Afghanistan: Stormont leaders pledge to help refugees

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Hundreds of Afghans managed to get on to the half-open ramp of the US Air Force C-17 aircraft on Sunday as it left Kabul for QatarImage source, Defense One/Handout via Reuters
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Hundreds of Afghans managed to scramble on to a US military aircraft on Sunday as it left Kabul for Qatar

The first and deputy first ministers have said the Stormont executive is "ready to do what it can to help" Afghan refugees coming to NI.

No plan has been announced yet, but work is ongoing to identify how to support those most in need, the Executive Office said.

Downing Street has set out details of a new UK resettlement scheme.

MPs from Northern Ireland are among those at Westminster discussing the Taliban seizure of power.

Northern Ireland First Minister Paul Givan said the pain and suffering in Afghanistan "is truly profound."

"Northern Ireland has not been found wanting when it comes to those seeking refuge or fleeing persecution," he added.

"We have all been moved once again by the scenes in Afghanistan. I am pleased to see a collective will across political parties to address the current situation."

He said work would be done to "offer what sanctuary we can."

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said the crisis had been "distressing to watch".

"Our hearts go out to the people who are clearly in a desperate situation, particularly the women and girls whose human and civil rights will be under threat," she said.

Image source, BBC/PA
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Paul Givan and Michelle O'Neill pledged support for Afghan refugees

She added that every avenue would be explored in an effort to help those fleeing Afghanistan.

The Executive Office said it wanted "to assist in providing a safe place" for Afghan people.

The Executive Office said it would draw on its experience from the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Northern Ireland.

Alliance MP for North Down, Stephen Farry, said Northern Ireland had "always opened its doors to refugees" but was critical of the speed of the executive's response.

"All the political parties have been saying the right things in terms of wanting to resettle assist but I think the executive has been very slow in commenting directly if you compare Scotland and Wales and what's been said there," he told BBC's Evening Extra programme.

"It's fair to say the willingness is there in NI but whether we have all our ducks in the row is a different question - we need to move quickly in that regard," he added.

Meanwhile, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson paid tribute to service personnel from Northern Ireland who died in Afghanistan.

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says Afghan citizens who helped the Army must be offered sanctuary

Speaking in the House of Commons, Sir Jeffrey named nine members of the armed forces from Northern Ireland who died there.

"I certainly do not adhere to the view that their sacrifice was in vain," the Lagan Valley MP said.

"We applaud what they have done even though now we look upon political failure in Afghanistan."

Politicians need to "learn the lessons from that," he added.

North Antrim MP Ian Paisley called on the UK government to secure the safe haven of missionaries currently in Afghanistan.

Speaking during the Commons debate, the DUP MP said there were 228 missionaries facing death sentences and he urged the government to use "every effort" to aid them.

He said there were "tens of thousands" of others who feared for their lives and described recent events in Afghanistan as a "catastrophe".

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DUP MP Ian Paisley asks if the UK will help missionaries to leave Afghanistan

In response, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the government was doing all it could to help people leave the country he said people were owed "a debt of obligation".

The Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) was announced by the UK government in 2014, with the first group arriving in Northern Ireland from Syria the following year.

The Department for Communities said to date 1,815 Syrian refugees had been resettled in Northern Ireland.

The scheme was paused at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2019, analysis from the Migration Observatory at Oxford University showed that Northern Ireland had resettled proportionately more Syrian refugees than any other part of the UK.

The main Stormont parties have said they support the government's plans to announce a "bespoke" scheme to help people at risk in Afghanistan, particularly women and girls.

Image source, Getty Images
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Up to 20,000 Afghans will be welcomed by the UK

The Home Office has said the Afghan Citizens' Resettlement Scheme will be "one of the most generous resettlement schemes in our country's history".

Priority will be given to "women and girls, and religious and other minorities, who are most at risk of human rights abuses and dehumanising treatment by the Taliban".

The Home Office said in the scheme's first year 5,000 refugees would be eligible to settle in the UK - on top of 5,000 Afghan interpreters and other staff who worked for the UK.

Up to 20,000 Afghans will be offered a route to set up home in the UK "in the long-term".

"The ambition to provide protection to thousands of people fleeing Afghanistan and the complex picture on the ground means there will be significant challenges delivering the scheme, but the government is working at speed to address these obstacles," a statement said.

Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney told RTÉ it was a priority for his government "to get Irish people out of Afghanistan who want to leave" and work was being done "night and day" on the exit plan.