Welcome to Dublin, unless you're black


Abuse of and violence against refugees and ethnic minorities are on the increase

Black visitors to Ireland have been warned. The latest edition of the Rough Guide to Ireland, the best-selling guidebook that is consulted by young people in particular, says this State is "shamefully intolerant of minority groups".

It goes on: "If you are black you may well experience a peculiarly naive brand of ignorant racism." In rural areas, where people are not used to seeing black people, this does not involve "any real malice". But "in the cities there does seem to have been a marked change for the worse in recent years, and along with increased aggression evident in society as a whole, abuse would also seem to be on the increase".

Not only abuse, but assaults. A survey earlier this year of 157 asylum-seekers by a Catholic campaigning organisation, the Pilgrim House Community, found that 95 per cent of African asylum-seekers interviewed had been verbally abused. Most of them describing it as a daily occurrence, and more than one in five had been physically assaulted.

A study last year of overseas students in Ireland by the Irish Council for Overseas Students found that 89 per cent of non-white students had experienced racial discrimination. Over 40 per cent of the everyday discrimination the overseas students had experienced consisted of racist abuse.

The anecdotal evidence of racial abuse and assaults growing in the last two years, since the increase in the number of asylum-seekers, is overwhelming. One solicitor says he could "fill a newspaper with them".

Ninety per cent of asylum-seekers are in the Dublin area, with two-thirds of those in the inner city, according to one senior Eastern Health Board official. Most are living cheek-by-jowl with people in inner-city communities with high levels of unemployment and educational disadvantage.

The situation is being exacerbated by the activities of an unknown, but believed to be tiny, number of active racists, who are putting up crude posters and stickers in areas like the North Circular Road, Stoneybatter and Thomas Street, and pushing hate mail through refugees' letter-boxes. They first came to public notice a month ago when hate mail was sent to the Lord Mayor, Councillor Joe Doyle, after he had introduced a refugee integration initiative for the city.

It therefore comes as little surprise that the inner city is where many of the worst attacks have taken place. There was the 17-year-old Congolese schoolboy, an orphan, who was beaten up and kicked in the head by four young men in the city centre last year, receiving injuries which required 23 stitches. His case caused widespread public revulsion, and eventually one of his attackers had a fit of remorse and came forward to confess.

There was the seminary student from Sierra Leone who remonstrated with three young men on the South Circular Road shouting racial insults at him. He was badly beaten while passers-by ignored what was happening, and, according to a friend, "couldn't wait to get out of the country fast enough".

One of the first political refugees to arrive from Zaire (now Congo), found everyone friendly when he first arrived. However, his attitude to Ireland changed when he was beaten up by a group of youths in broad daylight in a street in Temple Bar, again with passers-by failing to intervene.

HE says: "Older people are usually nice, but younger people are often nasty, and become particularly aggressive when they are drunk." He recalls how two years ago a man started insulting his wife in the middle of Mass in their local church, and she had to be rescued by concerned parishioners.

Adhil Essalhi (18) is a Dubliner with a Libyan father. He was racially abused and badly beaten by three security guards 20 months ago when he tried to use a public toilet in the ILAC Centre. Two of the guards received prison sentences, which were later quashed on appeal. One of them has since been promoted by his firm.

Being publicly insulted in the streets of Dublin is something non-white foreigners and refugees find particularly shocking. One American woman student of East Indian origin, at UCD for a year, said that in the US people with racist views were at least constrained to keep their mouths shut in public. She had been deeply upset by the obscene and racist name-calling she had experienced in Ireland.

The first people who deal with refugees and other non-white immigrants, officials from the Department of Justice, are, with notable exceptions, often unsympathetic to their concerns. Anyone who has flown into Dublin Airport or taken the cross-Border train from Belfast can testify to the way in which black people are singled out for brusque and occasionally aggressive questioning.

The case of a Congolese engineer, Belmondo Wantete, whose house was raided by gardai at three in the morning last May, has caused particular anger in the African community. He has since been arrested and charged with a number of minor offences and faces charges of assaulting gardai arising from last May's raid.

The feeling that they are viewed by the Irish authorities as criminals or potential criminals is widespread both among African refugees and the largest group of eastern Europeans, the Romanians.

A recent court case concerned a Romanian man who was found to be carrying a trinket on a key ring, which opened up to reveal a tiny blade of the kind used to clean nails and teeth. He was charged with possession of a dangerous weapon. After three court appearances, the garda involved failed to turn up in court, and the case was struck out.

The Garda press spokesman, Supt John Farrelly, rejects any suggestion of racism within the force, insisting that members of ethnic minority groups are treated like any other citizens. However, he admits that the Garda keeps no record of attacks on such people. The absence of race relations legislation does not help the situation.

However, things are slowly starting to change. After representations from the returned development workers group Comhlamh and the Association of Refugees and Asylum-Seekers in Ireland (ARASI), superintendents in Dublin Garda stations have been asked to deal personally with issues of concern to refugees and ethnic minorities. An international conference on the issue in Wicklow next week is expected to lead to a development in Garda policy and training guidelines by the end of the year.

Then there is the role of the media. Sixty-one per cent of Irish people consulted by the Pilgrim House Community in a telephone poll cited the media as the source of their opinions on asylum-seekers. Less than 1 per cent had met or spoken to an asylum-seeker.

Refugees, asylum-seekers, solicitors, campaigning groups and black Irish people agree on one thing. There was a perceptible change in Irish attitudes for the worse in the spring and summer of 1997, when the numbers of asylum-seekers started to rise, the Government tightened immigration controls and sections of the media went on a spree of alarmist reporting about the State being "swamped" by refugees and other foreign undesirables.

It did not seem to matter that the numbers were still extremely small by European standards. There was an election on and a small number of unscrupulous Dublin politicians used the anti-refugee paranoia they heard on some doorsteps to win votes.

At the same time the newspapers of the Independent Group, in particular, published a series of stories under headlines about "bogus" refugees flooding into the State to beg and thieve, defraud the welfare system, have their babies born in Irish hospitals and swell the housing lists at huge cost to the taxpayer.

The tide of anti-refugee stories continued throughout that year and has carried on at a lower level ever since. Women in Dublin were warned to stay off the streets for fear of "refugee rapists"; taxi-drivers talked about smuggling black refugees like cattle across the Border; asylum-seekers were accused of ritual animal slaughter in suburban back gardens. Radio phone-in programmes were full of callers complaining about refugees in the emotive language of racism.

In this atmosphere it was little wonder that the number of reported attacks on non-white refugees and other foreigners rose sharply. Ill-informed comments about asylum-seekers "sponging" (when in fact they are not allowed to work) and getting public housing (which they are barred from) started to become common currency, even among educated people.

One African student interviewed for the ICOS study compared the situation now and five years ago. He said that in 1994, with few black people in Ireland, African students were treated with respect, apart from the occasional incident usually involving drunkenness. However recently "a man with a tie driving an Audi during lunchtime" had shouted at him "Nigger, go back home!"

Another African student said he felt that an atmosphere of friendly insularity - arising from Ireland's cultural homogeneity and isolation from the multi-cultural problems of larger European countries - was giving way to racism.

With "the coming of the refugees . . . more and more people are expressing their dislike" of black people. He said there was now a widespread presumption that all black people in Ireland must be refugees, and are therefore unwelcome.