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Syrian refugees feel abandoned by NI government and inadequate integration strategy, Stormont Committee told

Syrian families living in Derry ask to be relocated to Scotland and England due to lack of support, poor housing and employment issues

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One of today's speakers, Lilian Seenoi-Barr.

One of today's speakers, Lilian Seenoi-Barr.

One of today's speakers, Lilian Seenoi-Barr.

A Stormont committee has heard that Syrian refugees who have lived in Northern Ireland for five years have been deserted by the system without access to services and are placed in sub-standard housing.

With most support and services in Belfast, around half of the refugees resettled in Derry have left the city, MLAs heard.

A number of speakers appeared before The Executive Office committee on Wednesday to give their views on the Refugee Integration Strategy and the lived experiences of ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland.

Accounts were given of “distressed” families arriving in NI for the first time in homes with no heating and “prison blankets” and “stained mattresses” for their young children to lie on.

One Syrian woman told the Women’s Centre, Derry that she doesn’t remember the first two years of her child’s life after arriving in Northern Ireland because of the “culture shock”, yet families are offered “no trauma or mental health support”.

Last week, First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, along with Dr Livingstone Thompson, Chair of the Racial Equality Subgroup, announced the opening of a 12-week public consultation on a draft Refugee Integration Strategy.

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North West Migrants Forum Founder Lilian Seenoi-Barr and Coumilah Manjoo of Belfast Multi-Cultural Association who work with refugees every day said that if the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (VPRS) was a success then grassroots organisations such as theirs would not have to support families five years later.

Families are struggling with employment, social isolation and access to education and information. They said there needs to be learning from the VPRS scheme and that should be used to inform the strategy. Ms Manjoo suspected that groups like hers were excluded so that “flaws with the scheme could not be exposed”.

Civil rights veteran and CEO of the South Tyrone Empowerment programme Bernadette McAliskey agreed that those with “real expertise” and “lived experience” are not being consulted when they ought to be.

She criticised regional organisations whose offices are in Belfast – who are joked about in rural areas as “packing sandwiches if they pass Portadown” – for not placing the most informed people at the centre of their strategy.

A director at the Women’s Centre Derry, Catherine Barr, said they receive a small amount of funding under the VPRS to provide four hours of English lessons and childcare services.

Women and young people have gone on to study and achieve third-level qualifications but she said a lot of these people have “complex needs” and there are significant gaps in the services.

“We have been working to fill these gaps. Especially over Covid, there was a lack of resourcing these families could avail of and through the relocation scheme there is an umbrella of services available in Belfast which is not available in Derry,” Ms Barr told the committee.

The centre was fortunate to secure Children in Need funding which enabled it to provide clothing, help families fill out school uniform grants, apply for school meals and nursery places, and integrate girls into all-girl schools, amongst other services.

However, they have concerns about funding moving forward and vulnerable families falling through the gaps.

The Law Centre is also in Belfast which is problematic for some families who cannot easily access the Life in the UK test as part of their application for British citizenship or settlement in the UK. It costs the families £1,300 per person while some are living on benefits, facing welfare cuts and increased electricity prices.

Around 50% of the women and families who were located in Derry have relocated to Lisburn, Armagh and Belfast, and some families which remain in the city have expressed interest in relocating to Scotland and England due to a lack of long-term support, poor housing and employment issues in Derry, Ms Barr said.

BAME Advocacy Project Worker at the Women’s Centre Derry Breidge McPherson works closely with Syrian women and children and has contact with them every day as they start their journey back into education and get a “sense of grounding in the community”.

Ahead of the meeting, they raised concerns about the absence of a proper welcome, poor housing standards, no cutlery, and bedding was described by one woman with two small children as, “thin grey blankets with holes like prison blankets and a stained mattress”.

Ms McPherson said: “That was the first time her heart sank since she left Lebanon having come from Syria.”

Close to tears reading the comments, she added: “She had a baby in her arms, you know, it was quite difficult and distressing for her obviously.”

She said houses here are temporary, private, old stock in poor condition and disrepair, the communication between the families and housing providers is “totally inadequate” and there were no attempts during the pandemic to support the families in any “meaningful way”.

She said that five years later the families remain in homeless accommodation and housing providers are “inaccessible”.

Giving a recent example of a family living in NI for five years, she said they sent a video where the roof of the bathroom had fallen through, and the bathroom floor was pulled up by the landlord and left for two months.

The family with four young children were living like that in “freezing cold” weather.

In another house, the boiler is broken and it costs them a “fortune” because it is malfunctioning. “The house is damp, it’s got mould, there are two children who are trying to go to school,” Ms McPherson explained.

The benefits system is fraught with difficulties, and one young Syrian woman whose child was born in September was told that the waiting time for child benefits would be 26 weeks. Her husband recently had to leave his job in a warehouse because of racism so no money was coming in.

During the pandemic, the women’s centre continued to visit the families because they were “totally isolated” and children expected to study remotely with one device in the house.

The committee chair, Sinead McLaughlin MLA, concluded that an “awful lot of work needs to be done” on the Refugee Integration Strategy.


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