Against the background of growing concern over racist attacks and hate crime in Northern Ireland and the deepening refugee crisis, NIPSA held a seminar on 26 February 2016 in Volunteer Now, Belfast.

Keynote speaker, Professor Peter Shirlow, presented the findings in a piece of research he conducted entitled “Challenging Racism: Ending Hate” which focused on some myths which are in general circulation about immigrants. The mantra, “I’m not racist, but…” is usually followed by a statement about immigrants stealing jobs, social housing, claiming benefits they are not entitled to, putting undue pressure on public services and generally contributing nothing. The presentation challenged those misconceptions with localised information in relation to the number of migrants, social housing allocated to them as well as the economic and social benefits of greater diversity.

Kasia Garbal, ICTU Migrant Workers Support Unit examined migration in global and local contexts and explored common misconceptions about migration to Northern Ireland. There are currently 244 million migrants worldwide, out of which 20 million are refugees, which constitute 3.3% of the global population. Migration, in general, makes a very important positive contribution to social and economic development both in the countries of origin and in the countries of destination. However, one cannot ignore the cost of migration to developing countries in the form of brain drain as well as the plight of individual migrants who often become victims of human trafficking, sexual and labour exploitation as well as racist crime in their host countries.

Kasia then stressed that unfortunately, public debate around immigration in the UK has become increasingly toxic and immigrants are being demeaned and demonised in both the right-wing and mainstream media. The ongoing refugee crisis and the debate on potential leaving of the EU have intensified xenophobia and negative attitudes towards immigrants.

The presentation examined some figures on the public perception of the size of the migrant population in the UK which was shown to be grossly overestimated, as the public’s average guess is 31%, whereas it is around 13% (according to an Ipsos Mori research in 2014). Interestingly, the public perception of who the migrants are also reflects our current fears, for example, refugees were mentioned disproportionately by over 30% of respondents, whereas in reality refugees only make up about 5% of the migrant population. This has been termed “imagined immigration”, which is characterised by complex cause and effect, as we usually overestimate certain groups because they worry us. Interestingly, the level of acceptance of migrants also depends on the type of migration, i.e. professionals vs. unskilled, income, age and region. However, it has been found that newspaper readership is much more likely to be significantly related to concern about immigration than any other measure. It does not necessarily prove a causal effect, however one cannot ignore that there is a reinforcing interaction between the public, politicians and the media.

It was also stressed that there is a need to continuously challenge negative stereotyping and promote positive contribution immigrants are making to our economy and society in general.

Andrea Montgomery talked about her own background, why she set up Terra Nova, the role of the arts, the process of developing the Arrivals programme, how it turned from a one year programme into a three year programme, and the fact that they are now exploring year four ideas with colleagues who work with refugees in Egypt. She described how each of the years taught them new things, how they have evolved their roadshow programme. How they combined immersive with interactive to create what one Good Relations Officer called an empathy injection. Then she gave examples and quotes from people who had been through the experience. She finished with a reminder of how their process was built on workshops and master classes before showing the film from Arrivals 1.

Justin Kouame (Chair) and Luke Butterly (Advice Worker) of the Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) gave presentations on the international and local context in which the response to the ‘refugee crisis’ is being made. They gave an overview of international situation regarding refugees and forced migration, noting that the vast majority of the almost 60 million refugees are hosted in neighbouring countries or internally displaced. A single camp in Ethiopia (a county of 94 million) held as many refugees as all which came to the EU (population of 508 million) last year. The presentation then moved to the response by UK government and the public, noting the positive effect the later had on the former in terms of increasing the number of refugees accepted into the country. It then looked at current and incoming laws and policies that make the UK a ‘hostile environment’ for those attempting to seek sanctuary, noting with particular concern the current criminalisation of movement and the proposals to remove the meagre support to asylum seeking families. The presentation concluded with some of the positive steps taken by the local administration here, such as extending free accredited English classes to all refugees and keeping legal aid for family reunification cases.

Alastair Donaghy, Community Activist for the Inter Ethnic Forum (Mid and East Antrim Council) talked about some of the collaborative projects he is doing with community groups in the Ballymena Borough.

Publications, presentations and video highlighted during the event are available by clicking on the links on the right.

Geraldine Alexander

Assistant Secretary