Refugee crisis reveals the racism in the smug republic…

I don’t usually write about contentious issues in the Republic of Ireland, because – although I have lived here for many years – I feel I have little to add to the hundreds of thousands of words on television, radio and in the newspapers. I prefer to write about the North because I know it better and because it is less written about here.

But this month I am going to write about the refugee crisis that has been hitting the headlines in recent weeks and months. It is a issue close to my heart because I am the son of a refugee. Last month, for the first time, it became a headline-making issue in this country, as groups of local people in the townland of Inch in County Clare and the suburb of Santry in Dublin blockaded a disused hotel and a commercial building where asylum-seekers had been moved (or were about to be moved). Homeless asylum-seekers camped out near the office handling their international protection applications in central Dublin had their tents and other possessions burned by right-wing thugs. The Garda Siochana reported that there had been 125 anti-refugee/asylum-seeker street protests since the start of the year (one banner I saw at a Dublin demonstration read: “Our children are in danger from these immigrants. Fight back”). Members of far-right groups were extremely active on social media and were touring the country to stir up ignorant, fearful people in small places like Inch.

At the same time hundreds of Ukrainians were arriving in the country every week. Ireland has been among the most welcoming countries in Europe to people fleeing the brutal Russian invasion of that country (more than 83,000 received so far). Rosita Boland, who had covered the Inch protest for the Irish Times, wrote about the hostility she encountered from locals when reporting on the arrival of 34 young male asylum seekers (‘international protection applicants’ is the more politically correct appellation) from Africa and Asia to be housed in bungalows on the grounds of a disused hotel there. She remembered covering a similar protest in Achill in 2019, when 150 locals protested around the clock for six midwinter weeks at the imminent arrival of 38 asylum seekers, women and families – with the result that those unfortunate people never turned up.

She concluded her article: “For whatever reason, to my knowledge, there were no round-the-clock protests over the arrival of Ukrainians into our communities, some of them as small and remote as Inch and Achill. Why is this?”1

I would have thought the answer was obvious (as, clearly, she does): the Ukrainians don’t have black and brown faces. We in Ireland have an extraordinary capacity for denial and doublethink: what Fintan O’Toole calls our “larger capacity for being in two minds simultaneously.” I remember the shocked, almost unbelieving reaction of letter writers to the Irish Times when I wrote an article in that paper back in 1999 about racism in Dublin. Refugees, asylum-seekers, solicitors, campaigning groups and black Irish people all agreed then that around two years earlier, when the number of asylum-seekers in Ireland for the first time had started to rise above miniscule levels, there was a perceptible change in racial attitudes here.2

The Rough Guide to Ireland of that year reported that “if you are black you may well experience a peculiarly naive brand of ignorant racism,” and this was particularly so in Irish cities. A survey of 157 asylum seekers by a Catholic campaigning organisation, Pilgrim House Community, found that 95% of African asylum-seekers interviewed had been verbally abused, while more than one in five had been assaulted. A study from the Irish Council for Overseas Students found that 89% of non-white students had experienced racial discrimination and over 40% racist abuse.

I quoted one the first political refugees to arrive here from Zaire (now Congo) who found people here friendly at first. However his attitude to Ireland changed when he was beaten up by a group of youths in broad daylight in a street in Dublin’s Temple Bar, with passers-by failing to intervene. “Older people are usually nice, ” he said. “But younger people are often nasty and become particularly aggressive when they are drunk.”

If this was happening when Ireland had infinitesimal numbers of refugees with coloured faces – among the 424 people seeking asylum in 1995, 3,883 in 1997 – how much more must it be the case when we now have over 20,000 asylum-seekers in the country?

It is not that we are more racist than other white, European people. It is that we are just as self-protective and xenophobic when it comes to welcoming (or not welcoming) to this peaceful and prosperous country our luckless black and brown fellow human beings fleeing war and persecution in countries like Congo, Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan. We have plenty of room in this (by European standards) under-populated country and we are now one of the richest countries in the world, and one with serious labour shortages in areas like construction and the health service which could be partially filled by refugees who are extremely anxious to work. Yet it took many years for an asylum seeker to get the right to work here until a 2017 Supreme Court decision finally forced a reluctant government to open the labour market to these usually skilled and well-educated people (because it is largely skilled, well-educated and extremely determined people who manage to overcome the massive obstacles to reach this far corner of Europe).

One thing I find objectionable is the smug belief among many Irish people that we are somehow more righteous than British (in particular) and other European peoples because we never had an empire and thus never – almost uniquely in Western Europe – oppressed people in Africa, Asia and Latin America (and indeed had our own, pioneering anti-imperialist war of independence against the British empire). We feel morally superior because we are ‘neutral’ with no attachment to any nasty military bloc. We love to think that we are the most friendly, open, welcoming people in the world – “global darlings” in the words of a recent Irish Times letter-writer – who are universally loved by everyone. Maybe that’s true for tourists, and to a lesser extent white Ukrainians, but it’s not true for people with black and brown skins.

In a previous era Jews were seen as a problem. Successive Irish governments refused – along with most Western governments – to take in Jewish refugees from Nazism in the years up to the Second World War. In the late 1940s the Department of Justice refused to allow 100 orphaned children, survivors of Belsen, a temporary refuge in Ireland, calling Jews “a potential irritant in the body politic.”

Of course, most Irish people are not racist, and there are good and bad people everywhere. I have an African friend who was so badly bullied during her placement at a major Irish hospital that she completely lost her confidence and was forced to give up her heart’s desire to become a nurse. On the other hand, the daughters of another African family I know well have gone on to have successful careers in industry and the media with the support of helpful colleagues.

In a small place, good people can make a real difference. In Lisdoonvarna, at the other end of Clare from Inch, 130 asylum-seekers first arrived to stay in a local hotel in 2018. They have since been joined by many more asylum-seekers and Ukrainians, so that in this community of 800 there are now around 1,200 refugees and asylum-seekers from 23 countries. There is the inevitable grumbling that the town is being taken over by outsiders, and local services are being stretched to the limit. But there have been no protests, no marches, no fights, no graffiti. The schools have played a huge role here, welcoming and integrating the newcomer children. “It has evolved, become a fait accompli, we just got on with it,” says one local woman. She also notes that some asylum-seekers have gained healthcare qualifications and are now working as carers for elderly and other vulnerable local people. Wexford and Waterford are other places where the schools – through the Schools of Sanctuary movement – have taken a leading role in welcoming refugee families.

Meanwhile in the Mediterranean 78 people died and hundreds more – including children – are missing after an overloaded fishing boat full of Egyptian, Syrian and Pakistani refugees sank off the Greek coast last week. Can we even begin to imagine the terror of those children trapped in the hold as that boat went down? An estimated 51,000 people have died trying to reach Europe in this and other ways since 1993. As the brilliant and courageous Africa-based Irish journalist Sally Hayden says, these dead people are “victims of the world’s inequality. They are the victims of the fact that the privileged people on this planet have freedom of movement due to the luck of where they were born, while much of the rest must risk their lives in the hope of accessing a secure, dignified life.”3 We Irish are right up there among those privileged people. As Almut Schlepper, a Dublin friend who spends many months every year working with refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos, points out: “We can fly to Egypt for a fraction of the price these unfortunate people paid for a passage in an overloaded coffin ship.”

I do not underestimate the problems facing politicians dealing with this extremely difficult humanitarian issue (I recognise, for example, that Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman has had to move mountains to get hundreds of homeless asylum seekers off Dublin’s streets over the past month). I also recognise that there are some economic refugees from Eastern European countries like Georgia and Albania misusing the asylum process. But weren’t hundreds of thousands of Irish people economic refugees not so long ago? Is it beyond the ability of this now rich country to accommodate a few thousand people who only want to get jobs and thus contribute to the Irish economy? Is it beyond the capacity of the resource-rich super-state that is the EU (and the 10,000 staff of its border agency Frontex) to deal with a relatively small group of people smugglers without bringing down the shutters on the hopes for a better life of a few million desperate people in the Middle East and Africa? Should we not be following the urging of the International Organisation for Migration and the UN refugee agency UNHCR by increasing safe migration pathways to Europe and boosting search and rescue capability in the Mediterranean? I believe future historians will judge this episode in European history to be a shameful one.

PS I will outline a more positive picture of immigration and multiculturalism in Ireland in a forthcoming blog.

1 ‘Ireland is not as welcoming as we would like to believe’, Irish Times, 7 June 2023

2 ‘Welcome to Dublin, unless you’re black, Irish Times, 24 April 1999

3 ‘How have we normalised mass drowning?’ Irish Times, 16 June 2023

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