Asylum seekers in Belfast are to receive free services across the city’s leisure centres.
Belfast council has agreed to give free health and fitness memberships in council owned leisure centres to asylum seekers for the duration of their asylum seekers’ status.
The Health and Fitness Membership Package includes access to all centres for gyms, pools and classes plus some facility bookings. The current full price is £36.55 per month, with a concession rate of £18.30 per month.
A council report on the matter states: “In recent years, resulting from conflicts around the world, we have experienced an increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving in Belfast.
“The relatively small but steady stream has accelerated during high profile conflicts/migrations in for example, Syria, Afghanistan, and more recently Ukraine. Asylum seekers experience a unique set of hardships while waiting for government determinations on their asylum seeker status.
“Offering concessions solely to asylum seekers does present equity dilemmas, however it should be acknowledged that the situation for asylum seekers is slightly different.”
The report states asylum seekers have “a greater level of hardship” as they cannot access the labour market or open a bank account, and most do not have a residency and instead lodge in hotels.
Asylum seekers have an allowance of £39 per week, half of the normal basic weekly universal credit in Northern Ireland. The council report states asylum seekers are “extremely isolated” with “many who are suffering from the trauma of the refugee journey.” It concludes asylum seeking groups have “high rates of mental ill-health.”
The Home Office does not have exact figures for asylum seekers, but the total for Northern Ireland is estimated at around 2,500 people. Most asylum seekers are assessed within a few months, but delays are common and in some cases individuals can remain as asylum seekers for over a year.
Where their application is rejected, individuals are deported, or granted refugee status if their application is upheld. When an asylum seeker is reclassified as a refugee, they immediately have access to housing, the labour market, banking services, health care and income support.
The council report states: “£39 per week is already a struggle for people paying for food, mobile data to communicate with family, buying clothes to suit local weather conditions, toiletries, bus passes, etc. plus children’s essentials from nappies to schooling items.
“Leisure provision can be key to asylum seekers’ long-term integration but moreover, in the short term, an essential means of alleviating isolation, mental health issues and the trauma associated with the refugee experience.”
At Belfast Council’s recent meeting of its Strategic Policy and Resources Committee, Green Councillor Áine Groogan told the chamber: “It is quite frankly disgraceful what they are expected to live on. There have been blatant breaches of human rights – we do not treat them with dignity and respect. As a council, anything we can do to try and support them, and give them their dignity back, is something we should do.”
She successfully proposed that all asylum seekers receive free leisure services for the duration of their asylum seekers’ status. This was a different course of action to that recommended by council officers, who proposed a free service for the first three months, with a reduced rate of £5 per month to be renewed every three months.
DUP Councillor Dale Pankhurst also received support for his request for a report considering how the cost of leisure services for Belfast ratepayers could be reduced, in discussions with GLL, the outsourced leisure services operators for the city.
John Walsh, the Chief Executive of the council, said he had been “in conversation” with the Home Office on the matter. He said: “There are a substantial number of asylum seekers in the city – the accommodation and the wraparound services don’t seem to be there. We do need to do more. I am happy to convene that group and have that conversation.”