Ireland cannot afford ‘to pit one group of refugees against another’

Head of protection programme says State has ‘long way to go’ in meeting existing commitments

The Irish State must not lose sight of the resettlement pledges it has made to Syrians, Afghans and Eritreans and “cannot afford to pit one group against another”, the head of the Irish Refugee Protection Programme (IRPP) has said.

Eibhlín Byrne feels heartened by the Irish outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees but says Ireland still has "a long way to go" in meeting the commitments it has made to support refugees from other war-torn nations.

Ms Byrne was speaking in the Beirut office of the International Organisation for Migration during her final trip as IRPP director before she steps into a new role overseeing supports for Ukrainians.

A total of 3,775 people, mostly Syrians, have been resettled in Ireland since the IRPP was established in 2015. These people are interviewed and Garda vetted before travelling and do not go through the direct provision system.

The State committed in late 2019 to resettle an additional 2,900 Syrians from Lebanon and Jordan by 2023, along with a very small number of Eritreans from Ethiopia. However, the pandemic pulled the brakes on these plans and Government officials who travelled to Lebanon in March 2020 had to suddenly abandon their interview schedule and depart for Ireland. Officials did not get clearance to return until September 2021.

“Hard as it will be, we need little by little to keep working towards that pledge,” Ms Byrne said. “We’re very far back but we should not allow one set of people very desperately in need of assistance to be pitted against another group of people in need of assistance.”

A total of 195 Syrian refugees were brought to Ireland in 2020 under the IRPP, a significant drop from the 764 who came from Lebanon and Jordan in 2019 because of Covid-19 travel restrictions. In 2021, 92 Syrians, 417 Afghans, seven Iraqis and two people from Myanmar arrived here under the programme. A further 51 people – 48 Afghans and three Libyans – have come to Ireland through the IRPP so far in 2022.

Ms Byrne describes the IRPP as the Irish State’s “first attempt at a modern approach to refugee protection and resettlement” and says there is a “strongly held view” within Government that Ireland must maintain its reputation as a country “which upholds humanitarian values”.

However, she is concerned that, in the “hierarchy of needs”, supports for Syrian and Afghan refugees might “fall down the line”.

She acknowledged that Irish people identify more with Ukrainians because they are on the “periphery of Europe” and “almost part of the European family”.

However, she also believes Ireland has “matured” in how it supports refugees. “We have moved beyond just wanting to, if you forgive the expression, giving a penny for the black babies.”

Down the corridor in the IOM building, 65-year-old Ruwaida Shalateh is sitting with a translator. She’s attending an orientation programme on life in Ireland. The mother of eight discovered last year that she, her husband, their daughter and her young family had been approved for resettlement in Ireland. They will join her eldest daughter who moved here two years ago.

Ms Shalateh does not yet know when she'll be flying to Europe – those approved for resettlement in Ireland must wait for an exit visa from Lebanese authorities.

“I want to learn the language and also check on my daughter,” she said. “I also want to work because I’m a very active person. I can bake, I can cook, I’ll do anything. But we’ll have to start from scratch in Ireland.”