Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has approved an action plan to fund services for asylum seekers and refugees just three months before the funding deadline.
Last April, the council turned down almost £100k of funding by the Executive Office (TEO) through its Programme for Asylum Seekers and Refugees.
The local authority will now distribute just under £40k provided by the Executive Office to groups providing services such as translation and English classes.
It will also put in place a framework which can provide a variety of support to individuals who are placed in Mid and East Antrim.
A report presented to the council at a meeting in The Braid, Ballymena, on Monday evening says he Home Office and its suppliers have leased 15 hotels in Northern Ireland to provide “contingency” accommodation.
In March 2023, according to the most recent figures published by the Home Office, there were 3,030 people of 60 nationalities receiving asylum support in Northern Ireland. A total of 152 people were accommodated in Mid and East Antrim in a contingency hotel in Carrickfergus.
The report notes: “The Northern Ireland Executive Office and Home Office have been working with the 11 local councils to raise awareness of plans in place to continue with an increase in the dispersal of asylum seekers and refugees across Northern Ireland.
“TEO has highlighted the need to establish networks for the support and integration of dispersed asylum seekers and refugees into local communities and the need to facilitate the process in an inclusive and safe manner.”
“Dispersal accommodation” is longer term temporary accommodation.
Speaking at the meeting, Knockagh DUP Councillor Peter Johnston spoke of concerns previously of “ending up with a consultancy report but actual money going to community groups still to be seen”.
An officer told the meeting the money is available and can be “drawn down when approved by groups working on those issues locally”.
Braid Alliance Cllr Chelsea Harwood commented that several groups were disappointed the council turned down the previous funding offer and she proposed that the current sum is accepted.
Cllr Harwood’s proposal was seconded by Larne Lough Alliance Cllr Maeve Donnelly who said: “It is our moral obligation to provide safety.”
Knockagh Ulster Unionist Alderman Andrew Wilson said that he welcomed the action plan which “releases much-needed funding to our community”.
“It is a shame that our council lost out on just under £50k.”
Ald Wilson asked if there would be an extension to the funding programme but was informed it is for this financial year.
Braid Ulster Unionist Cllr Alan Barr, a Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) officer, suggested engagement with NIFRS to provide education on home safety and road safety.
A council officer responded: “We would be encouraging as wide engagement as possible.”
Bannside TUV Cllr Timothy Gaston questioned the involvement of the council. The officer said it falls within good relations under which the council has a duty to “ensure diversity”.
Cllr Gaston pointed out when “economic migrants” came to Mid and East Antrim, the same services would have been needed. “No money came for that,” he remarked.
He went on to ask how groups could apply to access this funding.
“I’m not convinced the Home Office has thought this through,” he added. “I keep thinking this is outside council remit and should be something done by the Home Office or Executive. It should be done regionally. I am not sure council is best placed to deliver this programme.
“I am unconvinced we are best placed to deal with this and the needs of asylum seekers who come into this borough.”
The officer said that applications for the funding may be through tendering or service level agreement.
Cllr Johnston went on to say: “I want to go back and tell some of these local groups money is here and how to get it.”
The report notes a number of organisations, primarily churches, as well as key statutory agencies have been working locally to provide support to asylum seekers and refugees.
Support has been provided by Carrick Together involving churches in the town and Carrickfergus YMCA, MEA Inter-Ethnic Forum, MEA Community Advice Services as well as the Housing Executive and PSNI.
Carrickfergus Castle Alliance Cllr Lauren Gray stated:
“We have now got a chance to offer funding, We should be trying to move quickly and move this forward.
“Every other council has moved on this. A regional strategy would require a government which we do not have, so it does fall on council. There is a real need in our community for integration. I think we should be moving forward with this as quickly as possible and end this discussion.”
Larne Lough Ulster Unionist Cllr Roy Beggs stressed there would be no cost to the ratepayer and the council should be “trying to help those in need”.
Coast Road DUP Cllr Andrew Clarke commented: “When this last came up, I was concerned that this money may not reach those on the ground dealing with the issues.”
Cllr Clarke queried the £6k cost of a web page being established. He was told it would enable provision of information and links to various supports.
Cllr Gaston remarked the report “focuses on Carrick”. He asked if the English language courses would also be open to others “struggling with English”.
He was told there is a “Carrick focus because that is where the asylum seekers are” and there are no families living anywhere else in the borough.
Cllr Gaston reiterated he does not believe the council is “best placed to roll the programme out”. “It is almost, there is money, get is spent. I do not think it is going to people or organisations that it should be.”
The recommendation to improve the implementation of the action plan in line with funding by the Executive Office was agreed following a vote with 30 councillors in favour, two abstentions and four against.
It has been recommended that a framework is put in place which can provide a variety of support to individuals who are placed in Mid and East Antrim.