Lilian Seenoi-Barr from the North West Migrants Forum cited worrying results from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey that showed high levels of racist, Islamophobic and xenophobic views among a significant minority of people across all age groups in the north.
The meeting heard how Derry and Strabane bucked a trend of decreasing levels of hate crime across the north last year by recording an increase.
In a presentation to councillors Ms. Seenoi-Barr said: “Fewer people reported having Black or Eastern European friends in 2019 than in previous years. The proportion who claimed to have Black friends was lower in 2019 than at any time in previous years.”
According to the annual survey - the latest edition of which was published in January - just 14 per cent of respondents reported having Black (African, Caribbean) friends in 2019.
This figure has declined steadily from 19 per cent just five years ago. Ms. Seenoi-Barr went on to report high levels of slavophobia and intolerance towards other Eastern European peoples and nationalities among young people.
“The same Life and Times survey for 2017 found that 38 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds would not accept an Eastern European as a friend,” she told elected members.
The survey showed anti-Eastern European intolerance among 18 to 24-year-olds thankfully fell after 2017 to 13 per cent in 2018 and to nine per cent in 2019. Councillors were told persistently high levels of Islamophobia were in evidence across the Six Counties.
“A third of 18 to 24-year-olds won’t even accept a Muslim as a neighbour in their local area - again this is higher than the other age groups, aside from the over-65s,” said Ms. Seenoi-Barr.
The NILT survey indicated 31 per cent of respondents aged between 18 and 24 when asked in 2019 if they would willingly accept a Muslim as a close friend had said no.
Focusing on Derry the NWMF director said there had been an increase in hate crime in 2020, according to PSNI data.
“Although there was a reduction in both racist incidents and crimes from January to December 2020 in our local area here in Derry there was an increase of 12 racist incidents and an increase of 13 racist crimes within this time. Derry City and Strabane area has seen the largest increase in racist incidents in January 2019 to December 2020. The area also saw the second highest increase in racist crimes in NI from January to December.
“In comparison during this time in DC&SDC sectarian incidents reduced by 49 cases and sectarian crimes reduced by 42 cases. Given the fact we are in lockdown this is very concerning. Lockdown and COVID-19 hasn’t reduced or stopped racism.”
Nikki Yau from the Foyle Racial Equality Forum which runs an advocacy service told councillors it is important people who suffer racism or xenophobia come forward.
“What we try to do is encourage all victims to report as much as they can because there is a lot of under-reporting. In 2018/19 with race hate crime across the whole of NI there were 1,124 incidents and 694 crimes. Last year, 2019/20, you can see the numbers reduced [936 incidents and 626 crimes] and I think that was due to COVID-19 as well.
“A lot of people seemed to be under-reporting last year but you can see a lot of similar incidents like youth targeting migrants and also neighbourhood disputes with migrants because they seem to be spending more time at home.”
Ms. Yau said FREF’s aim is to get victims to keep reporting. People suffering regular racist abuse should keep a log, she suggested.
“We don’t want them to phone the police every single day but if they write it down and then report and tell the officer what is happening that is one of the best ways to do it.”
Ms. Seenoi-Barr said: “It is concerning that NI is becoming a more racist society and we are not talking about race and racism in our many conversations. We haven’t really come across anti-racist apart from community organisations that are doing great work in promoting inclusion and diversity.”