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Refugees, our neighbours

I wrote this opinion piece a couple of days ago and it was published today in the Belfast Telegraph under the headline, 'Refugees face more hardship than most of us could endure'. It's not in the online edition, so am reproducing below. Timely for Refugee Week, but also in light of the dastardly racist attacks on Romanian families in Belfast over the last week, culminating in their evacuation from their homes yesterday evening.

What could be worse than facing torture and persecution? Than having to leave your family and friends behind as you flee your homeland? Than paying your life-savings to criminal gangs engaged in people-smuggling? Than travelling half-way around the world secreted in the stinking holds of fishing boats and airless confines of container lorries?

What could be worse than all this? Finally reaching a country where you seek asylum and hope for safety, only to be vilified by sections of the media as ‘bogus’, and to face racist attacks in your new home…

Shamefully, that’s the lot of hundreds of asylum seekers who come to Northern Ireland each year.

While the local press has, thankfully, not been guilty of stoking the fires of fear and racism over the refugee issue, some elements of the London-based certainly have been.

We hardly need to be told of the violent racism which, all too often, is faced by new arrivals here. The broken windows and daubed swastikas tell us all we need to know about the sort of welcome afforded by some of our indigenous population. Yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph story about the racist attacks in south Belfast reflects the very worst of our society.

Of course, most people in Northern Ireland reject the few race-hate thugs in our midst, yet still don’t know much about the refugees in our towns and cities.

That’s what this week, Refugee Week, is all about putting right.

It started yesterday with an Amnesty International education event in Millennium Integrated Primary School in Saintfield – the kids acted out what it would be like to flee their homes as refugees, while others created a ‘school welcome pack’ for new arrivals from overseas. That’s a great example of ten and eleven-year-olds learning and teaching a lesson in human rights and neighbourliness.

Refugee Week presents a series of events throughout Northern Ireland, celebrating the contribution which refugees make to our society, and providing an opportunity to understand the circumstances which force them from their homes in the first place.

Two thirds of the world’s refugees live in developing countries and only a very small number of applications for asylum are made in Northern Ireland each year. Scarcely, the ‘flood’ of red-top tabloid headlines, but each one represents a very personal story of persecution and hardship.

Some readers will remember the case last year of Comfort Adefowoju, who, harassed by police and paramilitaries in Nigeria, left her homeland with young family in tow to seek asylum in Northern Ireland.

When an unbelieving Home Office rejected her asylum application, she was left destitute, living a hand to mouth existence and dependent on friends in Mountpottinger Presbyterian Church. Other asylum seekers left destitute here, after their applications were refused, have also come from countries where there is conflict, widespread violence and well-documented human rights violations, such as Zimbabwe, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea.

When an uncaring Home Office seized Comfort and her family in east Belfast for detention in England and deportation from the UK, friends, campaigners, church members and local politicians all rallied round to defend her rights.

While, ultimately, the Home Office was deaf to those calls, I would like to think that this neighbourly response reflects the true spirit of Northern Ireland in action. That’s certainly the sort of place that I am proud to call home.

Refugee Week is a chance for us all to remember the lives behind the headlines and to remind ourselves what it is to be good neighbours, locally and globally.


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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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