OVER 50 people gathered in the North West Migrants Forum recently for an event organised to mark World Refugee Day.
The audience comprised representatives from a range of sectors including community, government, education, voluntary and legal.
Host for the day was Migrants Forum Programmes Manager Naomi Green while guest speakers included Úna Boyd of the Committee on the Administration of Justice and solicitor Suzanne Moran of SRM Legal. Their contributions were followed by a question and answer session for members of the public.
Ms Moran, who specialises in immigration law, used World Refugee Day to criticise the British Government’s Illegal Migration Bill. She described it as “one of the most dangerous pieces of legislation I have ever seen”.
The solicitor said that the Bill’s purpose was to prevent migration by unsafe and unlawful routes. But there are no lawful routes when it comes to claiming asylum in the UK, Ms Moran added.
“There is no regular route to arrive here, that is the reality and I would suggest the UK at the moment is doing less than bare minimum.
“The reason that a lot of people, in my experience, don’t stay in places like Italy and France is that those countries are at capacity. There is no room and the reason there is no room is that the UK won’t make room. And we have lots of room.”
Suzanne Moran said the Illegal Migration Bill made no provision for individuals struggling with mental health issues. Nor did it take into consideration the LGBT community.
She also pointed out that under the Bill, during the first four weeks of being detained a person will have no access to the justice system.
As to whether the Bill will achieve its goal of cutting down on asylum seekers and the people smugglers who assist them, Ms Moran said she had serious doubts.
Referring to the recent disaster in which more than 500 men, women and children lost their off southern Greece, she said, “Will it stop people fleeing countries where they are suffering? It will not.
“On June 14 an estimated 500 people died. Will it stop the smugglers operating? If anything it will increase the use of smugglers.
“Will it lead to an increase in deaths? I would say most definitely.”
Programmes Manager with the Migrants Forum, Naomi Green, gave an overview of the situation in Northern Ireland at the moment. She said that at the end of last year 1,300 people seeking asylum were living in hotels here.
“Of those, 300 were children,” Ms Green said.
“A lot of them have spent months in hotels even though they are only supposed to be there for a few weeks. We have entire families in Northern Ireland living in hotels, trying to educate their children, feed their children and it has been incredibly difficult for them.”
Earlier this year a protest against asylum seekers was held in Portrush. The gathering was the latest in a series of events opposing accommodation in hotels and bed and breakfasts.
Naomi Green said the worrying reality was that racist incidents in Northern Ireland are on the rise.
“We are hearing of rising numbers of protests and opposition to people seeking asylum. Race matters, race is part of that. We are all human beings, there is no genetic basis for racial classifications. But the concept of race and how people are perceived still forms part of the human experience.”
Úna Boyd of the Committee on the Administration of Justice focused on the Common Travel Area and the problems it creates for those claiming asylum on the island of Ireland.
“As part of the Common Travel Area we are trying to highlight how you have a check-free zone but not a visa-free zone,” said Ms Boyd.
“For people seeking asylum, you are not allowed to leave the jurisdiction in which you are claiming asylum. Otherwise you risk your claim becoming void.
“For a person seeking asylum in Northern Ireland, they have no right to cross the border and can get into serious trouble for doing so. There is just such a high risk of that being misunderstood.”
Ms Boyd praised the work the North West Migrants Forum has been doing in highlighting the inequalities created by the Common Travel Area.
She added, “The Good Friday Agreement is often dismissed when we talk about immigration but what is key is that the Good Friday Agreement was for everyone. It makes a mockery in a rights-based society when we have these types of laws being applied.”
Lilian Seenoi Barr is Director of the North West Migrants Forum.
She said she was delighted with the turnout and also impressed by how engaged people were on the issues of asylum and refugees.
“For us World Refugee Day is a day to reflect on the difficulties facing so many people across the globe. But it is also a day to celebrate the diversity and contribution those seeking sanctuary and those who have already been granted it make to society.
“Tuesday’s event was deeply poignant as we remembered all those who have perished in pursuit of safer, better lives. But it was also an opportunity to inform and to tell the stories of those who have survived and who now want to give back to the communities that have offered them shelter.
“It was a great day and I want to thank all those who came along. Hopefully they left feeling they had learnt something and hopefully they will carry that with them and help us in the goals we are trying to achieve.”