“Welcome to the launch of Refugee Week.
For those of you among us that are new to this City let me extend a very warm welcome to you.
A special welcome to the NI Community for Refugees and Asylum Seekers who are working hard to support Refugees and Asylum Seekers and also to the many other community and voluntary groups that have also provided practical support.
This week reminds us of the tragic fact that we live in a world where in excess of 50 million people are refugees, stateless or displaced.
Every day across the world people make the difficult decision to leave their homes because of war, persecution, environmental disaster or poverty. We all know well the devastating tragedies associated with such perilous journeys.
The right to seek and enjoy asylum is a key human right open to us all. The practice of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution in foreign lands is one of the hallmarks of civilization.
It astounds me that the UK is home to just about 1% of the world’s refugees. If we were to believe the sensationalized reports in many of our tabloids we would think that the figure was significantly larger.
In actual fact three quarters of the world’s refugees are living in developing countries, often in camps. It’s easier to move goods across borders than refugees or migrants because of the restrictive policies of countries in Europe and North America.
Discussions around asylum and immigration today are too often fed by hysteria, misconceptions, ignorance, and of course political opportunism. The inflammatory language used in some recent newspaper reports and phone-in radio programmes comes dangerously close to an incitement to racial hatred. We all need to work hard to ensure that the debate is better informed and more rational.
I know that refugees face many challenges in Belfast. Confronting intolerance and fear, being a foreigner in a new land, searching for a safe haven and waiting for solutions, accessing health, housing and jobs: these are recurring features of the refugee experience.
People come here as Asylum Seekers looking for our help and instead of welcoming them, we’ve locked them up until they can prove they really do need help.
There is nothing in the least bit strange to us in the trend of people upping sticks and leaving their homelands in search of a better life. Wasn’t it was what we did ourselves?
Settling into a new place, a strange place, with different language, customs, food, and laws is far from easy. Hundreds of thousands of people from this Island in the past 150 years were forced to seek a new life elsewhere and this exodus had often been met with prejudice, rejection and hostility. We of all people should be sensitive to those seeking asylum from other lands.
We are certainly no strangers to the challenges of uprooting to a new country and a new culture. I hope memories of this experience remind us all of the importance of inclusion, respect and equality.
The work of many of the organisations present here today, is a valuable, long-term investment in the future of this city.
I am amazed at some of the great work that has sprung from organisations here, some of whom are working on a shoe string budget others on a voluntary basis developing projects aimed at supporting and campaigning for the rights of Asylum Seekers and Refugees.
Last year the Council commissioned a transition guide for people who have been granted refugee status, the guide was developed by the Law Centre and is an excellent source of practical information for people who have been granted refugee status and also for their advisors.
My colleagues in the Council have also made me aware of the fact that some organisations supporting asylum seekers and refugees have recently lost their funding – this is a great tragedy.
To those who have sought asylum in our City I hope that your experience and treatment here is positive, that you find the safety you need and that you receive a warm welcome from the People of Belfast.
May I finish by wishing NICRAS success with the weeks activities and in the wider work that you do to support the refugee and asylum community.”