Northern Ireland leaders vow 'we are ready to help Afghan refugees'

Northern Ireland's political leaders have said that the Executive "stands ready to do what it can to help" over the growing refugee crisis in Afghanistan. The UK has agreed to take in up to 20,000 Afghan refugees, including 5,000 this year, after Taliban militants took control of the country. First Minister Paul Givan said Northern Ireland was prepared to offer sanctuary, and pointed out that the region previously took a higher proportion of refugees fleeing Syria than any other part of the UK. Mr Givan said: "The pain and suffering we see in Afghanistan, among men, women and children, is truly profound. "Northern Ireland has not been found wanting when it comes to those seeking refuge or fleeing persecution. "In the wake of the Syrian conflict, Northern Ireland took in more than 1,800 people, a higher proportional share than anywhere else in the UK.

NI First Minister Paul Givan Credit: UTV

"There has also been an increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving here independently, to seek refugee status due to an ongoing humanitarian crisis around the globe." He added: "And yet, 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. "We are determined to work with our many partners across society and fellow administrations to offer what sanctuary we can." Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill added: "It has been distressing to watch the unfolding humanitarian and refugee crisis in Afghanistan, and 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. "Our first instinct, both as politicians and as people, will always be to help those in need. "That is why work has been ongoing to scope out what is required, and see what assistance we as an Executive can offer. "We will be an important part of the response which will involve organisations at all levels, from the community grass roots right up to global agencies and governments. "We are offering to help however we can, and we will explore every avenue, to play our part in helping those fleeing Afghanistan." Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey said her department was working with the Executive Office to assist in the resettlement of Afghan refugees. A spokesperson for her department said: "The minister and department is committed to working with the Executive Office in ensuring a co-ordinated, cross-departmental response to meet the needs of those who may arrive. "The Department for Communities will assist in the resettlement of Afghan refugees with the focused and immediate response this grave situation requires as has been done with Syrian and other refugees escaping from conflict and oppression in the past." Meanwhile, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson paid tribute to soldiers from Northern Ireland who lost their lives in Afghanistan during an emergency debate in the House of Commons.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson speaking in the House of Commons Credit: UTV

Sir Jeffrey said: "First and foremost we must look to the humanitarian assistance that is now so urgently required, and especially to those men and women who supported our armed forces in Afghanistan. "We need to step up now, as they stepped up for us during this war in Afghanistan. "We must now step up and offer them sanctuary." Sir Jeffrey named nine members of the armed forces from Northern Ireland who died in Afghanistan. "I certainly do not adhere to the view that their sacrifice was in vain," he said. During the debate North Antrim MP Ian Paisley called on the UK government to secure the safe haven of missionaries currently in Afghanistan.