Now in its 250th year, Clifton House, home of Belfast Charitable Society (BCS) and the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation, has chosen this milestone to host challenging conversations around poverty and disadvantage. In its long history, Clifton House has witnessed many changes and developments Sadly, however, the issues surrounding poverty remain the same. Across the UK many vulnerable groups are experiencing disadvantage. During the month of March, BCS and the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation want to highlight the challenges refugees and asylum seekers currently face, particularly women and girls.

The audience listened while Vicky Tennant, the UNHCR Representative to the UK, spoke about refugees within the global context, before focusing on the broader challenges within the UK asylum system and the specific issues faced by refugee women and girls. She said:

Welcoming, including and empowering refugee women is not only a humanitarian and moral obligation, but a strategic investment in advancing the rights for all people, communities, and societies. It’s so important that we take into account their specific experiences and the barriers they face when building a new life in a new country. I was honoured to attend today’s event which as well as calling for a fair and compassionate asylum system, also celebrates a wonderful tradition of welcome in Belfast. By recognizing those who have worked hard for others, we can continue to make people feel welcome and ensure they receive the support they need to thrive.”


BCS were privileged to also have the Rt Hon Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick to speak at the event, who reflected on her experience of debating the Illegal Migration Bill in the House of Lords. Baroness Ritchie has over three decades’ experience in public life and spoke about the obstacles asylum seekers face when coming to the UK. Following the event, she commented:

“The symposium was a good opportunity to demonstrate that the Illegal Migration Act is effectively an anti-refugee measure that is contrary to the Refugee Convention and penalises many individuals including women and children purely for their method of arrival into the UK. It will lead to their long term detention with all the ensuing additional hardship and trauma while the UK Government works out what to do with them. Of course, the UK Government has ignored the Supreme Court Judgement and is trying to force the Rwanda Bill through Parliament to send these vulnerable refugees to a country that is not considered a place of sanctuary”.

Attendees, which included representatives from key voluntary and community organisations and senior public representatives, had the opportunity to hear more about what Belfast Charitable Society and the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation are doing to support refugees and asylum seekers in Belfast.

Sir Ronnie Weatherup, President of Belfast Charitable Society, explained “Belfast Charitable Society currently funds two education officers within Anaka Women’s Collective. These two workers help newly arrived families to navigate the Northern Ireland educational system. Importantly, they also support a group of 16–25-year-old refugees and asylum seekers, a group who do not have access to education. This relationship also led to a new project with the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation where, through poetry, participants were encouraged to connect Mary Ann’s legacy to their own lives”.

The event culminated with an opportunity for attendees to record their ‘call to actions’, which the Society, along with others, would take forward to influence change. Salwa Alsharabi, founding member of Anaka Women’s Collective ―a group of women with experience of the asylum system and a grant recipient of BCS ― sees daily the struggle women and girls face. Salwa’s call to actions included: “homes, and not hotels for refugees and asylum seekers; education made available for every girl, and every boy; and an end to racism, hate-crime and discrimination”.

Sir Ronnie concluded “these conversations are important, as we want to use our position to raise awareness of the issues facing our new communities, and ask the question ‘what can Belfast Charitable Society, and organisations like ours, do to help’? We are delighted that so many attended the event today, and we look forward to working with others to make a difference both locally in North Belfast, but also further afield.”