A lot to learn from Ethiopian refugee camps, says aid worker

Mary T Murphy given presidential distinguished service award for aid work across Africa

European leaders should visit refugee camps in Ethiopia and Uganda to learn how to manage the stream of asylum seekers arriving on Italian, Greek and Spanish shores, an Irish aid worker has said.

Mary T Murphy, originally from Cork, is refugee programme manager for the Goal aid agency's two refugee camps in the Gambela region of Ethiopia – Kule and Tierkidi – near the South Sudanese border.

Ms Murphy, who left her job as a staff nurse in Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin in 1994 to volunteer in response to the Rwandan genocide, says Ethiopia has done a good job in hosting the nearly 850,000 refugees from 19 countries scattered across the African nation.

While developed countries like Italy are struggling to manage the arrival of people crossing the Mediterranean, Ethiopia has experience in dealing with hundreds of thousands of people arriving from countries like South Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea, says Ms Murphy.


"They should visit and take the experiences they see from Uganda and Ethiopia back to Europe. In Ethiopia they try and put people who speak the same language in the same area and keep communities together. The hope would be that if they have to stay long term, there will be more integration although the problem is for now they're living in more marginalised parts of the country."

Most people who live in these crowded refugee camps dotted across Ethiopia want to return home, she says. “Nobody wants to stay in a refugee camp, their services are very basic. They want their children to be educated and grow up back home. But with the South Sudanese circumstances, until there’s more peace, nobody will be returning.”

The camps, however, do provide safety and security for women and children, particularly those from South Sudan who have faced extreme violence and discrimination in their own countries, she adds.

Ebola crisis

On Thursday evening Ms Murphy was presented with the presidential distinguished service award in recognition of her work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Sierra Leone – during the Ebola crisis – and Ethiopia over the past two decades. The award, which was launched in 2012 and recognises the achievements of the Irish diaspora around the world, was presented to 10 people including actor Liam Neeson, magazine editor Patricia Harty, historian Marianne Elliot and scientist William Campbell.

“For me this award is really a tribute, not just to me but to the team I work with,” said Ms Murphy. “In Ethiopia we have a staff of 600 people and only three of us are international. Without their support I wouldn’t be able to do my job. So for me this award is a thank you to them and to Goal for their work over the years.”

Some 95 people were nominated worldwide for this year’s presidential awards which are crafted using Oak Wood from Co Carlow and were presented to the winners by President Michael D Higgins in Áras an Uachtaráin on Thursday evening.

Other 2017 winners included Denis Mulcahy, founder of Project Children which has brought more than 20,000 young people from Northern Ireland to visit the United States in the promotion of peace and reconciliation, and Hideki Mimura who organised the first St Patrick's Day Parade in Tokyo more than 25 years ago and continues to promote Irish culture across Japan.

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast