Integration strategy 'urgently needed' to help refugees settle, say researchers
More needs to be done to support refugees and asylum seekers struggling to integrate into Northern Ireland society, a report has found.
That is the conclusion of researchers from Queen's University who conducted a study examining the everyday life experiences of asylum seekers and refugees in the region.
The report noted that Northern Ireland was relatively inexperienced in relocating people fleeing from their homelands overseas.
The researchers stressed the need for a specific Stormont strategy aimed at supporting integration.
The report was conducted by the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen's on behalf of Stormont's Executive Office.
Project lead Dr Fiona Murphy said: "This study found that a refugee integration strategy is urgently needed in order to improve pathways to integration into Northern Ireland's society.
"A number of issues that are highly complex due to Northern Ireland's unique historical and cultural experiences as a society were identified in the research, as well as issues such as housing, legal support and lack of opportunities for asylum seekers and refugees in society.
"How we address the issue of asylum seekers and refugees living in our society is now imperative given the refugee crisis in Europe."
Researchers said Northern Ireland would benefit from one overarching organisation like a refugee council to help newcomers settle in their new home.
Report participant Makhosi Sigabade from Zimbabwe, who moved to Northern Ireland in 2015, said: "I came to Northern Ireland from Zimbabwe as an asylum seeker, fleeing persecution by the government due to my activism against human rights violations.
"Since then it has become my adopted home and I have settled well into life here.
"There has been support available to me, but I have also had my fair share of difficulties and challenges, and I also miss my family who are still in Zimbabwe, which is hard.
"I think this report highlights the difficulties and challenges faced by asylum seekers and refugees coming to Northern Ireland, and suggests how things can be improved to make integration easier for everyone."
Dr Mark Browne from The Executive Office (TEO) welcomed what he described as an "important piece of research".
"TEO commissioned this research to fill the knowledge gap in our understanding of the lives of asylum seekers and refugees," he said.
"While asylum policy is made in Westminster, the Executive has powers to address some of the problems faced by asylum seekers and refugees here.
"It has exercised these powers in the past to place very positive initiatives in important areas like education, health and helping people in crisis.
"This research will now help us develop a refugee integration strategy."