The absence of a functioning Stormont executive cannot lead to Northern Ireland turning its back on Ukrainian refugees, ministers have been warned.
Amnesty International has written to those ministers who remain in place at Stormont and the head of the civil service Jayne Brady, calling for urgent action to ensure the region is prepared to host people fleeing from the conflict.
The call came as humanitarian efforts to collect and send supplies to Ukraine continue across Northern Ireland.
An anti-war protest in Belfast on Saturday also saw Ukrainians living in the region lead a march through the city center to denounce the Russian invasion.
Amnesty has raised concerns that the absence of a first minister and deputy first minister may hamper the official response to the crisis in Northern Ireland.
The Stormont Executive was shorn of its ability to make significant policy decisions last month when DUP First Minister Paul Givan resigned in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol. His move from him automatically removed Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill from her post.
While other ministers continue to head up their respective departments, they are unable to make major policy decisions.
In normal circumstances, the first and deputy first ministers have responsibility for issues related to refugee settlement in Northern Ireland.
Any response from Stormont would be line with a UK-wide policy on accepting refugees.
The Government in London is facing calls to offer temporary settlement to any Ukrainian fleeing their homeland, having so far limited it to those who have relatives already in the UK.
The EU has offered a three-year visa waiver to all Ukrainians, meaning the criteria for relocating to the Republic of Ireland is currently wider than it is for Northern Ireland.
The letter from Amnesty International’s program director in Northern Ireland Patrick Corrigan, which has been seen by the PA news agency, makes it clear that the political situation at Stormont must not hinder plans to accept Ukrainians.
“The absence of a First Minister and deputy First Minister cannot result in us turning our back on the people of Ukraine during their time of need amidst this human rights catastrophe,” wrote Mr Corrigan.
“We urge Executive Ministers to work together to impress upon the UK government of the need to establish rapid, safe and legal routes immediately and to work with returned governments in the preparation of these plans.
“We must offer to welcome refugees as part of a UK-wide approach, while learning and applying the lessons from past and current resettlement schemes to provide fast and appropriate support to those who need it, including by joint work with statutory and non-statutory agencies across Northern Ireland.
“Given the unique position of Northern Ireland, considering our border with the Republic of Ireland which has rightly lifted all visa requirements, we must also prepare to offer support to those who may arrive via this route.”
He added: “Over the years, this region has played its part in providing sanctuary to those fleeing conflict and persecution. We must take steps now to do so again.”
Mr Corrigan wrote: “We urge you to work with ministerial colleagues and with officials to ensure that Northern Ireland is acting urgently to offer refuge to those in need.
“The returned governments in Scotland and Wales have already been in contact with the UK government to urge them to do more to welcome refugees and to offer to assist in resettlement.
“Under the EU’s visa waiver, the Irish government is already welcoming people who have been forced to flee. The same message of sanctuary, accompanied with the necessary practical preparatory work, must come urgently from Northern Ireland.”
In the letter, Mr Corrigan also called on Stormont ministers to urge the UK Government to drop legislative plans for asylum seekers in its Nationality and Borders Bill, which is part of its New Plan for Immigration.
He said the bill would “punish and push back” Ukrainians if they arrive in the UK outside specific resettlement schemes.
Volunteer efforts continued in Northern Ireland across the weekend as a range of groups in different areas gathered donated supplies for eastern Europe.
In Londonderry, the Foyle Aid initiative saw a 24-tonne lorry packed with donations set off for the Poland/Ukraine border.
Ulster Unionist councilor Ryan McCready, a former soldier who served as a military advisor in Ukraine, helped co-ordinate the collection along with the YMCA in Derry.
Addressing volunteers before the lorry set off, Mr McCready hailed the spirit of co-operation across the city.
“Everybody from every sector of this city came together and made it a reality,” he said.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.