Face refugee fear before it hardens into racism

On November 1st, 1999, Sister Joan Roddy wrote to the Department of Justice on behalf of the Irish Catholic Bishops' Refugee …

On November 1st, 1999, Sister Joan Roddy wrote to the Department of Justice on behalf of the Irish Catholic Bishops' Refugee Project. The letter contained 13 prophetic questions about dispersal of asylum-seekers. Among them were:

Given the important role of voluntary and community organisations, how are they, and the local population in general, to be involved in drawing up and implementing plans for welcoming and integrating asylum-seekers?

According to what criteria will asylum-seekers be dispersed so that the training and skills of those eligible to work will be matched with employment needs and opportunities in different parts of the country?

What provision is being made to ensure access to educational institutions? I have seen the Department's reply received 2 1/2 months later. None of the 13 questions was answered.


If these issues had been taken seriously six months ago, much of the furore about the dispersal of asylum-seekers could have been avoided. It makes you question the knee-jerk rejection of the bishops' suggestion to regularise the situation of asylum-seekers who are already here.

Mr John O'Donoghue always neglects to mention that the greatest "pull factor" is not our "generous" social welfare, but the fact that applications are processed so slowly. If a claim takes two or three years, it is very difficult then to deport someone. Of course, some applicants know this.

The reality is that the Government will be forced to deal with the backlog of applications before too long, whether by granting humanitarian leave to remain or by issuing temporary work permits. Why not do so with reasonable grace right now?

Mr O'Donoghue blustered last week that "an amnesty rewards people who seek to abuse the asylum process". Indeed, Minister, it may well reward a few who abuse the system, unlike a tax amnesty, where all those who benefit have abused our taxation system. But silly me, that's different. That's Irish people with money.

It is easy to attack the "culchies" for being so unwelcoming, while in Dublin 4 a residents' association tries to keep asylum-seekers out by invoking planning regulations. So much more sophisticated, don't you think? But is the message any different?

Undoubtedly, some Irish people are racist. However, to brand all those who have fears about asylum-seekers as racist is far too easy. As easy, in fact, as branding asylum-seekers as con artists and criminals. The two stereotypes are not unconnected. Irish people have been subjected to a steady diet of media stories reflecting the Department of Justice view of those seeking refugee status as a flood or a crisis.

Ordinary citizens absorbed the message well, so is it surprising that they responded to the heavy-handed dispersal policy defensively and fearfully? It is not a coincidence that most of the fears are framed in terms of asylum-seekers as criminals.

At a meeting held in a local community, an angry man shouted: "Have the guards in the villages these refugees come from been contacted to see if they have criminal records?" So easy to sneer, to ask if that man or his neighbours has any idea what it is like to flee for your life, to leave family and friends behind and to face an uncertain future in an unknown land.

But in a way it is a very understandable comment. It is the downside of so much that is positive about rural Ireland. A village or small-town structure is built on knowing people, where they come from, who they belong to, who their families are. The structure is close-knit but not idyllic, as sharp eyes and tongues can act as potent social controls. The fear of gossip has kept many a one from breaching local norms.

Imagine launching foreigners into that situation, without any preparation. It is hard to imagine who would be more miserable, the locals or the new arrivals. Some communities rise to the challenge, such as Glengarriff and Clifden. Some do not.

So what do you do if people are suspicious and fearful? You do not reinforce their sense of not being heard, and push them into extreme action by pinning simplistic labels on them. You listen to their fears, take them on board and give some room for the basic decency of Irish people to emerge.

Naive? Idealistic? Perhaps. But look at how the Kosovars were received. Kosovars, by the law of averages, must have had their share of "chancers", just as the Irish do, but they were not all written off as a result. The Kosovars' dispersal was handled by the Department of Foreign Affairs. Most would say it was done very successfully. The asylum-seekers who arrive uninvited are the responsibility of the Department of Justice, which has until recently acted as if these people were primarily a threat to security.

There is an undercurrent of real racism in Ireland, but as yet it is to be found only in a minority. What we have far more of is a desire to have life go on as it always did, not to have our comfort zones disturbed. Unfortunately, that can harden very quickly into deeper prejudice. Hectoring and lecturing are likely only to hasten that process.

Imagine if in each of these places where it was planned to send asylum-seekers the local community groups were all asked to come to a preliminary meeting, along with anyone else who wished to attend. There, asylum-seekers could tell their stories. I defy anyone to hate a nurse from an African country who had to flee, leaving her children behind; or a man who has been tortured to the point of disfigurement for his religious beliefs; or a teenager without any accompanying adult who will be jailed and possibly killed if she returns to her country.

However, while refugees have much to contribute, we should not minimise the difficulties of adjusting to a multicultural society. One of the happiest years of my life was spent abroad on a communications course with people from some 20 different developing countries. There was a great sense of camaraderie, but still the various nationalities sometimes shocked and offended each other.

In one memorable incident, Keerthi, a Sri Lankan, acted in a perfectly appropriate way for a heterosexual man of his culture. He sat down beside another man, draped his arm around him and affectionately squeezed his knee.

Unfortunately, he chose Carlos, a macho Colombian, as a recipient of this kindness. Carlos, his masculinity deeply affronted, promptly punched him on the jaw. Keerthi was stunned and outraged because in his culture men touch each other all the time. A small and even funny event, but one which revealed the minefield which a multicultural environment can be.

We need to confront real racism where it emerges, and to challenge people to be more generous. But we also need to recognise that fears grow in a climate where people feel unheard, and where the only real consultation seems to happen after the event.