Councillors have expressed concern over how statutory services such as health and housing would cope with an influx of refugees.
The comments came at last Monday night’s October monthly meeting of Mid & East Antrim Council after CEO Anne Donaghy presented DSD correspondence on the Syria Vulnerable Persons Relocation Programme.
Councillors were told that OFMDFM had set up a strategic planning group to deal with the crisis and that the DSD would lead an operational group to address the practical steps needed to meet the immediate and longer term needs of the new arrivals.
Mrs Donaghy said council would work with the latter group under the direction of the DSD to develop ‘a joined-up response’.
The correspondence pointed out, however, that planning for receiving and resettling Syrian refugees in Northern Ireland was “at the very early stages”.
Councillors heard that an outline proposal being developed envisaged that refugees would come to Northern Ireland on a phased basis over a number of years, arriving in groups sizes in multiples of 25, at least six to eight weeks apart. The Home Office would arrange their transport and on arrival they would be brought to a reception centre, yet to be identified, for a short period for “induction” prior to being settled into permanent accommodation, with locations for this also yet to be identified.
The letter pointed out: “It is unlikely that the social housing sector will be able to accommodate the number of new arrivals expected and solutions that will make use of the private rented sector are being explored.”
While Cr Patrice Hardy welcomed the details from DSD, Cr James Brown questioned the Department’s “ability to cope with an influx of refugees considering their inability to cope with housing need for the indigenous population”.
While, he said: “It is not in our nature to turn our back on those in need,” he added: “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.”
Cr Ruth Wilson described it as “totally unacceptable” that some local people were on a housing waiting list for years, and suggested a plan be developed “to help the people in the country where they are at the moment”.
Also commenting, Cr Noel Jordan told the meeting: “I am not questioning that these people need protection but...we have people in our own borough who are homeless and can’t get accommodation.
“There is a massive housing issue in Mid & East Antrim. Can I be assured we are going to support our own people’s needs as well as those of genuine refugees?”
Cr Stephen Nicholl told the meeting: “As councils we are piecing the jigsaw that is far far bigger than we can envisage - these are people that are truly in need. As a society, this is relatively small in the scale of things.”
Councillors went on to agree Mrs Donaghy’s suggestion to await further guidance from the Department and that, in the meantime, she continue to monitor the situation and report back to council on any progress.