Belfast council unites to welcome Syrian refugees as hundreds hold protest
Belfast City Council has voted to welcome Syrian refugees to our shores - but urged Stormont to take responsibility for planning a strategy for the newcomers.
The vote - which was backed by parties across the chamber - came just hours after Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the UK will take in 20,000 refugees from Syria.
Hundreds gathered in the grounds of City Hall ahead of the council meeting to show their solidarity with those fleeing war in Syria.
The crowd included Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and heard from Lord Mayor Arder Carson who said Belfast was giving an "overwhelming yes" to welcoming refugees from Syria.
He urged the crowd to cheer for 30 seconds to demonstrate their message of welcome.
A Syrian woman who has been living in Northern Ireland for 20 years and gave her name as Summer also spoke to the crowd.
She spoke of her worry for her family still living in Syria.
"Please let's work together to bring Syrian refugees here, thanks so much," she said.
Councillors then entered the chamber in City Hall for a special meeting to debate a motion brought by Mr Carson.
The motion included a plea that Belfast's doors and hearts be open to the refugees, and a pledge to treat those fleeing war with respect and dignity.
It went on to pledge to provide practical support and work with agencies across the city to assist arriving refugees.
The motion also called on the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister to work with councils, the Housing Executive, health trusts and the community sector to form a response plan to help refugees when they arrive.
It is not yet known how many refugees may come to Northern Ireland.
At the start of the meeting, councillors heard a deputation from the Refugee and Asylum Forum. Neil McKitterick from the Red Cross said the refugee issue was new to Belfast, and said his organisation saw around 350 refugees last year.
He added that many, despite being eligible for benefits, ended up having to rely on charity due to administrative errors and delays. The Forum called for five action points, including a refugee integration strategy to help newcomers become part of society, political commitment for financial support for refugees, free English classes and a commitment from Stormont to design a scheme for the Syrian refugees to come.
Justin Koame from the Northern Ireland Community for Refugees and Asylum Seekers spoke of refugees he knew who were qualified doctors, pharmacists, engineers and teachers yet are working in minimum wage jobs due to the language barrier.
DUP group leader Brian Kingston said the images beamed around the world last week of Syrian refugees dying in their desperate journey to Europe could not fail to move people.
He said Belfast was ready to play its part in the national and international response to Syria refugee crisis, adding that "we must respond with our heads as well as our hearts" as he pledged his party's support for the motion.
Sinn Fein group leader Jim McVeigh said the council was keen to put money where its mouth was in terms of supporting refugees.
SDLP councillor Pat Convery said a joined up multi-agency approach was essential to ensure refugees received the support they needed when they arrived here.
Alliance councillor Michael Long said we had a moral as well as an international legal duty to do our bit for the refugees.
Ulster Unionist councillor Sonia Copeland said this was the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War and an immediate response was required.