We welcome refugees from Ukraine, but why is there less sympathy for those coming from elsewhere?

Europe taking in Ukrainians fleeing war contrasts with the treatment of people from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq

It was World Refugee Day on Monday and all eyes are firmly on Ukraine. The scale of the war on the people of Ukraine is staggering, and the seismic impacts will be felt for generations. The start of the war was a moment for Ireland and the EU to stand with the people of Ukraine and assert our common humanity. And in many ways, we did. In record time, the EU agreed to activate the temporary protection directive to shelter Ukrainians fleeing war, offering immediate protection and a clear legal status to millions of people.

This welcome and much-needed European solidarity stands in contrast with the EU’s common approach to mass influxes of refugees. Calls for the directive to be activated in 2015 went unheeded when more than a million people from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere sought protection in Europe. Neither was the directive activated last year, when the people of Afghanistan fled their country following the return of the Taliban to power. It’s important to recognise this as the emergence of a two-tier response to international protection.

Not only does the directive make it easier for people to get here, it also makes life easier once they are here. Entering the EU under the EU temporary directive is different from applying for international protection, in that the directive recognises that people are fleeing conflict and persecution, and does not require them to prove it. Anyone entering Ireland under the directive is immediately provided with a PPS number and, therefore, has access to welfare, education, health and work.

Again, this stands in contrast to the experience of someone seeking international protection from Somalia, Syria or Afghanistan. Their application for protection begins the moment they arrive in Ireland and can take months, but much more likely years, to process. During this time, they have very limited rights and entitlements and nowhere near that same access to welfare, education, health and work.


Yet the situations they are fleeing are identical. And all human beings are equally susceptible to the effects of war, violence and torture.

The legal differences are further compounded by differences in integration and reception. Integration pathways are often entirely dependent on legal status. We are much more likely to settle in any community if we can contribute to it, if our children are in the school system. If we are ultimately facilitated to effect our own integration.

The resources directed towards Ireland’s total international protection efforts are finite, and when channelled into any one area, such as the current Ukraine refugee crisis, there is naturally a knock-on effect on the rest of the system. We are currently witnessing application backlogs, delays getting longer, and a decline in the already dire direct provision accommodation standards, resulting from an already creaking system coming under great strain. Also of concern is the implementation of the direct provision White Paper, already behind schedule and now facing greater resource challenges.

It is important to highlight that when it comes to integration, we all have a role to play. There is both a State and a societal dimension to integration. It’s not only how the State responds to refugees, but how we respond as individuals, households and communities.

In response to the war in Ukraine, we have seen incredibly generous offers of people opening their homes, we have seen a huge volunteer and donation response and, though it may be waning, we have had wall-to-wall media coverage, with a wide variety of voices contributing to create a vivid picture of the war and its devastating consequences.

And, again, while it has been heart-warming to see such a response, it is simultaneously heartbreaking to those of us who work in this area, who have seen much less public sympathy extended to people arriving from elsewhere.

This is not an easy message to put out. Today, as families across Ireland welcome Ukrainian refugees to their homes, our response as a society must be self-aware. We must not seed division and resentment among those who seek protection here.

We must talk about race. Does it matter that most Ukrainian people look “just like us”, or that they were “leading ordinary lives” until they were hit with this crisis? Why do we draw this distinction? Why were those same phrases not used to describe the people fleeing disaster in Ethiopia, Syria, Afghanistan? Does religious difference inform our thinking? How are our biases shaping this?

We are seeing a sinister approach to immigration evolve in Britain, with the first attempted transport last week of asylum seekers to Rwanda. We witnessed atrocities under the Trump administration in the US, including the separation of babies from their families. At an EU level, our policy responses are hugely problematic, and characterised by ignorance and hypocrisy at nation state level. We essentially pay for Libya to receive those attempting to reach our shores, and then wilfully ignore the human rights abuses in detention camps. Read Sally Hayden’s new book, My Fourth Time, We Drowned, to learn more.

Meanwhile, the most recent crisis in Ukraine has tipped the number of forcibly displaced people globally to more than 100 million.

We can choose how we respond; as a State by resisting a two-tier system and by ending direct provision, as a society by celebrating and nurturing those who seek protection, as a community by continuing to extend céad míle fáilte, and as individuals by reflecting on our attitudes and personal contribution.

Sinéad Gibney is chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission