The following is the text of a letter sent to all Northern Ireland's MLAs and MPS, along with the MPs of the NI Affairs Committee, during Mental Health Awareness Week, 15-21 May 2023.
As this is Mental Health Awareness Week, I write to you to draw attention to a growing crisis among certain of our neighbours.
As you know, mental health issues can be exacerbated by the stress of being in precarious accommodation, or being without the sense of security and dignity of meaningful employment – to say nothing of the sense of helplessness that comes with being unable meet your own material needs or to contribute to society.
These sources of stress can have a considerable impact on mental health already. Add in a dimension with which we are all too familiar in Northern Ireland, the after-effects of the trauma of conflict, which can last for years or even decades, and the cumulative effect can be severe.
There is a group in our neighbourhood who are particularly vulnerable to all these sources of stress and more. They have in many cases been driven from their homes by violence; they have fled torture or the threat of torture; they have had family members kidnapped or killed. And they have come to us asking for help – help many of us are more than willing to give, not least in our voluntary and community organisations.
But with the best will in the world, our volunteers and community workers are under-resourced and overstretched, and are beginning to feel the impact of that stress on their own mental and physical health.
The whole situation is reaching crisis levels.
Those who have come here seeking sanctuary are held in precarious, temporary accommodation, often converted hotels; they must be ready to move at short notice; they are restricted in terms of the use of facilities (they are not allowed to use the kitchen to cook their own food, for example); they are not permitted to work, and are thus unable to support themselves and give something back to the local economy.
A recent study by leading researchers in this area stated that there was a “dearth of mental health supports in Northern Ireland” and concluded that “the asylum system in the UK (as a form of post-migration stressor) further exacerbates and contributes to poor mental health and well-being for many asylum seekers and refugees (Murphy and Vieten, 2022).
To make matters worse, our new neighbours have had to contend with hostility from certain ill-informed and misdirected protestors. Though their quarrel ought to be directed towards decision makers, the protestors, some of them carrying placards making baseless accusations of criminality against those cornered inside (including accusations that they, the temporary residents, pose a threat to ‘women and girls’) have decided to gather at the temporary accommodation housing those seeking asylum.
This is as intimidating as it is unwarranted. The cumulative impact on the mental health of the residents is hard to overstate. And we saw in Dublin this weekend where this kind of atmosphere of hostility can lead, when homeless migrants had their makeshift shelters, including some of the last few belongings they had, burned by an angry, violent mob. A change of direction in Northern Ireland is urgently needed, lest we too wake up to headlines about such incidents, or worse.
We appeal to you, then: use all your good offices to bring about that change.
For the long term, we need a new way of processing asylum claims – but that is for another day. Immediately, urgently, we need the mental health crisis among those seeking sanctuary, and indeed among those trying to provide it, to be addressed.
We already have a Suicide Prevention Strategy in NI; and given that there is a commitment to developing a Refugee Integration Strategy, these strategies should be interconnected. Special provision should be made for the particular position of asylum seekers and refugees.
We urge you to contact the relevant Departments, civil servants and political representatives to expedite the development of these strategies, and to release resources for an emergency 24-hour help line, staffed with appropriately trained personnel with cultural competence and with access to interpreting services. Currently, overstretched volunteers are straining to provide this service, but they can no longer cope.
We urge you, too, to take the lead in fostering better relationships between the residents in temporary accommodation and their host communities. Already great work is going on, particularly through arts-based organisations, but all too often it gets little or no public or official recognition.
Please consider attending such events. Meet the residents, listen to their stories and concerns, and lend support to the positive initiatives under way. This will help address the immediate crisis.
Finally, we urge you to commit to equitable and sustainable long term solutions to the issues faced by those seeking sanctuary here: faster and fairer processing of claims; the right to work; and a concerted effort to address the causes of forcible displacement in the first place – violence, climate breakdown, injustice, a lack of democratic empowerment, and related issues.
We look forward to hearing from you on this matter.
Murphy and Vieten (2022), Asylum seekers and refugees in Northern Ireland: the impact of post-migration stressors on mental health, Ir J Psychol Med. 2022 Jun; 39(2):163-172.