Published online December 2022
This report was commissioned by Belfast City Council, with funding through the Executive Office’s Together: Building a United Community Strategy (T:BUC) (link opens in new window) strategy, in partnership with Belfast Health and Social Care Trust (link opens in new window) and the Public Health Agency Northern Ireland (link opens in new window).
Research by Lucy Michael Research with African and Caribbean Support Organisation Northern Ireland (ACSONI) and Polish Language, Culture, and Affairs (POLCA).
Authors: Lucy Michael, Daniel Reynolds, Marta Kempny with Salwa Alsharabi, Csilla Borbely, Nattassa Latcham, Eva Logan, Mary McDonagh, Marty Pilkiewicz, Ezzaldin Thabet, and Maria Teglas. Support by Denis Long and Pauline McCarry.
To receive a copy of the full report findings, please contact Belfast City Council’s Good Relations team by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copies of this report summary translated into Arabic, Chinese, Polish, Romanian and Somali are also available. To request a copy in these languages, please email email@example.com.
- Diversity in Belfast
- A note on terminology
- Health and wellbeing
- Community safety
- Civic and political participation
- Zero-tolerance approach to racism
- Race equality standards
- Supporting good relations
- Monitoring inequalities
- Health and wellbeing
- Language diversity
- Adult education
- School education
This study examined the inequalities experienced by Black, Asian, minority ethnic and Traveller people residing in Belfast in 2022. It was commissioned by Belfast City Council in partnership with Belfast Health and Social Care Trust and the Public Health Agency Northern Ireland.
The research was undertaken by Lucy Michael Research with the African and Caribbean Support Organisation of Northern Ireland (ACSONI) and Polish Language, Culture, and Affairs (POLCA). A team of 11 researchers, including eight peer researchers, conducted interviews with 131 minority ethnic and migrant residents of Belfast in English and eight other first languages.
Over the past 20 years, Belfast has experienced an increase in the Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities making Belfast their home. Minority ethnic residents have made significant and lasting contributions to the city. But still, many face challenges of racism, isolation and poverty. These have impacted on how they can participate in political, social, and economic life. There are a wide range of challenges identified for both minority ethnic and migrant individuals in gaining employment, accessing suitable housing, healthcare, education, leisure, political participation, access to justice, safety, economic inclusion, receiving language support, and cultural integration. However not all of these issues are shared, and it is necessary to understand how different groups are affected by these, as well as how they are highly successful in other areas.
Across Northern Ireland, there has been an insufficient understanding of the experiences of minority ethnic and migrant populations. Often these populations are side-lined in policymaking due to a focus on the comparative experiences of White British and Irish populations or considered only in respect of specific policy areas. This report is undertaken to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the range of experiences of minority ethnic and migrant populations in Belfast to inform policy making and service provision in the city. It does not cover populations living outside Belfast, who commute into the city for work, leisure, or other reasons, although it is anticipated that the wider population of city users may benefit from any positive changes produced from this research.
Diversity in Belfast
According to the 2021 Census, the largest ethnic group in Belfast included people who identified as White (92.9%), followed by Chinese (1.37%), Indian (1.26 %), people of mixed ethnicity (1.2%), and Black African (1.19%). People of Polish nationality are counted within the White ethnic group (1.29 %). In Northern Ireland as a whole, minority ethnic people comprised 6.53% (124,283) of the total population. People born in other EU countries comprised 3.54% (67,451) and non-EU countries 2.99% (56,832). Northern Ireland also has a small population of asylum seekers and refugees from various ethnic groups and nationalities.
Chinese and Indian communities have been established in Northern Ireland for decades, and now represent the largest second and third generation migrant populations. People of African descent have also been present in Northern Ireland for decades but in smaller numbers. These populations are still growing from continued immigration. Despite having established minority communities there are no distinct ethnic residential areas in Belfast, although south Belfast has historically been considered the most diverse area. Northern Ireland is also home to an indigenous minority ethnic group, the Irish Travellers.
Although Northern Ireland’s population remains predominantly White, it has become more ethnically diverse than Census statistics suggest. Births to mothers born outside the UK and Ireland now account for over 10% of all births in Northern Ireland annually.
School Census figures show growth of the resident minority ethnic population, from 1,366 minority ethnic and migrant pupils in 2002, to 17,400 in 2020.
This research project involved an interactive, collaborative effort of participant-led discussions with minority ethnic and migrant communities, including Irish Travellers, Roma, and asylum seekers of various nationalities, aiming to gather information on personal experiences of inequalities experienced in city life. The 14 domains of the Indicators of Integration Framework (2019) were utilised to provide an outline for structuring and benchmarking evaluations in each key area being examined, including development of interview questions.1 Eight peer researchers from Black, Asian, minority ethnic and Traveller communities were recruited and provided with training.
Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 131 participants from Black, Asian, minority ethnic and Traveller communities. Focus groups were conducted with an additional 33 participants including asylum seekers and refugees, Chinese, South Asian and Polish groups.
This report provides a small sample of Belfast’s minority ethnic and migrant population and therefore does not represent the experiences of all. We have recruited a range of participants to highlight key shared problems across diverse groups.
A Note on Terminology
We use the term minority ethnic and migrant in line with current good practice. The term minority ethnic refers to those whose ethnicity is other than White-British or White-Irish, but also includes Irish Travellers, who are a legally recognised indigenous minority ethnic group. The term migrant refers to someone who was born outside the UK or Ireland, including asylum seekers and refugees. For some people, both minority ethnic and migrant terms apply. We use both where the issue under discussion refers to the whole population covered in this report. Where a situation particularly affects participants sharing one ethnic or national identity, we describe them using the term that applies best to their shared experience. The term Black covers a wide range of nationalities, backgrounds, class positions and immigration statuses, but draws together the experiences of being commonly racialised. In line with current good practice, we do not use the acronyms BME or BAME. In recent years, these have come to be used to describe people individually rather than provide the overview that they were designed for. To reinforce this good practice, we have avoided using them in this report.
Housing quality and overcrowding are the most significant issues facing migrant and minority ethnic residents of Belfast. House ownership is seen as desirable but difficult due to low-income, insecure occupations, cost of living and availability of credit networks. Overcrowding is the most significant issue in social housing. Discrimination in the private rental market is also driving people into precarious living situations, with short-term and even exploitative illegal rental agreements. It also impacts on responses to tenant complaints about repairs or health risks. There appears to be a growing risk of migrant and refugee destitution in Belfast for those in precarious housing situations.
Mobility within the city is low due to availability of rental housing, but also because of issues of safety. Minority ethnic and migrant residents rely on networks of informal knowledge about safe areas to live. There is some mobility between nationalist and loyalist areas, but there continues to be a substantial level of racist and xenophobic hate crime in the city, and this is used strategically in some areas to deter migrants and minority ethnic residents from choosing to live there. Four in five people feel happy with the neighbourhood they live in, because of relationships with their neighbours and access to good local facilities.
Employment experiences in Belfast vary significantly by ethnic and national group, but these are more related to the educational levels common to the group and the transferability of qualifications. Those in work largely report good relations with their work colleagues. Progress is an issue, however. Professionals generally reported good access to employment but poor promotion prospects in work. People in middle-income jobs had often started in lower-income jobs on arrival in Belfast, but the mobility of low-income workers is not predictable. Many participants describe having taken lower-income jobs on arrival with the expectation of progressing, yet remain in jobs far below their qualifications, even after becoming fluent in English.
Just under a third of participants are unemployed, in part due to discrimination in the labour market, but also due to language barriers and difficulties accessing work-related training. Most participants are not aware of work-related training and support available. Most women who wished to enter the labour market were restricted from doing so by the cost of childcare. Women who preferred to defer entry to the labour market while they raise young children would benefit from early support and guidance to increase their later confidence about their ability to do so. Language and IT skills are key areas for increased investment in flexible training access.
The education system is rated highly by most parents of minority ethnic and migrant background. Additional language support and positive relationships with staff are sources of satisfaction. However more than half of parents have concerns about their child’s school, particularly around discrimination and exclusion. In some schools, and for some groups, there is evidence of systematic discrimination, including against Roma, Muslims, and people of African descent. Digital access was good for most children. Language barriers are a particular barrier to strong communication between parents and schools.
Adult education is perceived positively in general, but there are many barriers to accessing it, and these present cumulatively for the most disadvantaged groups. Targeted interventions are needed to support adult learners into education and training while they are motivated. Language and childcare are common barriers for most groups, but access to English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision is perhaps one of the most significant issues, with long waiting lists for courses reported across the city. Adapted ESOL provision is needed for those without literacy in their native language.
Health and Wellbeing
Health services continue to be impacted by Covid-19 changes to access, and migrants (including asylum seekers and refugees) are particularly impacted by language barriers that arise during triage and consultations. Interpreting services are generally good, although a quarter of those needing an interpreter at the GP or hospital were not able to access them. Telephone-based interpreting services have caused considerable concern amongst migrant users. Hospital care, apart from waiting times, is rated highly. Ongoing access problems with GP surgeries have driven some people to use A&E services at hospitals to address their significant concerns about aggravated health issues. These include mental health crises as well as cardiac and mobility-related issues. There is some need for specialist knowledge on conditions particularly affecting minority ethnic people.
Most participants were registered with a dentist and are broadly satisfied with services. Pharmacy services far outperform all other areas of healthcare provision for migrant users, in relation to access, language and outreach. There are well-established relationships of trust with pharmacists and these potentially offer a focal point for any new or expanded supports. Access to mental health support is particularly important for refugees, who have been exposed to trauma during transit to Northern Ireland as well as during conflict and war.
There is a good level of knowledge about wellbeing and everyday health amongst minority ethnic and migrant residents across all groups. More than 90% have access to outdoor space for exercise and enjoy time outdoors. Walking is the most popular form of exercise, although this is in part a legacy of restricted access to sports or gym facilities. Less than half (46%) of people use shared leisure facilities (excluding children’s playgrounds), but those that do report good opportunities for meeting people beyond their immediate social network. Muslim women are particularly keen to use gender-specific leisure facilities. Participants commonly choose outdoor facilities based on safety, driving to use outdoor spaces in other parts of the city if needed.
There are significant differences between ethnic and national groups depending on length of residence in Northern Ireland, the UK and Ireland, levels of education, employment in high or low skilled jobs, class background and extent of cooperation within communities. For high-earning professionals, concerns about racial discrimination at work and safety in their neighbourhoods and the city are more prevalent, as well as their ability to participate fully in Northern Irish society. They provide a well-informed critique of the inequalities they see within the city, as well as those they have experienced themselves. Long-established communities reflect on the lack of change over time for them in terms of work opportunities, exploitation, the difficulties of late language acquisition and housing, compared with the experiences of their children born in Northern Ireland in education, friendships, and work.
Both generations struggle with housing, adequate value for their work, and experiences of racism. More recently arrived migrants highlight the difficulty of navigating basic services and accessing education and work opportunities to improve their prospects.
Poverty is a real risk for migrants who work in low-paid low-skilled jobs (sometimes despite having higher qualifications), who are parents of young children, and who find the services supporting them already significantly stretched. Their children experience unfair disadvantage in schools and social activities because of both language and perceived cultural or religious differences which are amplified by racism.
Overall, 74% of minority ethnic and migrant residents rate their optimism about future wellbeing in Belfast highly. Factors affecting optimism include feeling safe in a neighbourhood, having social connections beyond the immediate family or ethnic/national community, and the good experiences of children in education. Those who were not optimistic about the future (7%) were most likely to be influenced by racism in the city, in education and work environments as well as hate crimes in their neighbourhood. This was particularly the case for Muslims and people of African descent.
Just three-quarters of minority ethnic and migrant participants feel safe and secure in Belfast, compared to more than 90% of the city’s residents overall. Those who reported hate crimes to the police in the past are largely disinclined to do so again because of unsatisfactory outcomes. 38% of participants have experienced a racist hate crime in Belfast, and 41% experienced discrimination in other contexts. Two-fifths of parents reported that their children experienced racist bullying in schools.
Around two-thirds of participants were satisfied that they had enough awareness of their rights. Newcomers who arrived since 2020 are particularly affected in this area by the closure of services. Digital access is difficult for individuals in low-income situations, and navigating online information is extremely difficult for people who are not already familiar with the main statutory and community organisations in Northern Ireland. Participants commonly turn to minority ethnic-led or migrant support organisations for trusted information and advice, as well as law centres and citizens advice services. There is little opportunity or interest in joining other community groups, as local residents’ groups are perceived as uninterested in migrant or minority ethnic members joining them, and opportunities for interaction are seen as limited. The badging of events for nationalist/republican or loyalist/unionist communities deters migrants from attending.
Civic and Political Participation
Most participants have the right to vote, but less than half have ever used their vote. Politics is broadly seen as inaccessible and irrelevant because of a Green/Orange emphasis, even in local constituency and neighbourhood matters. Trust in political representatives is particularly low across all ethnic and national groups in this study. A fifth of participants had personally contacted a councillor, MLA, and/or MP.
As the sample did not include commuters and regular visitors to the city, including users of city services and facilities, there is scope for additional research to explore their experiences and how they reflect inequalities.
The report has highlighted the opportunities for engagement with minority ethnic and migrant residents of the city in a wide range of areas of public services, support for community action, and civic participation. There is an optimistic and engaged population who have actively sought out opportunities in education and work, are knowledgeable about the systemic problems of accessing housing and health supports in Belfast and the significant demands and constraints on non-governmental support organisations. Many of the participants in this research are engaged in building informal mutual support networks to address the racial discrimination and exclusion they experience regularly and significantly.
In this report we used the Indicators of Integration framework both to identify areas of investigation and to assess the responses received. The framework, designed for the ongoing adaptation of all communities to include newcomers, provides a means of establishing measures of inclusion for all residents, including but not limited to minority ethnic citizens, long-time resident migrants, and recently arriving migrants. Benchmarking inclusion in light of overall patterns of inclusion is important, and racial discrimination must be considered as a part of this assessment as a key factor in reduced opportunities and reduced wellbeing.
The findings of this report highlight the need for strategic interventions in all the major areas of public services, and a shared approach by public institutions to acknowledging inequalities highlighted here, and locating, collecting, and using disaggregated data to sustain an informed strategy.
We suggest below a number of areas in which interventions may be developed by the agencies which commissioned this report in their own activities and in conjunction with other organisations.
In all respects, the commissioning agencies should robustly defend the diversity of the city and the equality of its residents.
Zero-tolerance approach to racism
- The council must provide leadership on race equality in all of its partnerships and collaborations.
- Strong messaging from political and executive leaders in Belfast City Council emphasising a zero tolerance for racism, including rapid response communications strategies for the protection of asylum seekers and refugees and other highly vulnerable groups.
- Support the resourcing of support arrangements for victims of harassment or hate crimes to monitor ongoing harassment and direct to non-policing support as well as PSNI.
- Create a strong public and governance understanding of a shared and inclusive city.
- Establish coordination between the Belfast community planning partners on race equality actions within the Belfast Agenda.
- Encourage all representatives to speak with minority ethnic and migrant constituents and support them in developing intercultural competence.
Race equality standards
- All departments in the commissioning organisations should have or be part of a Race Equality Action Plan, which is reported on periodically.
- All staff within the commissioning organisations should undertake Intercultural Competence training and understand equality law protections.
- Ensure that complaints about discrimination in public services can be easily made, properly recorded and investigated.
- Provide anti-racism, race equality and cultural competence briefings for local political representatives.
Supporting good relations
- Review all funding schemes supporting community organisations to investigate and address the barriers to funding of minority ethnic and migrant-led organisations.
- Embed and promote equality principles in communities funding, encouraging and supporting sustainable inter-group activities and collaborations.
- Review council funding and oversight for sports, culture and leisure organisations or facilities to encourage inclusive programming and reduction of barriers to participation, including at council-owned facilities.
- Strengthen city, regional and international cultural networks on equality.
- Promote the benefits of diversity for all Belfast residents, including highlighting the human stories of diversity in the city.
- Develop and carry out a strong anti-racism campaign to increase public awareness of legal protections for equality.
- Develop a schools-targeted resource for delivering anti-racism and cultural information and activities.
- Review council provision in areas such as community provision, culture and arts, leisure and sporting activity, economic development, procurement to scope out opportunities for promoting the integration and inclusion of migrant and minority ethnic communities.
- Consider the inclusion of key attitudinal and integration data as standard in the Belfast Residents Survey and other surveys by Belfast City Council, drawing on best practice in the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey and measures in the Indicators of Integration framework.
- Consultation with minority ethnic and migrant groups must be developed that are sustainable and responsible.
- Review the impact of existing policies and programmes aimed at promoting integration to ensure there is no indirect discrimination.
- Strategies for data collection, disaggregation and analysis should be done in a granular way in order to have a better understanding of areas of inequalities.
- Acknowledge intragroup variation within minority ethnic and migrant populations and develop appropriate data management responses to inform policymaking.
- Data collection strategies should be developed in consultation or partnership with minority ethnic and migrant groups.
- Work with the Executive Office and Equality Commission to develop systems for monitoring inequalities and capturing data on ethnicity.
Health and wellbeing
- Public Health Agency to explore opportunities for promoting inclusion of people from ethnic minorities, including those from the Traveller community in PHA-commissioned Health Improvement services.
- Belfast Health and Social Care Trust to explore pathways to employment for asylum seekers with skills and experience form the shortage occupation list.
- Undertake scoping review for a regional refugee and migrant-specific health service to support entry to mainstream services.
- Provide training for all frontline staff, including GP practices, on cultural competence and access to interpreting.
- Investigate the specific barriers to mental health support access for migrants and minority ethnic residents, including access to culturally appropriate counselling, trauma-responsive supports and other services.
To address the particular situation of asylum seekers living in hotels
- Provide financial assistance to community and voluntary-led responses supporting asylum seekers accommodated in hotels.
- Support the development of longer-term planning on accommodation for asylum seekers in Northern Ireland, including through collaboration with other councils, and the non-governmental organisations (NGO) sector to provide transition supports.
- Use leisure and community services to directly support the inclusion of asylum seekers living in institutionalised accommodation, including hotels, through bespoke projects.
In respect of the areas where Belfast City Council, the Public Health Agency and Belfast Health and Social Care Trust work with the Belfast community planning Partners and other relevant organisations, we recommend investigation of the following:
- Support for community-based minority language schools to address resources issues, venues and shared good practice and development.
- Support the right to work for asylum seekers in Northern Ireland.
- Support the inclusion of minority entrepreneurs in the local business community.
- Address with city employment and business forums the issue of racism as a barrier to employment, as well as supporting efforts to address re-entry into the labour market for migrant women and asylum seekers (e.g. through bespoke work-placement training programmes).
- Disseminate clear information on procedures for recognising qualifications and skills received outside of the UK.
- Work with adult education partners to assess English language education needs in the city, and address the identified barriers for migrants to uptake current provision.
- Scope out opportunities for resourcing for the community provision of flexible language classes with built in childcare provision.
- Establish and resource a network of Community Relations trainers to provide intercultural competence training to school pupils at all ages.
- Work with the Education Authority to assess and monitor racist harassment in school communities and educational exclusion issues affecting minority ethnic and migrant families in the city.
- Encourage coordination between the Belfast community planning partners to address barriers that arise for migrant tenants in accessing quality housing, advice and enforcement.
- Support the community and voluntary sector to provide migrant-targeted information and advocacy on tenants’ rights.
- Engage and encourage the Belfast community planning partnership, as well as its associated Boards, to embed effective minority ethnic and migrant community planning and to consider the needs, circumstances and aspirations of minority ethnic and migrant residents in the priorities they set for improving local outcomes and tackling inequalities.