‘You get attacked and racially abused depending on where you live and work’

Lilian Seenoi-Barr, Director of Operations at the North West Migrants Centre has told the NI Affairs Committee that in her experience there appears a higher incidence rate of racism in unionist areas.

Ms. Seenoi-Barr, made the claim while giving evidence to the committee’s inquiry on the experience of minority ethnic and migrant people.

The migrant rights activist acknowledged racist hate crime is prevalent in both nationalist and unionist areas but she maintained that a large number of the people she provides support to live in Protestant Unionist Loyalist (PUL) districts.

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Simon Hoare, chair of the committee, raised the matter at an evidence session, asking: “In your experience, both personal and from the work that you do, is there any identifiable trend with regards to the magnitude of hate crimes, verbal abuse, racial abuse, etc., coming from either of the traditional communities of NI?”

Lilian Seenoi-Barr, Programme Director, North West Migrants Forum.

She replied: “Yes, the answer is yes. You get attacked and you get racially abused depending on where you live and sometimes where you work.

“If you look at the trend from the already recorded hate crimes and racist incidences it is not recorded where it is coming from and if I am very honest, and I hope people won’t take this as me saying one community is more racist than the other, it is our reality on the ground based on where we live and where we work, many people who come to my office that I help live in unionist areas.

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“And that is not to stay that people who live in nationalist areas do not experience racism or hate crime because they do and we have enough evidence to show that but it is incredibly high in unionist areas.”

DUP MP Gregory Campbell queried whether perceived differences in levels of racism in nationalist and unionist areas may not be attributable to the relative numbers of people from minority backgrounds living in those areas.

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“Would we not need to get some context in that we would need to understand that even though migrant and ethnic communities are about 2% of the population - we will wait and see the outcome of the census - but around about 2 or 2.5% - but if they are more primarily located in unionist or loyalist areas that might give a better context of the greater likelihood of them being attacked where they are more likely to live rather than the perception that might have come across from your reply, Lilian, which is that ethnic communities are more likely to be attacked in loyalist communities than nationalist communities.

“Would that not be - if we got that information we might make a better assessment of how these things are coming about? Would that be a fair comment?” he asked. Ms. Seenoi-Barr concurred. She said it made sense and that greater levels of data and reporting were needed. “Absolutely. I agree and I want to reiterate that I don’t mean that minority ethnic people do not experience racism in nationalist areas because that would be misleading. They do and we have clear evidence to show that. It could be the fact that we have many minority ethnic people who have settled in unionist areas and that is why maybe it is more prevalent there.

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“But another issue is - without ethnic monitoring we wouldn’t even know exactly the detailed information that you are looking for because we are not keeping on top of it and that is about legislation, that is about the trends and the neglect - that our Executive has neglected the minority ethnic population here. So, if so many people are being settled in an environment that has probably not even been prepared for that diversity, because I think it is important to remember NI is a very young country when it comes to diversity. It is only in 1998 that we got the peace agreement and that is when other communities started to come here. A lot of minority ethnic people or migrants were being settled elsewhere.”

The Derry woman said that despite having lived in the city for over a decade she still feels she is perceived as an outsider by some people.

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“I’m a very proud Maasai woman and I’m also a former asylum seeker and now a British citizen and I’m married to an Irish man but in the eyes of many I am still an immigrant, a person of colour and a minority ethnic person even though I have lived in NI for the past eleven years, the only place I have ever called home in Europe.”

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“Effectively that rendered minority ethnic communities in NI invisible and since then we have been fighting for recognition as we are often overlooked and that is due to the dominance of the two communities narrative that does not really, truly reflect NI society.”

Mr. Hoare, alluding to Ms. Seenoi-Barr’s role as a councillor for the SDLP on Derry City & Strabane District Council, asked: “How would you like to see ethnic and migrant populations and communities in NI engaging actively in the political process, standing for election etc., because if people aren’t engaged and maybe don’t even vote, why would politicians spend any time thinking about needs if they can be bypassed because they don’t express a view in the ballot box?”

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Ms. Seenoi-Barr said: “I think it is fair to say that when I got selected everybody in NI was very, very happy, very excited to see one person because there was only one who was from the Chinese origin and for the last five years we haven’t seen anybody who reflected the minority ethnic communities anywhere.

“It is also fair to say every level of leadership in NI is all white apart from DC&SDC that got its first ever black person in council so you are right, the lack of minority ethnic leaders has contributed immensely to the lack of focus or prioritising of racial equality or support for minority ethnic people. In terms of getting access to politics just imagine being in a community where hate crime has surpassed sectarianism and hate crime only affects 1% of the population. Just imagine the politicians, the leadership, who when they are in Stormont or anywhere, and you are attacked, they do not defend you or even advocate for you to be protected.

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“How would you engage in a political environment if you do not feel safe? You will have to feel safe first or you will have to feel welcome in that society to fully integrate and fully participate in politics.”

She said there was a tendency to wishful thinking with some unwilling to admit that racist hate crime is an issue.

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“There is an assumption that racism or hate crime does not exist in NI. People deny it or they sweep it under the carpet because they want to show a different persona of where we live in. We do have, in fairness, politicians who are very robust when there is a hate crime attack and they will condemn it but you never hear issues of minority ethnic people discussed unless there is a hate crime and there is racism that has happened and hear it on the media. That is when our politicians will be proactive but there are those who will shy away from speaking up.”

She cited a case of prejudice against an Irish woman after she converted to Islam to highlight what Ireland’s newer citizens are up against.

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“I want to give an example of just how your visibility can attract that hate to people and I want to mention just what one of our focus discussion members had said to us when we asked about their experience of racism in NI.

“This is someone who is from the PUL community background who converted to Islam and she told us, ‘I grew up here as a white person who didn’t wear a hijab and about 16 years ago I started wearing it. It was like I became a different person. Suddenly everyone could ask me where [I was] from or where [is my] family from. Even if you have a broad local accent they don’t see that. They just see the scarf...I have been told to go home, I’ve been told to speak English. When out with my kids, I’ve been insulted and called racist names because they just [assume] that you are foreign. So it’s been a really weird experience. It has opened my eyes to what minority ethnic people go through on a daily basis.’

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“Now this is someone who is from this community and converted to Islam. For someone like me my difference is very visible so you can imagine the attacks and the insults that we get.”

Ms. Seenoi-Barr said all of our newer citizens will have had their own experiences of hate crime and racism.

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“Although there are vast differences between us there is one thing we have in common and that is we all experience racism and hate crime of some sort and I want to focus on that common denominator for every person of colour regardless of their migration status. If you look at our submission - on Page 5 - ‘the likelihood of experiencing racism versus sectarian incidents using the 2020/21 PSNI statistics’: the likelihood of a minority ethnic individual experiencing a racist incident in NI is at least 17 times higher than the likelihood of a member of the majority Protestant and Catholic community experiencing sectarian incidents. That is 17 times for a person of colour. Now if you look back to the overall population...with the census of 2011. We are only 1%.”