MINISTER of State for Northern Ireland Steve Baker has given a commitment that he will raise a number of issues with the home secretary following a meeting with the North West Migrants Forum.
The meeting was the first to be held in the Forum’s new premises at Waterloo Place. It was also the first formal meeting between Minister Baker and an organisation that supports minoritised people in Northern Ireland.
Forum Director Lilian Seenoi Barr told the Wycombe MP of the multiple challenges facing Northern Ireland’s minority ethnic communities, many of which have gone unresolved for years. Ms Barr said these challenges are being further exacerbated by hostile environment policies such as the Conservative Party’s illegal migration bill.
Mr Baker heard from people on a range of issues including integrated education and the expansion of the current school curriculum to include black history.
Twelve-year-old TJ Mushapho said that during his years in education on only one occasion had his class been taught about someone who had made an important contribution to black history.
“It was primary seven and we got to learn about Harriett Tubman,” said the St Columb’s College pupil.
“That was the one time, it was for a week and most likely everyone forgot again. I didn’t forget because it was significant for me but others did. We learned about the royal family for an entire month and we got to learn about a very significant person in black history for a week.”
The schoolboy also expressed his views on the Common Travel Area and the barrier it creates for certain sections of Irish society. He revealed how a recent trip to Donegal had been soured by the fact some of his friends could not travel due to them not meeting the proper visa requirements.
On the Common Travel Area Mr Baker vowed to make representations to his party colleague and Home Secretary Suella Braverman.
“In Wycombe, there are people who are third generation British but they still need to get members of the family over for ordinary things like weddings, births and deaths. It is so difficult and one of the things I want is to have a much more humane visit visa regime.
“It is something I personally am very committed to and I am very grateful that you have brought this up and I would certainly like to take that up with the home secretary.
“If someone has status to be in the UK, personally I would like them to have access to the Common Travel Area.”
Innocent Ike, who is Global Student Ambassador at Ulster University’s Magee campus, spoke about the shortage of accommodation for international students.
The post-grad student also raised the controversial plans that will, from January, stop overseas learners from bringing their families with them. He said such a move will be hugely detrimental to mental wellbeing and ability to study.
“Can this policy be reconsidered,” Mr Ike asked.
The minister said it was a sensitive issue because from a humanitarian point of view he would like students to be able to bring their families with them. But ultimately it came down to resources, or lack of them, in the UK’s already settled communities.
“Most people, when you introduce them to a person and you say ‘This is Innocent, he would like to bring his family over’, most people would say yes, of course. But when you look at it in aggregate, the humanity disappears and people are up in arms that there are hundreds of thousands of people coming to the UK. And the reason they are up in arms is not normally racism, it is because they are already not getting the access to healthcare, housing, education they would like to.”
Minister Baker was also pressed on the need for Westminster to intervene and fully implement hate crime legislation and ethnic monitoring.
Innocent Ike added, “The best way I think racism and discrimination can be resolved is first, acknowledging that it exists. Forty per-cent of international students suffer discrimination or racism. But only five per-cent of it is reported. We want to live here, we want to have the freedom of movement, we want an environment where we are treated with fairness and respect.”
North West Migrants Forum board member Monadel Bazzara used the meeting to speak on the issue of family unification for those granted international protection in Northern Ireland.
Migrants Forum Programmes Manager Naomi Green spoke of the Racial Equality Strategy which is under review 18 years after being published.
Ms Green said the North’s minority ethnic community had risen dramatically in the past ten years. Legislation though has failed miserably to keep pace with the influx of international protection applicants. From a legal point of view, Northern Ireland was comparable to where Britain was half a century ago, said the Programmes Manager.
“There is very little lived experience and little understanding in government and that means minority ethnic people are often overlooked. It is important that ministers are meeting directly with grassroots organisations and their service users to ensure concerns are being heard.”
Ms Green added that there were systemic issues in Northern Ireland where ethnic monitoring still does not exist.
“Hate crime for racist reasons is higher than sectarian crime since 2016. There are no standalone hate crimes, you are more likely to be convicted of any other crime than race hate crime because it is essentially not a crime, you only get aggravated sentencing.”
One the lack of implementation of the Racial Equality Strategy and race equality legislation, Naomi Green added, “We really feel we are past the point of crisis in Northern Ireland when it comes to racism. We have people put out of homes, we have shots being fired, paramilitary involvement in harassment of asylum seekers outside hotels and it is always dealt with as criminality.
“There is a massive issue with racism in Northern Ireland that needs to be dealt with.”
Speaking following the meeting, Forum Director Lilian Seenoi Barr said she welcomed Minister Baker’s comments and his commitment to make representations to Home Secretary Suella Braverman.
“Westminster needs to show goodwill and I welcome the commitment to take action on the Common Travel Area issue that is within Westminster competencies.
“I also want to thank everyone who contributed to this meeting which I feel was particularly powerful because of our approach in platforming experts by experience.
“For me this meeting proved once again that when opportunities are presented we can speak for ourselves on matters that shape the lives of minoritised communities in Northern Ireland.”