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Our Refugee Week

From 18 to 24 June, Northern Ireland embraced a significant milestone as it marked its 25th annual Refugee Week. This remarkable occasion not only celebrated the invaluable contributions of asylum seekers and refugees to communities in Northern Ireland, but also served as a reminder of the need for compassion in the face of the Illegal Migration Bill.

Throughout the week, Law Centre NI played a pivotal role in hosting and supporting a series of events aimed at raising awareness and inspiring action, all while ensuring that human rights remain at the forefront of the refugee conversation.

"Small Worlds" workshop

Kicking off the week with enthusiasm, Niamh Rowan of the Migration Justice Project at Law Centre NI joined Dr. Stephanie Mitchell of Together NI in organising a thought-provoking ‘Small Worlds’ workshop at Belfast City Hall. Nearly fifty members of the community had the privilege of engaging in café-style conversations with asylum seekers and refugees, who generously shared their personal experiences of their home countries and their lives in Northern Ireland. Among the heartfelt narratives emerged a common theme: a profound gratitude for the warm embrace of the Northern Ireland community, juxtaposed with an underlying frustration stemming from the need for more government support.

Celebrating Ukrainian culture

Throughout the week, this sentiment echoed across various events that the Law Centre was involved with. A Ukrainian cultural presentation organised by the British Red Cross became a vibrant celebration of Ukrainian heritage.

Viktoriia Shakhorina treated attendees to a delectable array of homemade Ukrainian delicacies.  Amidst the joyful atmosphere, Viktoriia and her peers expressed their awe at the genuine warmth of people in Northern Ireland. However, they also stressed that refugee communities need support in fundamental areas such as housing and employment.

Film screening of "Aisha"

We also attended a screening of the film “Aisha” by Frank Berry, organised by social justice charity Extern. The movie eloquently portrays the struggles of a Nigerian immigrant in Ireland as she navigates the labyrinthine asylum system. Following the screening, a panel discussion was held featuring Liz Griffith from the Migration Justice Project, alongside Fatima Sarwari from the Afghan Association, Khanyisa Mafumo of RASNI-Voices, Joanna Tarach of Extern’s Refugee Resettlement Team and others. Panelists with personal experiences of the asylum system resonated with the film’s depiction, acknowledging its accurate portrayal of how asylum seekers are often forced to relive their trauma.

"It is not a story. This is my life"

Yana Priadko, a Paralegal at the Law Centre and herself a refugee from Ukraine, boldly addressed the topic at The Executive Office’s Refugee Week celebration to which she was invited as a speaker.  Quoting the poignant words of Aisha, Yana emphatically declared: “It is not a story. This is my life.”  Yana called for unwavering support from The Executive Office during a time marked by increasing political hostility towards asylum seekers and refugees across the UK. She drew attention to the particular uncertainties faced by Ukrainian refugees, who, as yet, do not have a pathway to permanent residence in the country. Yana underscored the urgent need for comprehensive integration programmes encompassing vital aspects like housing, education, and employment – not only for Ukrainian migrants, but also for those fleeing conflict and turmoil from other parts of the globe.

"Priorities for Action"

Undoubtedly, this powerful message took centre stage during the Law Centre’s flagship event of the week. On Thursday 23 June, a momentous two-part gathering unfolded at Belfast City Hall, dedicated to celebrating Refugee Week.

In the morning, the Refugee and Asylum Forum (RAF) assembled alongside representatives from The Executive Office to discuss RAF’s recently published ‘Priorities for Action’ report. This comprehensive document, representing the collaborative efforts of nearly fifty organisations, raised important questions about the lengthy 18-year wait for the implementation of a Refugee Integration Strategy for Northern Ireland. It provides a much-needed roadmap towards delivering on this promise.

“Refugees and forced displacement: global trends, local impacts”

The Law Centre was then delighted to welcome the UNHCR Representative to the UK, Vicky Tennant, to deliver her lecture “Refugees and forced displacement: global trends, local impacts”, which shed light on the pressing issues facing refugees and the wider international community.  With her extensive experience spanning over two decades from a career which began at Law Centre NI, Vicky provided valuable insights into the global trends of displacement, the current international response, and the specific implications of these crises for the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.

While acknowledging the immense challenges faced by host communities, Vicky praised their generosity and compassion towards refugees. Emphasising that most refugees prefer to remain as close to their home countries as possible, Vicky dispelled the misconception that they seek refuge primarily in wealthier nations.

Despite positive developments, Vicky acknowledged that many countries, particularly those further from conflict zones, remain hostile towards refugees.

Vicky concluded her lecture by examining the specific impact of global trends on the UK and Northern Ireland. She highlighted the need for the UK to play an active role in addressing the global refugee crisis, while also recognising the resilience and contributions of refugees to local economies and communities.

Northern Ireland: "A place of refuge for so many"

Poignantly, she said A place that witnessed so much violence and despair when I was growing up here, has become a place of refuge for so many.  We have so much to teach others about reconciliation, and we have so much to learn from them”.

As we reflect on the events of Refugee Week, let us not forget that compassion alone is not enough. It must be translated into tangible action, driven by a commitment to human rights and a genuine desire to create a more inclusive society for all. Together, we can make a difference and build a future where everyone is welcomed, valued, and given the opportunity to thrive.