Irish refugee commitments hold firm in face of anti-immigrant backlash

Special flights are part of State’s 2015 commitment to resettle 4,000 refugees

Just before 2.30pm on November 19th, flight tracking websites showed an Airbus A320 operated by Freebird Airlines landing at Baldonnel Aerodrome in southwest Dublin.

It is relatively unusual for Baldonnel to deal with aircraft of such size. Its landing attracted the attention of flight enthusiasts and people quick to voice opinions on Twitter and Facebook.

Some of them speculated that the charter flight was transporting alleged Islamic State supporter Lisa Smith and her daughter from Turkey back to Ireland.

It was not, for once, an unreasonable conclusion even though it was wrong. Rumours of Smith’s imminent return had been circulating for weeks, and Freebird is a Turkish registered carrier.


But as soon as it became clear the Dundalk woman was not aboard, a second narrative emerged; far-right and anti-immigration activists began stating the flight was secretly transporting immigrants to Ireland.

“Don’t expect your lying media to cover this,” read a popular post on an Irish far-right message board.

“The invasion is in full swing and unstoppable,” someone said in reply.

A narrative took hold that the Government, under orders from the United Nations or the EU, was using the military airbase to secretly bring third-world immigrants to Ireland.

And for once the conspiracy theories beloved by elements of the social media worlds were correct or, more accurately, it could be said that they were at least partially correct.

The flight did contain immigrants, namely 178 Syrian civil war refugees relocating to Ireland from Lebanese camps under the United Nations’ refugee resettlement programme. Two further flights containing refugees landed in Dublin Airport on December 10th and December 11th.

Fleeing war

But it was not a secret. The flights were part of the State’s well-publicised 2015 commitment to resettle 4,000 people fleeing war, persecution and hunger under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme (IRPP).

In fact, far from being secret the Baldonnel flight was mentioned by Minister of State for Justice David Staunton in a reply to a parliamentary question the next day, though it did not attract media coverage.

Similar flights have taken place since the Government’s international pledge in 2015 to take 4,000 Syrian refugees, with most of the flights coming to Dublin Airport.

In some cases the arrivals were well publicised. Last year Taoiseach Leo Varadkar went to Baldonnel to greet Syrian refugees after they landed on a similar flight. However, press notices were not sent out about others.

So far Ireland has taken 3,151 people under the IRPP. Most of these (1,985) are people fleeing Syria who have already been designated refugees by the United Nations.

The remainder, including some rescued while trying to cross the Mediterranean, have to go through a fast-track process to apply for asylum.

Unlike asylum seekers who come to Ireland on their own seeking refugee status, people who come in under the IRPP do not go into the overcrowded direct provision system.

Instead they go to one of three Emergency Reception and Accommodation Centres where they spend an average of 185 days before being housed by local authorities. There are currently about 330 people in these centres.

Unlike the direct provision system, which is operating at far beyond capacity, the Emergency Reception and Accommodation Centres are operating more or less as intended. A Department of Justice spokesman said as of now there is no need to build more.


The reaction by some anti-immigration activists to a routine flight of refugees as part of a programme agreed four years ago highlights a growing problem – the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in Ireland.

To date it is asylum seekers in direct provision who have received the brunt of this backlash. Plans to house asylum seekers in places like Oughterard in Co Galway, Moville, Co Donegal, and Roosky, Co Roscommon, have been cancelled in the face of protests.

Plans to provide emergency accommodation to 38 asylum seekers, comprising single women and family groups, in a hotel in Achill Island for three months are currently on hold due to similar demonstrations by locals.

The sentiment has also bled into the mainstream, with Independent TD Noel Grealish claiming African migrants are coming here to "sponge" off the system.

Fine Gael's candidate in the recent Wexford byelection Verona Murphy suggesting some asylum seekers needed to be "deprogrammed" as they may have been "infiltrated by ISIS".

In such an atmosphere the announcement by the Government on Tuesday (December 17th) that Ireland will take in another 2,900 people fleeing persecution over the next four years could be seen as either brave or naive depending on one’s viewpoint.

According to Department of Justice officials who spoke to The Irish Times this week, the recent trend had no bearing on Ireland’s decision to agree a new programme or on how many refugees it agreed to take.

While the rise in anti-immigrant and racist sentiment is a matter of concern for Justice, the IRPP decision was dictated by mathematics, demographic analysis and international obligations. Domestic political considerations played “zero role”, said one official with knowledge of the negotiations.

Desperate for help

"The humanitarian situation in a number of regions around the world remains particularly acute. In Syria alone there are over 11 million people, including 6 million children, that are desperate for help. It is only right and proper that Ireland plays its part, and offers a helping hand to those less fortunate than ourselves," said Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan.

“I’m proud that as a dedicated and active member of the international community we continue to uphold our responsibilities in helping those fleeing the most harrowing circumstances, including war and persecution.”

However, the decision is based not just on humanitarianism. Ireland has obligations under the UN Global Compact on Refugees, and the Government also wants to be seen as a “good neighbour” to fellow European liberal democracies whose support will be vital in a post-Brexit landscape, officials said.

One justice official raised the Irish government policy during the second World War of refusing to take in more than a handful of Jewish refugees for fear their presence might increase anti-Semitism.

“You would hope we have moved on from that. There is a general opinion and approach that our international obligations shouldn’t be held hostage by the risk of increased racism.”

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times