Destitution shame

Destitution shame


Written by: Frances Webber

A report from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) examines the human misery caused by destitution.

‘No home from home: homelessness for people with no or limited access to public funds’ finds that the government is not complying with international human rights norms in its treatment of new European citizens, refused asylum seekers, victims of domestic violence and victims of trafficking in particular.

In recent years, a new class of invisible homeless people has arisen: migrants who are ineligible for state support. Many migrants sleep rough at some point, finding themselves unable to work and not entitled to any form of support, but unable for any number of different reasons to go home. The consequences of this destitution are damage to physical and mental health and corrosion to the fabric of a society which once prided itself on the universality of its basic safety net provision.

Many reports have been written on the failings of the UK asylum and migrant support system, but very few have referred to the treatment of vulnerable migrants in Northern Ireland. The report by the NIHRC, a quango whose powers of investigation were enhanced by 2007 legislation, makes good that gap, and does so in a thorough and rigorous way which makes its conclusions the more authoritative.

The investigation, the first which the Commission has conducted into socio-economic rights, looked at housing and social services provision for asylum seekers, EU nationals from the accession states (whose conditions of stay preclude recourse to public funds until they have completed a period of ‘registered’ employment) and vulnerable groups of migrants in three different locations in Northern Ireland. It scrutinised legislation and government practice against various human rights obligations which the UK government has signed up to and claims to fulfil. The report shows how core human rights obligations of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – the provision of the basic necessities of life, and provision of housing, healthcare and the means of life in a non-discriminatory way – are breached, as are the non-discrimination provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). This comes about partly through lack of human rights training of local housing and social services officials, so that they are not taught to identify potential human rights concerns for those ineligible for assistance with housing or social support and are ignorant of their statutory duties to prevent breaches, and partly through the inflexibility of laws which preclude all forms of social assistance to certain groups identified by their immigration status.

As a result of these laws and practices, much human misery is caused, and the voluntary sector is fast becoming overwhelmed by the needs of vulnerable migrants such as women who have fled violent husbands, and new EU nationals who have suffered illness or accident forcing them out of work, neither group entitled to public assistance. There are tragic stories from those who were caught by the rigidity of the ‘no recourse’ rules, such as the EU national who broke his back after a few weeks and found himself ineligible for homelessness assistance because of the break in workers’ registration, and the victim of labour trafficking brought in aged 15 and paying off the debt to his gangmaster for the whole of his eight-year stay, who can’t work since his apprehension by the Home Office, but who has no one in his home country to return to. There are also stories of people rendered homeless through racial attack, denied assistance even in the face of serious risk of further injury. A housing authority familiar with sectarian intimidation as a valid reason for homelessness treats serious racial intimidation as ‘neighbourhood harassment’ or ‘anti-social behaviour’ not requiring relocation, which the Commission sees as ‘an affront to basic human rights’.

The report finds a disproportionate concern with immigration control and too little regard for the rights of those affected by homelessness and destitution, and among its detailed recommendations, seeks amendments to legislation to ensure that everyone within the territory of the UK has access to an adequate standard of living. No one should be allowed to fall into destitution. The fact that such recommendations are necessary in 2009 is shaming.

Related links

Download a full copy of No home from home (pdf file, 992ßkb)

Download the summary of No home from home (pdf file, 144kb)

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission

No home from home: homelessness for people with no or limited access to public funds. Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, September 2009.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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