Support workers with ethnic minorities and migrant people in Northern Ireland have criticised the lack of "political will" to address issues facing those communities and questioned why it is the only part of the UK without a refugee strategy.
There was also a call for the Northern Executive to develop a strategy for Travellers, described as “not a priority” for government.
Kendall Bousquet, a migration justice advocacy officer with Migrant Centre NI, said it felt like as if the ethnic minority community "is included in the likes of consultations and strategies as more of a tick boxing exercise a lot of the time [rather] than as groups that are genuinely wanting to be engaged with and deliver on the needs of these communities.
“It’s hard to feel at times like you’re being taken seriously or they are considered important within the wider context of, say for example good relations,” she said.
“It’s just a green and orange issue, there’s no concept of good relations involving ethnic minority communities, and you can apply that across the board.”
She was giving evidence to the first session of a new inquiry by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of MPs into the experience of minority ethnic and migrant communities in the North in regard to healthcare and health outcomes.
The Committee was also warned that many of the difficulties faced by Syrian refugees in Northern Ireland would also be experienced by refugees from Afghanistan.
Earlier this week ministers in Northern Ireland agreed to accept refugees from Afghanistan as part of two UK government schemes, though it is not yet clear how many will settle there.
Breidge McPherson, an outreach worker at the Women’s Centre in Derry, who works mainly with Syrian refugee families, said they were “trapped within a system of poverty and trauma and their access to healthcare is abysmal, to put it mildly.”
The adoption of so-called “telephone triage” by GP surgeries as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic had made it almost impossible for migrant families who did not speak English to access medical care, she said.
"Their housing is deplorable, and nobody will listen, and the people who are dealing with all this are in Belfast and the people who are suffering on a day-to-day basis from lack of care and attention are not being heard at all."
In response, the chair the Committee, the Conservative MP Simon Hoare, said the lack of a refugee strategy in Northern Ireland said it had to be a "failure of politics" that there was "no support strategy in place to deal with a very significant number of very traumatised, complex needed [people]."
Ms Bousquet called for strategies to be delivered for refugee, asylum seeker and migrant communities involving the Northern Executive, Department of Health and health Trusts but that these must be "actionable and demonstrate actual steps that are going to be taken.
“Resourcing would be an important part of this. Community organisations working with these communities can serve as important bridges for those that are most hard to reach or having the most unmet healthcare needs but if nobody is in post to work at those organisations then the strategies are dead in the water,” she said.
She also said the hate crime legislation in Northern Ireland was “probably the worst on the books for the UK at the moment” and she was in favour of “comprehensive reform.”
The manager of Craigavon Travellers Support Committee, Caroline Coleman, called for the introduction of a Traveller strategy by the Northern Executive and said the Westminster government should make guidelines on ethnic monitoring compulsory.
She said these had been developed in Northern Ireland but “it never went anywhere. Most organisations didn’t implement it ... without the evidence we’ll never change, we’ll never tackle any of the inequalities.
"We've gone beyond the expectation that Stormont might do anything about this, it's not a popular issue, unfortunately, and I would like to see Westminster legislating for change."
Ms Coleman said that there was no “one co-ordinated approach” and this had translated into a “lack of policy.
"We would really strongly advocate for what's happened in Wales, Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, they all have a government-led strategy to deal with all of the Traveller inequalities, and we very firmly believe that unless that happens it's not going to change."