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I remember when being in a dark place in Dublin as a black person didn’t mean being scared

Refugees are not an abstract group. They are your neighbours, they are working in your healthcare system or your local café, they are your children’s friends. They are me

For people like me and the communities I work with, even those who have developed strong friendship networks and are rooted in their communities, this is an unsettling time. Photograph: Eric Luke

On the last Saturday of November last year, the UN Refugee Agency was due to hold a workshop in a Dublin hotel, bringing together people from a refugee background to discuss migrant integration.

But two nights before the event, on November 23rd, the Dublin riots erupted. By Friday morning it was clear that most people on our invitation list would cancel. Those living in Dublin were too nervous to cross the city and those coming from outside the capital were afraid to travel too far from home. We decided to postpone.

The scenes in Dublin city that night were shocking, but even more shocking was the fact that people of colour, women wearing hijabs and young men with foreign accents, were too scared to get on a bus or a train that weekend.

A few weeks later, nerves had calmed, and the event went ahead. Reflecting on its impact at the workshop, participants said what happened in Dublin that night made many feel wary about seeking out opportunities to get involved in local communities.


I came to Ireland when I was 16, seeking asylum. I have lived here for more than half of my life now, and I love my new home. I can remember, though, not that long ago, not having to worry about walking at night in Dublin city centre. I remember being in a dark place and being a black person, and not being scared. Sadly, that has changed for me and for others who share a similar background. Now we worry about our safety a little more; the refugee and asylum seeker communities I work with worry about their children’s safety a little more.

Refugee communities find hope in the knowledge that extreme anti-migrant views are mostly confined to a small minority . But their concern is that others are falling into the traps laid by disinformation and negative rhetoric. For people like me and the communities I work with, even those who have developed strong friendship networks and are rooted in their communities, this is an unsettling time.

Refugee communities, and those seeking asylum, are more on alert now to present themselves as “good refugees”. There is a sense of an emerging hierarchy of acceptability, that if you speak English well and come here to study you are welcome, but if you come to seek asylum and end up living on the streets, then you pose some kind of threat.

People I know are openly discussing how refugees and asylum seekers are flooding the streets and changing the fabric of Ireland, but they are talking to me and telling me, you are different, even though I look like many of those they are referencing. I want to reply that refugees are not an abstract group, they are your neighbours, they are working in your healthcare system or your local cafe, they are your children’s friends, they are me.

The current atmosphere may dissipate and the focus may shift away from immigration. The fear among refugee communities, however, is that political decisions will be taken now that will have lasting consequences for them and others forced to leave their homes who come to Ireland seeking safety.

‘I love this place, I have my children here, there is nothing else I’m looking for in another country’Opens in new window ]

At UNHCR, we welcome the Taoiseach’s commitment to a fair immigration system. We welcome the publication of the Government’s Comprehensive Accommodation Strategy for International Protection Applicants, published in March, which lays out a clear plan for the accommodation of asylum seekers over the medium to long term. It is great to have a plan and we look forward to seeing it implemented in a way that ensures the Government maintains the guiding principles of the White Paper on Ending Direct Provision.

Today, on World Refugee Day, and throughout this week, as part of Refugee Week Ireland, we are encouraging people to let refugees and asylum seekers know that they are welcome, to reach out to someone from a refugee background and make a connection. For a refugee or asylum seeker, small gestures can mean the world.

In my role with UNHCR I see the incredible work of inclusion, support and welcome that is continuing in local communities, despite the rhetoric of an extreme minority. As someone with a refugee background, I know the power of one person reaching out and making a connection.

Several years ago, I moved to a rural part of Wexford with my family. We knew nobody there and I was anxious about moving into what was a well-established community. Outside the school one afternoon, a man who was involved with the GAA club invited my 10-year-old son to come over to the club for a kick around. I was nervous about encouraging him to go but the coach persisted, and one Friday evening he went along. I remember how the coach handed him a jersey and said: “I hope you wear this for the next 30 years”. It was a simple gesture, but the welcome implicit in it gave my son a precious sense of belonging.

Migration row: Have we forgotten these are people we’re talking about?Opens in new window ]

These connections are being repeated in other parishes, villages and towns around Ireland on an almost daily basis. Local communities are leading the way on inclusion and integration. That is why it is so important that their efforts are acknowledged and supported by our political leadership. Goodwill is an expendable commodity and where communities have concerns about local services amid growing populations, they should be listened to and have their concerns addressed.

On an individual level, we need to stop being bystanders and call people out when they are spreading hate or mistruths.

We also need to remember that no one chooses to be a refugee. As Somalian-English poet Warsan Shire wrote: “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark / You only run for the border / when you see the whole city running as well.”

Diane Ihirwe is Senior Community Based Protection Associate with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Ireland.