Eight hotels in Northern Ireland 'are on government contracts to house asylum seekers'
AT least eight hotels in Northern Ireland are currently being used to house asylum seekers and refugees as part of government contracts, the Irish News understands.
Indeed around 10 per cent of the north's overall hotel stock (the figure is probably nearer 15 per cent in Belfast, according to property specialists CBRE) is unavailable to book right now, and is unlikely to re-open to busines or leisure travellers until at least next summer.
And the upshot is that hotel room availability in Belfast, particularly at weekends, is now in chronic short supply, with prices having sky-rocketed in comparison to pre-Covid levels.
It is known that a number of properties in Northern Ireland are currently on government contracts and are fully (or almost fully) occupied with a mix of immigrants, the homeless and those awaiting transfer to social housing.
They include the Loughshore Hotel in Carrickfergus (its website says it won't be able to welcome tourists back until the summer of 2023), and also one prominent property in Bangor.
But there are at least five or six other hotels availing of the government contracts.
The Home Office said it does not comment on operational arrangements for individual sites used for asylum accommodation.
In response to an enquiry from the Irish News about the situation specifically in Northern Ireland, a spokesman said: "The information you’re requesting isn’t publicly available and we don’t provide specific breakdowns on the number of hotels providing accommodation for asylum seekers on a regional level, nor do we detail the costs."
But in a broader statement the Home Office said: "The number of people arriving in the UK who require accommodation has reached record levels and has put our asylum system under incredible strain.
"The use of hotels to house asylum seekers is unacceptable - there are currently more than 37,000 asylum seekers in hotels costing the UK taxpayer £5.6 million a day.
"The use of hotels is a short-term solution and we are working hard with local authorities to find appropriate accommodation."
Just last week NewsTalk radio in Dublin reported that approximately 240 Irish hotels - almost 30 per cent of the country’s overall stock - are now being used to house asylum seekers and refugees, as well as 250 B&Bs and guest houses.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar suggested that tourism in Ireland will be negatively impacted by the war in Ukraine and the housing of tens of thousands of refugees in hotels.
Nobody from the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation would comment on the evolving situation around refugees.
But it pointed to the fact that, post-Covid, Belfast - which has 5,200 bedrooms in its stock - is the second-best recovered city in Europe (after Paris), yet is still on average £200 a night cheaper than Dublin on an average Saturday night.
However, availability and price remain huge issues in the city, as an unscientific room-search by this newspaper has shown.
The Irish News did an online search yesterday for a room for two people in Belfast for Saturday November 12.
Hotels like the Europa, Jury's Inn and Holiday Inn Express (both at Hope Street and University Street) all came up as fully booked on that date.
Meanwhile the quoted price for others for that particular night was £423 at the Culloden, £366 at the Belfast Hilton, £306 at the Grand Central, £209 at the Fitzwilliam and £183 at the Crowne Plaza.
Housing policy and immigration are not a Stormont issue, and as one hotelier told this paper yesterday on guarantee of his anonymity: "The Home Office are our pay-masters here, and we're under pressure to do the right thing. We have a contract with them, and until that contract ends, our rooms are booked and paid-for under their terms".
Last month the Refugee Council in Britain urged the Home Office to "act swiftly" to ensure asylum seekers are moved out of hotels and either granted refugee status, or support those who must return safely to their native country.
Its chief executive Enver Solomon said: “The huge increase in the number of families and vulnerable children stuck between the four walls of a hotel room, from morning till night, is the brutal reality of a broken system.
“Far from the glitzy hotels people may imagine, these are not places anyone would want to stay in for long periods."
* This article was amended on November 1 2022