Northern Ireland’s leaders have condemned a planned anti-immigration march as it was confirmed the first Syrian refugees will arrive in the Province next month.
The first group of people fleeing the war-torn Middle East state will arrive on December 15, First Minister Peter Robinson said as he promised the people of Northern Ireland would offer them “love and support”.
Both Mr Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness hit out at the planned protest organised by the Protestant Coalition ahead of the refugees’ arrival.
Speaking at the British Irish Council in London, Mr Robinson said: “We in Northern Ireland are ready to take our first group of refugees on December 15, people who are very much in need, people who are requiring support from our community.
“We want to see them assimilated into our society, we don’t want them to be an isolated group. We want to be able to give them all the love and support that is possible.
“I deplore the fact that there are those in Belfast who are planning to have an anti-refugee rally. That is not the people of Northern Ireland, that is not the way we behave. Our society will be welcoming and supportive.”
Around 50 refugees are expected to arrive in the first group, with around half aged under 16. A second group will go to Londonderry.
Mr McGuinness said: “The situation in Iraq and Syria is obviously very dangerous indeed and what we’re witnessing is unparalleled in terms of our lives and our history in regard to the refugee crisis which is challenging all of us over the last while.
“I think all of our hearts break when we see – particularly at the height of winter – elderly people, young children, along the side of the road in various European countries.”
He said the refugees would “enrich our lives” and “make a “fantastic contribution to our society as we go forward” as he condemned the planned December 5 protest.
Appearing alongside Mr Robinson at the summit in London, Mr McGuinness said: “We do have a duty, we do have a responsibility in terms of our humanity and our compassion and our sympathy for these people to reach out the hand of friendship to them and make them feel very welcome.
“I want to join with Peter in utterly condemning those racists who have organised a protest rally in Belfast against the arrival of these poor people.
“We will not stand for it and I believe the overwhelming majority of the people we represent will not stand for this type of racism.
“We will stand together and we will give these people the warm welcome they deserve.”
Meanwhile, the Protestant Coalition has defended its plans to hold a parade in Belfast city centre against “uncontrolled immigration”.
Chairman Robert McKee made the application for the Royal Avenue event on December 5.
The group, which emerged during the flag protests, believes it has “come under attack” by the media for a parade which they say is against “uncontrolled immigration and border controls through governmental open door policies”.
The group said immigration policy should be reviewed “so that those who are genuine refugees can get the help that they so richly deserve”.