Fleeing years of bloody civil war in which civilians have been horrifically targeted, the first Syrian refugees will tomorrow fly out of Lebanon to arrive in Belfast under the auspices of the British Government organisation.
Today, amid unusual secrecy, the media was shown around the Belfast welcome centre – the location of which we are unable to report – where the 50 refugees will arrive after flying direct from Beirut on a chartered flight.
Unusually, details of arrangements for the media to view the centre were sent out under a ‘restricted’ security classification and the authorities are keen to maintain strict privacy around the welcome centre.
Officials today insisted that the precaution is to protect the privacy of the families, rather than as a consequence of racist attacks in Northern Ireland over recent years or the anti-refugee sentiment who recently saw a handful of demonstrators march through Belfast city centre.
After several weeks at the centre where they will have time to rest, sort documentation and be medically assessed, the families are expected to move out into more permanent accommodation.
As journalists were shown around the building today, a television in what will be the dining area made clear what these people are fleeing. The Sky News reporter told of being shown a dungeon where Yazidi women were kept as prisoners until the so-called Islamic State was driven from that part of northern Syria. Though the front line has moved, the report stated that suicide truck problems remain a deadly threat.
Aid workers preparing for the arrival of the refugees in Belfast tomorrow have limited information on their circumstances, but each has been chosen under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme.
The scheme will resettle people living in camps in countries neighbouring Syria, but does not extend to those who have got to Europe by other means.
The Government said that the scheme was based on need and prioritises those who cannot be supported effectively where they currently are, such as women and children at risk, people in severe need of medical care and survivors of torture and violence.
All of the individuals have been assessed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the camps and once in the UK they will have five years humanitarian protection status and access to employment, state welfare and rights to family reunion.
The group arriving tomorrow is a mixture of Syrian Muslims and Christians and Stormont said that the Home Office had agreed that the group would be mainly “straightforward family groups without complex needs”, as this is the first group to arrive in Belfast.
Neil McKittrick from the British Red Cross, who will be among those welcoming the refugees tomorrow, told the News Letter that he expected the group to be religiously mixed “but for us that plays no real part”.
The Bangor-born aid worker said that he did not know how many belongings the group would be bringing, but “most of their possessions will have been lost” when they fled the war.
When asked about the secrecy surrounding the centre, Mr McKittrick said that there had been strict press privacy for the refugees who have arrived in other parts of the UK.
“That’s really because of privacy for the people, because it’s predominantly children, and...how could you get informed consent from people who have no idea what it is that they are coming into?
“In due course, people might be very keen to come along and tell their story and that will be something for them to do, but at the minute we’re just treating this the same way that we would treat anybody else.”
Mr McKittrick also said that PSNI officers will be visiting the centre to introduce them to the police because whatever their experiences with the police in Syria “the police in Northern Ireland are here to help and support them”.
He said that most people in Northern Ireland are unlikely to ever meet one of the refugees because there will be so few of them in comparison to the 1.8 million population of the Province.
He said that none of them wanted to come to Europe, having fled their homes and hoped to return after the war, but they now had to move as the war continues unabated.
Denise Wright from the Refugee and Asylum Forum said the public response had been amazing.
“One of the things we have seen is an overwhelming sense of people in the general community saying ‘what we can we do?’,” she said.
“My phone has been ringing off the hook (with people asking) ‘what can we do, what can we give?”
Ms Wright, who herself recently visited some of the refugee camps from where the refugees are coming, said there was now no need for any more practical donations for the arriving families.
“We’ve already got everything that we require,” she said. “But one of the things we have asked if you want to do something is send welcome cards.”
NI could take in about 550 in total
The refugees arriving tomorrow are part of the 20,000 refugees who Prime Minister David Cameron has committed to house in the UK over the next four and a half years. By contrast, Lebanaon, a country of 4.4 million people, has taken in 1.8 million Syrian refugees – the pro rata equivilent for the UK would be accepting 25 million refugees.
Northern Ireland is likely to see the next group of refugees arrive early next year. If the 20,000 refugees are distributed equally across the UK, Northern Ireland would receive about 550.
Just 31 Syrians on 2011 Census
A small reception party of around eight people, some of whom will be interpreters, will meet the refugees at the airport and assist them through the arrivals process.
On arrival – or possibly on the plane – they will be given basic information on Northern Ireland and will be taken straight to the welcome centre.
The refugees will then be moved to temporary accommodation secured for them by the Housing Executive under the standard homeless procedures. After a period of about sic months, they will move into permanent accomodation.
The Home Office is providing at least £10,000 per refugee towards the first year’s costs and the Home Office may provide further funding to cover the education costs for school age children.
The current group of refugees are expected to be housed close to Belfast, with a future group being based in the north west.
Stormont’s Department of Social Development said that there had been “a very substantial display of goodwill by members of the public”. It said that people who wish to help can best do so by donating to charities or volunteering with local refugee support groups.
According to the 2011 Census, there were just 31 people living in Northern Ireland who had been born in Syria, although a handful of Syrian refugess are believed to have arrived since then.
For a video which looks inside the welcome centre, click on the link http://webadmin.jpress.co.uk/brightcovepreview/previewbrightcovevideo.aspx?RefID=1450115063319