Northern Ireland

‘They’re going to be sent home, but they still smile and go to Mass every morning’ - Northern Ireland’s Filipino community praying for certainty this Christmas over changes to migration laws

Belfast nurse Aldrin Bañas ( left) is among many Filipinos taking part in a special series of early morning Masses at St Vincent De Paul Church in Ligoniel. Pictured in front of a painting of Jesus with migrant workers, he said changes to migration laws are a serious concern for his community this Christmas.

IN the days leading up to Christmas, Northern Ireland’s Filipino community have been marking a special tradition in Belfast before most people in the city are even awake.

The Missa de Gallo, translated as Mass of the Rooster, has been taking place at 6am sharp in St Vincent De Paul’s Church in Ligoniel over the nine days before Christmas.

Sharing prayers in their own language and a traditional Filipino breakfast, it’s an important chance to reflect and socialise.

More than 100 Filipinos have been there every morning including migrants who will share taxis and lifts from across Northern Ireland.

Members of Northern Ireland's Filipino community who have been attending a special tradition of early morning masses in Belfast before Christmas.

Most of the community work in the health sector including GP nurse Aldrin Bañas (52) who came to Northern Ireland 21 years ago.

He told the Irish News that while the tradition is a vital connection to home, there is also sadness this year as new labour laws being introduced by the UK government mean an uncertain future for many workers who have brought their families to Northern Ireland.

Earlier this month, the Home Secretary James Cleverly announced he would cut immigration by proposing that overseas care workers will no longer be able to bring family dependants to the UK.

The skilled worker visa minimum salary change was also hiked by 50% to £38,700, but on Thursday this was rolled back to an initial rate of £29,000, with further increases to follow.

“You see people arriving for the 6am Mass from Craigavon, Portavogie and Newcastle. Your heart will melt because most migrants don’t have cars, but for nine days they will pay for a taxi,” Aldrin said.

“We share our resources so everyone gets to go, it’s really heartwarming.”

Aldrin’s wife is also a nurse while their two daughters have since joined the medical profession in England.

“We are all in the health service but right now there’s a change, because you will see people becoming skilled workers like welders, butchers in Ballymena, engineers in Harland & Wolff and in Bombardier.

“But that’s a sad story because the government are changing their policy so everyone is worried because they brought their family here.

“When they renew their certificate of employment they won’t meet the standards so they’re going to be sent home, so there’s that fear but they still smile and go to Mass every morning.

With thousands of Filipino’s living in Northern Ireland, he continued: “This year is the saddest. You can see the fear in their faces, they pray that this law won’t affect them because it will be a massive blow because they have brought their wives and families over.”

A programme for the annual Missa De Gallo at St Vincent De Paul Church in Ligoniel, attended by Northern Ireland's Filipino community at 6am for nine days before Christmas.

He said other challenges in the community facing migrant workers include fishermen in Kilkeel and Portavogie, who faced being sent home after being diagnosed with cancer or after severing a finger at work.

“So they would call us in the Filipino community for help and we would register them with the GP and accompany them to their physical therapy treatment,” he said.

“And we call on their employers to pay for the taxi to get them to their treatment and support them.”

With Bishop Donal McKeown due to attend this year’s final service in Ligoniel on Christmas Eve, Aldrin adds: “Really what we want to talk about is faith and prayer, but this is what’s affecting us right now.”

Members of Northern Ireland's Filipino community have been attending a special tradition of early morning masses in Belfast before Christmas.