MEA Borough Council quandary over refugees

Anne Donaghy has been appointed as the Chief Executive.
Anne Donaghy has been appointed as the Chief Executive.

Councillors have raised concerns over the borough’s ability to provide housing, healthcare and education for refugees fleeing Syria.

During a meeting of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council on October 5, councillors highlighted the pressures on local infrastructure from the indigenous population, and questioned how it would cope with new arrivals.

The debate was in response to a letter sent to the council by the DSD on the Syria Vulnerable Persons Relocation Programme.

MEA Borough Council Chief Executive Anne Donaghy said that OFMDFM had set up a strategic planning group to deal with the issue, and that the DSD had an operational group which would include two local government representatives; one from Belfast and one to represent the rest of the Province.

“The plan is to take refugees into Northern Ireland on a phased basis in groups of multiples of 25 expected to arrive between six to eight weeks apart. This is to ensure there is integration into the community and to make sure they get adequate support from agencies,” said Mrs Donaghy.

Mrs Donaghy said that the letter did not identify where the suitable refugee settlements in Northern Ireland would be located.

“The letter says the refugees will be given leave to remain in the settlement they are allocated for five years but goes on to say they can apply for permanent residency after that and it’s perceived that would be granted in most cases,” she continued.

Mrs Donaghy said that council would work with the operational planning group under the direction of the DSD to develop a joined-up response.

Carrick Castle Councillor James Brown welcomed the refugee initiative, and said the local community had previously welcomed Vietnamese, Jewish and French refugees.

“It is not in our nature to turn our back on those in need,” he stated.

However, Cllr Brown highlighted his concerns that the local infrastructure would be put under pressure by the new arrivals.

“How do the DSD intend to deal with the influx of refugees considering their inability to cope with current housing need for our indigenous population?” he asked.

“It would be wrong of us in welcoming those in need to turn our backs on our own people and not be able to provide for them.”

Cllr Ruth Wilson said that the situation could be “opening a precedent for more people jumping on boats”. She added that local people were waiting for long periods for NHS treatment and suggested a plan be drawn up to help the refugees in their own communities.

Cllr Stephen Nicholl stated: “People are coming from a war zone and will bring with them all the issues that accompany that,” he said.

“These are people who are truly in need. In the Middle East at the minute people can’t stay there. Every major power is saying it’s going to bomb Syria. The problem is only going to get worse.”

UKIP councillor Noel Jordan agreed the refugees needed “protection and security.” However, he queried where they would be housed given that some currently homeless people in the borough could not find accommodation.

Mrs Donaghy said that if there was to be a settlement in the borough, she would bring back the details to council.