Carrick councillors have raised concerns over the area’s ability to provide housing, healthcare and education for refugees fleeing Syria.
During Monday’s meeting of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, they highlighted the current pressures on local infrastructure from the existing population and questioned how it would cope with new arrivals.
The debate was sparked by a letter to the local authority by the Department of Social Development on the Syria Vulnerable Persons Relocation Programme.
Independent member James Brown welcomed the initiative, noting the local community was “no stranger to playing its part” and had previously welcomed refugees from Vietnam.
However, he went on to ask: “How do the DSD intend to deal with the influx of refugees considering their inability to cope with current housing need for our indigenous population?”
Fellow Castle representative, Councillor Noel Jordan agreed that the refugees needed “protection and security”.
But the UKIP man queried where they would be housed given that there were already homeless people in the borough who could not find accommodation.
Anne Donaghy, MEA chief executive, explained that OFMDFM (office of first and deputy first minister) had set up a strategic planning group to deal with the issue, and that the DSD had an operational group which would include two local government representatives.
She emphasised that planning was in the “very early stages” and would have to be agreed by ministers.
“The plan is to take refugees into Northern Ireland on a phased basis in groups of multiples of 25 expected to arrive between six to eight weeks apart,” revealed Mrs Donaghy.
“This is to ensure there is integration into the community and to make sure they get adequate support from agencies.”
Mrs Donaghy said that the letter did not identify where the suitable refugee settlements would be located, but had highlighted that council assistance would be needed to implement the operational plan. She also revealed that the refugees are likely to be granted permission to settle in Northern Ireland permanently.
“The letter says the refugees will be given leave to remain in the settlement they are allocated for five years but goes on to say they can apply for permanent residency after that and it’s perceived that would be granted in most cases,” she continued.
Mrs Donaghy said that council would work with the operational planning group under the direction of the DSD to develop a joined-up response.
In response to a question from Sinn Fein Councillor Patrice Hardy, Mrs Donaghy said that she was waiting to learn the identity of the settlement areas and whether this would include Mid and East Antrim.
TUV Councillor Ruth Wilson said that the situation could be “opening a precedent for more people jumping on boats.”
She added that local people who had “put into the health service for 30/40 years” were waiting for long periods to get treatment.
Mrs Wilson suggested that a plan should be drawn up to help the refugees in their own communities.
UUP Councillor Stephen Nicholl said that many issues needed to be taken into consideration regarding the resettlement of refugees, including educational, cultural, schooling and social ramifications.
“People are coming from a war zone and will bring with them all the issues that accompany that,” he said.
“As councils we are a piece of a jigsaw that is far, far bigger than we have envisaged. These are people who are truly in need. To pick up on Cllr Wilson’s point about people staying where they are; in the Middle East at the minute people can’t stay there.
“Every major power is saying it’s going to bomb Syria. The problem is only going to get worse.”
Mrs Donaghy said that if there was to be a settlement in the borough she would bring back the details to council.
Last month, there was an “overwhelming” response in Carrickfergus to the refugee crisis appeal led by East Antrim Calais Refugee Solidarity Group. Collection points were established for essential supplies donated by members of the community.