What awaits refugees in Ireland?
Three hundred ‘programme refugees’ will soon come to Ireland. Previous refugees initially faced language problems and racism, but life here has emerged as ‘beautiful’ for some
Mohammad Rafique with his wife, Rafika Begum, three-year-old Waheeda and seven-year-old Jamalida. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan.
Mohammed Ismail,Yasmin Mohammed, Robi Alam, Shah Alam, Mymuna Khatun, Almas Khatun, Rabiya Rabiya, Noor Khatun, Jabeda Khatun, Sofia Begum, Momena Khatun and Hamida Begum. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan
Mohammed Eliyas in Carlow. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan
Mohammed Eliyas with his wife, Yesmin, and son Ibrahim
In a three-bedroom terraced house in Carlow town Mohammad Rafique is talking about his father. His father lives in the teeming Rohingya refugee camps, on the border of Bengal and Burma, that officially contain 12,000 people. Unofficially upwards of 200,000 live in the surrounding hillsides.
Rafique’s mother is still there, too, along with his seven brothers and sisters, in the squalid limbo between a state that wishes they were dead and one that does just enough to keep them alive.
Rafique is one of 64 Burmese Rohingyas who were resettled in Carlow town from Bangladesh, in 2009, under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN refugee agency.
Last week Ireland agreed, under an EU initiative, to resettle 300 more refugees from a list drawn up by the UNHCR. The Department of Justice says a decision has yet to be taken on where the refugees will come from. Together with the impending arrival of 114 Syrian refugees, and 310 others earmarked to arrive under the UNHCR programme by 2016, it represents a reversal of the last government’s five-year moratorium on accepting refugees, after the economic crisis.
Rafique has seen his family just once since 2009, in June 2014. “I visited them for eight hours. It was like going to them in prison. We had to put all our phones on the table.”
Although they eke out an existence in prison-like conditions halfway around the world, Rafique’s family committed no crime. Their chief “fault” lies in their being Rohingya, part of a poor rural Burmese minority repeatedly persecuted by the country’s Buddhist Rakhine majority.
Stripped of citizenship by Burma’s military leaders in 1982, the Rohingya have been subjected to repeated pogroms. Killed, beaten, raped, used for slave labour, their goods looted, their buildings burned down, they have fled across the border to Bangladesh. Faced with existing overcrowding, the authorities there have kept their Burmese guests in refugee camps for more than 20 years.
“I remember when I crossed the border in 1992,” Rafique says. “We had already seen the violence. They had come to our village” – called Karamad Para – “taken our elders as forced labourers, and arrested others. My parents told me it was a religious issue. They are happy that I am in Ireland, because we are safe here. But my family are still there.”
Harried in the hills of Burma’s northwest, many Rohingya take to the Andaman Sea, just as refugees from north Africa take to the Mediterranean in the hope of reaching Europe. Under international pressure Malaysia and Indonesia this week temporarily reversed their policy of turning away these “boat people”, a mirror image of those fleeing war in the Mediterranean.
Until last year Rafique and the other 63 Burmese Rohingya now in Carlow had been the last refugees Ireland took. Their first taste of Ireland came in six weeks at Ballyhaunis Orientation Centre, in Co Mayo, where they were shown the rudiments of western appliances, food and road safety.
They arrived in Carlow town on June 29th, 2009, beginning the Carlow Rohingya Resettlement Programme, funded by the Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration – part of the Department of Justice – initially for a year.
St Catherine’s Community Services in the town was selected to be the lead local agency, because of its range of services and its record. “There was a certain level of fear, as it was something we hadn’t done before,” says the programme’s co-ordinator, Thomas Farrell. “We were going in a little bit blind. When they arrived their level of need was higher than what we anticipated.”
The first problems surfaced when Farrell and his team realised how little education the 13 families had. Just two spoke any English. Having lived in a refugee camp for 19 years, they had no experience of living in a house or of running water.
A year-long education scheme was quickly extended to three once the St Catherine’s team applied to the EU European Refugee Fund, supported by 25 per cent local funding.
The families were coming to a town that wasn’t universally welcoming. “I think Carlow responded positively,” Farrell says. “I suppose initially, when it was announced, there were a couple of voices that were negative, and we had a couple of phone calls complaining. But mainly people were questioning whether we had the resources to cope.”
The burkas worn by Rohingya women prompted some abuse from locals. “It happened a few times,” Rafique says. “The first few months the people in Carlow had never seen a burka, and some people shouted across the street. But we told the community-centre people, and they put it in the community news [about us]. After that we didn’t really see that kind of problem.
“There was a lot of verbal stuff said once or twice,” Farrell says. “Stuff might have been thrown. There were a few bits and pieces that were dealt with, but nothing major.”
There were other problems. Assured that by the Irish authorities that Carlow had a mosque, and imagining a full minaret, the new families arrived to find just a house used by the town’s tiny Muslim population. For orthodox Sunnis who had escaped religious persecution in Burma it was a disappointment. They now worship at an apartment in the town.
The language barrier remained. The refugees had just over two years of education, on average, when they arrived. St Catherine’s had funding for an interpreter for two weeks; it quickly asked the European Refugee Fund to pay for a full-time interpreter and intercultural worker.
Its work was supplemented by Carlow Volunteer Centre, which assigned two members to each family, to help with shopping and other practicalities.
A longer-term issue was the future of the male refugees who had arrived in their early teens. Placed in formal education for the first time, nine dropped out in Junior Cert year or fifth year. When the three-year resettlement programme ended, in 2012, seven remained outside education, training or employment. “They were coming from backgrounds where they’ve no experience of education and where you could be head of a household in your teens,” says Orlaith McHugh.
She was asked to run Carlow Rohingya Education and Work Experience programme, to help both these under-25s and the rest of the group. Four of them are now in full-time further education.
“We’re very happy with the progress with the boys under 25. And the girls and the younger children coped better in school from the start. I haven’t seen any aggressive behaviour, any arguments. They are very calm, and quite conforming once they understand what you have to do. ”
literacy and education will remain an issue for the refugees who arrived as adults or teenagers, there are success stories. Robi Alam, who is 52 – and proudly sports a scar on his head from a camp hunger strike in 1998 – tells of his pride in his son, Muhammad Rafique (no relation to Mohammad Rafique), who has set up a Rohingya restaurant in nearby Bagenalstown, called Punjabi King.
With the help of the local rugby club the Rohingya men have revived Carlow Cricket Club – it had closed in 1982, after 150 years – helping them to develop confidence in their abilities and “transferable skills”. It was named Ireland’s top sporting organisation at the Diverse Ireland Awards in 2011. Their last outing saw them beat Bagenalstown by 92 runs. Up next is AIB.
The staff at Catherine’s have also been recognised. At a “skills-share day” that the EU Resettlement Network held in Brussels in 2012, the Carlow programme was singled out as exemplary.
Full of gratitude
Some aren’t so sympathetic. This week an Irish Times poll found that 52 per cent of Irish people are against taking in fleeing Mediterranean migrants.
But, like the others, Eliyas radiates a refreshing warmth free from resentment, even when he tells me that his father, his young wife and his baby son remain halfway around the world in the stateless refugee limbo of the Cox’s Bazar camps, in Bangladesh. He has applied for them to join him here, but as his family have no birth certificates he must await DNA results.
“It’s really sad,” he says. “She has a mobile in the camp. She is 22. I describe everything to her, about the freedom of movement, about being free to practise religion, having education that is absolutely fantastic, and to be free to communicate with other town people, and people in other counties.”
He shows me a photograph of himself with Yesmin and baby Ibrahim, taken last year, during his sole, three-month visit. “I hope she can join me here. If only she knew what it was like. I never imagined the beautiful life of all the people,” Eliyas says. “Whatever we had in our past life, this was not human life.”
Resettling the displaced: Ireland’s programmes
Ireland is one of only 30 states that take part in the refugee resettlement scheme, a United Nations programme.
Since it began here, 15 years ago, 1,198 programme refugees, from 27 countries, have been resettled in Ireland.
The UN declares them refugees before they arrive in Ireland, and they do not go through the direct-provision system for asylum seekers.
Three hundred refugees are due to come to Ireland under a new EU scheme. Civil war in Syria and the large numbers of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean in dangerous boats have made the need even more pressing.
In 1999, Ireland agreed to take 1,000 Kosovan refugees; they were resettled in Millstreet, Co Cork; Killarney; Waterford; and Wexford. Many later returned home.
In 2006, 180 Iranian Kurds who had been living in refugee camps in Jordan for 25 years were resettled in Carrick-on-Shannon and Dublin under a UNHCR programme.
In 2007, 100 Burmese Karen people were resettled in Ballina and Castlebar, after coming from Thailand under the UNHCR programme.
In 2008, 71 Sudanese were resettled in Kilkenny city, after transferring from Uganda, also under the UNHCR.
In 2009, 13 Burmese Rohingya families – 64 people in all – were resettled in Carlow town from Bangladesh, under the auspices of the UNHCR.
In 2013, 31 Afghans and four Iraqi Palestinians were admitted from Syria.
In 2014, 90 Syrian refugees fleeing their country’s civil war were resettled from Lebanon with relatives and friends around the country.
This year, 13 Syrian refugees of a projected 100 have arrived; 120 more people, also mainly Syrian, are due next year.
Ireland has separately agreed to admit 114 other refugees under a Syrian humanitarian admission programme.