Wednesday, 28 October 2009

CITIZENS Lay the Ground to Save Sanctuary in Northern Ireland

Today a team of leaders from local faith, refugee and citizen organisations travelled to Stormont to present a number of recommendations for restoring public support for sanctuary to senior civil servants at the Northern Ireland Assembly. The meeting paves the way for a future negotiation with Junior Ministers at the Assembly to discuss implementation of the Independent Asylum Commission’s recommendations.

The team consisted of representatives of the Law Centre (Northern Ireland), Refugee Action Group, Embrace (an interchurch initiative to support migrant communities), staff from CITIZENS for Sanctuary and two people who have first-hand experience of the asylum system in Northern Ireland. They were received at Stormont, the historic home of the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, by officials who advise the Ministers with responsibility for community cohesion.

The team had a clear agenda – to raise a series of recommendations from the Independent Asylum Commission that could be discussed at a meeting with Ministers expected in the New Year. Justin, who fled persecution in Ivory Coast, shared his testimony about his experience of living in Belfast and the isolation he has felt in a city with few minority ethnic communities and the highest levels of hate crime in the UK. This was followed by a presentation on the Independent Asylum Commission’s Public Attitudes Research Project, before Boobakar, who escaped to Belfast from Guinea Conakry, explained to the spellbound civil servants about how his experiences in the past year had made him feel unwelcome.

Margaret McNulty, Information Officer at Embrace, then offered her perspective as a local resident and churchgoer who had spent many years working with migrant communities in Northern Ireland. Liz Griffith of the Law Centre (Northern Ireland) then pointed out the importance of access to ESOL classes and higher education for people seeking sanctuary.

The team’s presentation ended with a series of eight proposed recommendations to set before the Minister, ranging from using the language of ‘sanctuary’ rather than ‘asylum’ when communicating with the public, to setting up Sanctuary Welcome Teams to ensure that people like Justin and Boobakar are welcomed into the community.

The meeting ended with a commitment from the civil servants to prepare for a meeting with Junior Minister Gerry Kelly scheduled for the New Year and to explore each of the recommendations in advance of that meeting.

After the meeting Justin said:
“I was happy that I had the opportunity to tell my story and negotiate directly with important people today. It was the first time I had been to Stormont and the first time I had met with people who have the power to change how people seeking sanctuary are treated in Northern Ireland.”

Margaret McNulty said:
“I felt that the meeting today could not have gone better – but the challenge is that we need to convince the Ministers as well as the civil servants.”

Carina Crawford-Rolt, Projects Organiser with CITIZENS for Sanctuary, said:
“This was the first action for our team in Northern Ireland – and the power of our leaders’ testimonies really got a reaction from the civil servants! We are looking forward to our negotiation with the Minister – and I am excited because this could bring about real change.”

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