Representatives from the Northern Ireland Executive Office’s Racial Equality Unit and Infrastructure and Racial Equality Division briefed members of the Governance and Strategic Planning Committee on how they are supporting refugees and asylum seekers.
Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly spoke of his experiences dealing with a Syrian family which he said had been ‘completely unacceptable’.
The councillor said that the family, who had settled here under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, had ‘basically been abandoned’.
“Over the last two days I have been dealing extensively with a Syrian family who found themselves homeless. They said they had contact with someone like a key worker at the beginning which was four or five years ago and after that two months, they have basically been abandoned and had no contact from anyone. They have approached me within the last fortnight and when I contacted the Housing Executive in Belfast I was told that I had to deal with someone else in Belfast because they were under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.”
Having contacted the worker tasked to look after the family, the Moor DEA explained: “He came back and said this isn’t our address, he couldn’t find them on the system. What had effectively happened was, they had been offered temporary accommodation after coming to the city. Both offers of temporary accommodation weren’t in the city – one was in Limavady. So they sourced their own accommodation and recently got a notice to quit and didn’t know who to turn to or where to go.
“I think that on the ground there are very serious problems, and very serious gaps, and I can’t understand how someone in a Belfast office can deal more effectively with someone here in the city. It’s causing a lot of anxiety and in my opinion there are a lot of gaps with vulnerable people falling through the cracks.”
He added: “The Housing Executive have eventually said they would put their stuff into storage and offered them temporary accommodation in Enniskillen and to me that’s completely unacceptable”.
Sinn Fein Councillor John McGowan stated that Derry needs to be seen as a ‘sanctuary city’, adding: “Anything we can do to help these individuals improve their quality of life when they are here has to be done. Let’s ensure we do as much as we can.”
Although not a member of the committee, SDLP Councillor, Lilian Seenoi-Barr spoke about concerns that asylum seekers whose claim is ‘deemed inadmissible’ could be forcibly removed to Rwanda. She requested a party colleague make a proposal on her behalf stating: “The Executive Office (TEO) should join their colleagues in the Welsh and Scottish governments by refusing to comply with the provisions of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 which mandates authorities to forcibly remove asylum seekers to Rwanda.”
Her second proposal was to write to the Health Minister asking him to ‘immediately put in place that all asylum seekers here have access to proper and comprehensive medical assessments when they first arrive in Northern Ireland, and continuing care for the duration of their stay with adequate translation services in support’.
Councillor Sean Mooney endorsed the proposal made by his party colleague with Councillor Farrell seconding.
Responding to the councillors, Ms Orla McStravick, Head of Infrastructure and Racial Equality Division commented: “TEO (The Executive Office) chair the strategic planning group and if there are specific issues with specific families we are happy to take them on board and raise them with the relevant people within the strategic planning group if that’s helpful.”
Referring to Councillor Seenoi-Barr’s concerns, she added: “In terms of the division of responsibilities, the Home Office have the policy responsibility for the asylum and the refugee routes so we can’t actually take decisions on the route themselves or the policy position but we can continue to flag from a Northern Ireland position any concerns we have.
“Our focus is on maximising support locally through the final refugee integration strategy and building on the work already there.”
Councillor Seenoi-Barr’s proposal brought forward by Councillor Mooney, passed unanimously.