councillors have raised concerns about the treatment of some asylum seekers who they claim have been “abandoned” or placed in sub-standard accommodation.

A representative from The Executive Office (TEO) gave a presentation to Derry City & Strabane District Council about its role in supporting refugees and asylum seekers.

At the meeting, independent councillor Gary Donnelly said a Syrian family placed in Derry under Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme have been “abandoned” and left without access to basic healthcare.

However, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) has refuted this claim.

Mr Donnelly has been dealing extensively with the family who he says have been “left homeless”.

“They said that they had contact with someone like a key worker, at the beginning, which was four or five years ago.

“After that two months they’ve basically been abandoned and had no contact with anyone,” Mr Donnelly explained.

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The councillor said he raised the matter and was referred to a NIHE worker in Belfast.

Mr Donnelly continued: “He came back and said this isn’t our address, he couldn’t find them on the system.

"What had effectively happened was, they had been offered temporary accommodation after coming to the city and both offers of temporary accommodation weren’t in the city – one was in Limavady.

“So they sourced their own accommodation and recently got a notice to quit and didn’t know who to turn to or where to go.

“I think that on the ground there are very serious problems, and very serious gaps, and I can’t understand why someone in a Belfast office can deal more effectively with someone here in the city and it’s causing a lot of anxiety with vulnerable people falling through the cracks.”

He said the family are homeless and were eventually offered temporary accommodation in Enniskillen which he believes is “completely unacceptable”.

A spokesperson for NIHE said it is “entirely inaccurate” to state this family have been abandoned.

“We’ve offered them advice, help, guidance and support on numerous occasions, both in person and via telephone, which has included offering them alternative accommodation,” he continued.

“We have also worked with advocates on their behalf, including local politicians and community groups, in order to assist with any issues they might have.

“We will continue to work with them to find a suitable housing solution for them.”

A spokesperson for TEO said the department is responsible for chairing a strategic planning group and she is happy to raise issues about specific families through that channel.

She said their focus is on maximising support locally through the refugee integration strategy.

SDLP councillor, Lilian Seenoi-Barr, who is also the founder and director of North West Migrants Forum, proposed that TEO should join their colleagues on the Welsh and Scottish governments by refusing to comply with the provisions of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 which mandates authorities to “forcibly remove asylum seekers to Rwanda”.

The second part of her proposal was to write to the health minister to ensure asylum seekers here have access to proper and comprehensive medical assessments when they arrive in NI, and for the continuation of their stay.

There was no opposition to the proposal and it was passed.

Mears, which provides housing and social services for asylum seekers on behalf of the UK Government, then gave a presentation.

Mears was one of three companies selected as part of the UK Government’s £4bn asylum and support services contracts.

It is the Home Office’s provider of asylum accommodation and support in Northern Ireland, Scotland and the North East of England.

Ray Blundell from Mears said high standards set out in contracts meant that Mears returned around 150 properties in NI that were not meeting standards.

He told councillors there is a need to look at accommodation outside of Belfast as asylum seekers are being housed in hotels which he accepted is “not ideal”.

Ms Seenoi-Barr said “what we are told and the reality on the ground are two different things” as she made reference to previous media reports about the standard of accommodation provided by Mears and families living in “slum-like conditions”.

She welcomed the move to integrate asylum seekers in other parts of NI including Derry.

The SDLP representative sought assurances from Mears that they would not “repeat their dreadful contract in Derry”.

She asked how they would prepare and inspect private sector units before asylum seekers arrive and whether they would supply essential household items to “very vulnerable” people.

UUP councillor Ryan McCready was also critical of the company and questioned whether there is any external oversight.

Mr Blundell said the numbers entering the asylum system over recent years have been “unprecedented” and hotels have been “the least worst option”.

He added that Mears has “never failed to house someone” and implored anyone with evidence to the contrary to bring it to him so that it can be examined.

Mr Blundell defended the reputation of Mears saying the company has to meet housing standards set out by the Home Office and service users have the right to raise complaints and request maintenance works.


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