A structured, humanitarian response to refugee crisis needed

Like many people across the world, I have been deeply moved by the images of Syrian refugees making desperate attempts to reach safety in Europe.

With the conflict in Syria now in its fifth year, human rights violations have left more than 200,000 people dead and over half of the country’s population displaced – meaning 12.2m Syrians are in need of humanitarian support, more than 5m of whom are children.

It is vital that we look at what practical support Northern Ireland can and should offer people displaced by conflict in Syria and elsewhere through a clear refugee integration strategy.

The suggestion that people are crossing the seas in rubber dinghies, spending days in refrigerated lorries or literally walking across countries with their children on their back just for a change of scenery or new job should not be given the time of day.

Those making this journey have been persecuted, bombed and starved and should be treated humanely and if they cannot be treated fairly when they reach the European Union then I believe we have lost sight of what that project was conceived to do.

We should also be clear, these people are likely to be educated, skilled workers with the potential to make a substantial contribution to our economy and community, as existing migrants have undoubtedly done.

The NI Executive needs to ensure provisions are in place for NI to welcome refugees from Syria. It’s not enough to get into an auction of numbers of people that we should take without ensuring that our response is properly planned and funded.

The key priority should be a refugee integration strategy to ensure every new arrival does not have to reinvent the wheel in accessing legal, health, education and other services required for their social and economic integration. Every UK region except Northern Ireland has such a strategy.

It is imperative we preserve the integrity of the word refugee and protect the status of those fleeing the total breakdown of their country. An open, humanitarian response to this crisis is our moral obligation and clearly the will of people here.