North West Migrants Forum

Meetings with MPs and Equality Commission ‘positive’ says Forum Director

THE Director of the North West Migrants Forum says she is looking forward to seeing progress on a number of issues following meetings with MPs from Sinn Féin and the SDLP.

It has been a busy ten days for the Forum. Friday’s engagements with Colum Eastwood (pictured above centre) and Órfhlaith Begley were flanked by meetings with Minister of State for Northern Ireland Steve Baker and the Equality Commission.

Mr Eastwood and Ms Begley were addressed on several matters, one of them the Common Travel Area (CTA) and how the visa requirements which apply within it hamper free movement for certain sections of Irish society.

North West Migrants Forum Director Lilian Seenoi Barr said, “As part of our campaign on the Common Travel Area we felt it was important that we engage directly with MPs because there are issues that are within the competencies of Westminster.

“We have raised the campaign with all aspects of government and MPs were really the only cohort remaining for us to meet with.”

During Friday’s meetings Úna Boyd and Eliza Browning of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) told the MPs of how there has already been positive engagement with the Irish Government on the CTA issue.

But Ms Boyd and Ms Browning added that racial profiling continues to be a serious concern. The CAJ said there was evidence of non-white travellers being asked to provide identification while travelling across the border when the same request is not made of other individuals.

Colum Eastwood promised that he would raise the matter with his colleagues in Dublin while Ms Begley said she would contact her party TDs in Louth where complaints of racial profiling have emanated from.

Also discussed at length with the MPs was the issue of international students and the challenges they face.

Sinn Féin MP Órfhlaith Begley (centre) with, from left, international student Seun Awonuga, North West Migrants Forum Director Lilian Seenoi Barr, Forum Policy & Strategic Planning Advisor Beverly Simpson and Forum Programmes Manager Naomi Green.

Innocent Ike, who represents international students at Ulster University’s Magee campus, said a lack of affordable accommodation was a huge problem in Derry. He said he knew of one student who had spent thousands of pounds on an Air BnB just so they could continue to study in the city.

Mr Ike also raised the issue of jobs and asked whether it would be feasible for some companies to sponsor overseas learners so they can remain in Northern Ireland once they have graduated.

He also used the meeting to criticise the Conservative Government’s plans to stop international students from bringing their families to the UK. He said it was a “cruel and hostile policy” that should never be implemented.

Hate crime legislation and the Racial Equality Strategy were also discussed at length, with both MPs in agreement that more needs to be done to protect the rights of the North’s growing minority ethnic population.

Mr Eastwood and Ms Begley said that while they could not solve all the problems raised, there were practical things they could do. They both pledged to use their power, where possible, to take matters forward.

Naomi Green is Programmes Manager with the North West Migrants Forum.

She said, “We organised these meetings so we could speak directly to politicians on issues like the illegal immigration bill and the Common Travel Area. Sinn Féin had quite a list of things they wanted to take away with them while Colum Eastwood said he would raise issues like the CTA with his colleagues in Dublin which is very important.

“The meetings went well and both MPs seemed to be aware of the issues we were raising. And they promised actions, which for us was vital.”

On Monday members of the Equality Commission travelled to Derry. They too were addressed on the Racial Equality Strategy, the review of the Race Relations Order and ‘othering’ – the culture of Northern Ireland being viewed through the lens of two dominant cultures rather than the diverse society it has become. It was put to the Equality Commission that providing three boxes on things like employment monitoring forms and school registration applications – Catholic, Protestant and ‘Other’ – was disrespectful to the many thousands of individuals who identify as neither Catholic or Protestant.

Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission Geraldine McGahey (third from right), Deputy Chief Commissioner Neil Anderson and Commissioner Siobhan Cullen (second from right) with North West Migrants Forum Programmes Manager Naomi Green, Forum Director Lilian Seenoi Barr, nurses Beverly Simpson and Aso Omode and, extreme right, Forum Chair Marija Stuke.

The Commission was also lobbied on the need to change legislation around visas for care staff working in local nursing homes. As it stands people from overseas who accept a job in Northern Ireland often have to sign a contract that ties them to a single employer. This can leave them open to exploitation in terms of their conditions and the shifts they are made to work.

One nurse from Nigeria outlined how she felt she was being singled out and treated differently to her white colleagues.

The situation was described as “modern day slavery” and the Equality Commission was told it needed to change.

Commissioners welcomed the submissions and said the exchanges highlighted how important it was that they meet with grassroots organisations like the North West Migrants Forum.

Lilian Seenoi Barr added, “In terms of our approach, we want policy makers to engage directly with minority ethnic people to understand the challenges they face. But we also want them to come up with a solution together. One of the problems we have had is that minority ethnic people are rarely actively engaged engaged with policy issues, they simply come to us with a problem and we try to solve it. By holding these meetings and inviting our members along, we are saying we want to work with you directly to realise solutions.”

On the meetings with MPs Eastwood and Begley, Ms Barr said it was significant that they both represent border communities.

“There was a common theme in that when it comes to the CTA, they want genuine freedom of movement for all legal residents of Ireland. There was a genuine interest there in alleviating the barriers that exist and to rolling back the hostile environment the Conservative Government has created.”

The willingness by senior politicians and the Equality Commission to engage was obvious, Ms Barr added.

“Part of our new initiative is to try and engage with policy makers, MPs and the Equality Commission.

“It did feel like there was genuine interest in the issues we brought to them and it is reassuring for us to know that our Members of Parliament and Equality Commission are willing to engage directly with minority ethnic communities.

“What matters to us now is what they do with the information we have given them.”