In a word

refugees

 

The number of refugees in the world recently exceeded 50 million. Half are children. The country most affected is Syria. More than 2.5 million of its people have fled, with 6.5 million internally displaced. Apart from five million Palestinians, the biggest refugee populations are made up of Afghans, Syrians and Somalis.

Of the world’s refugees, 86 per cent are in developing countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. A further 33.3 million people have been displaced within their own borders. Another 1.2 million have sought asylum abroad, the majority from Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burma.

In Ireland more than 4,000 people seek asylum and live in direct provision centres set up almost 14 years ago. Of them 1,600 are children. Their average stay in centres is four years. Adults are not allowed work or cook for themselves or their families. They receive a weekly allowance of €19.10 (children €9.60). Children are excluded from third-level education.

All while this State conducts a passionate campaign to have the status of Irish illegal immigrants in the US improved and while immigrants to Ireland remain in limbo. As with asylum seekers.

This is not new. Former president Mary McAleese had similar experience of this State’s attitude to refugees as a teenager. With the eruption of violence in Belfast during August 1969 her family, the Leneghans, fled to Dublin and then to her father’s county, Roscommon.

As she recalled in her biography First Citizen, the family was struck by the disinterest then of people in the Republic to what was happening in Northern Ireland. She recalled how many Northern nationalists felt desperately lonely, if not abandoned, in those days. There was little evidence that the help refugees such as they needed then would be provided. Eventually it did come, but from the UK agency Shelter.

The Leneghans fled Belfast in terror but returned there again soon afterwards, having no alternative. “We just had no option but to go back, like so many refugees did,” Mrs McAleese said.

There is something rotten in the attitude of this State when it comes to refugees. From the French refugié, first applied to Huguenots who fled 17th-century France (some to Dublin) from religious persecution, meaning “one seeking asylum”. From the Latin refugium, “a place to flee back to”. inaword@irishtimes.com

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