Ireland Of The Welcomes


The warnings from Ms Hope Hanlan, a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about a wave of xenophobia in Ireland could hardly be more timely or more apposite. There is, assuredly, a gathering sense of exclusion here, in both official and public attitudes, towards immigrants.

The Minister for Justice, Mr John O'Donoghue, and his predecessor, Mrs Nora Owen, have tended to view the refugee issue as an administrative problem - even as a potential danger to public order. There has been little in the way of compassion or sympathy in their public pronouncements. Refugees have got the law, interpreted to the letter. And little else. The Department of Justice, which has administrative responsibility for asylum-seekers and immigrants, continues to maintain a hostile, suspicious approach towards the supposed `aliens' in our midst.

All of this does little credit to a society that likes to style itself as one of the more caring and compassionate in Europe. It is, of course, desirable that effective procedures are in place to distinguish between bona fide refugees and economic migrants. And it is desirable that the taxpayer is saved undue expense. But the first principle should be a recognition that many refugees who arrive at our ports or airports are fleeing from persecution or torture in their native land. At the very least, they deserve a fair hearing.

It may be that things will get worse before they get better for immigrants. The Supreme Court decision in the Anisimova case which found that a Russian woman's application for refugee status for herself and her daughter was a matter for the United Kingdom - the first EU state she entered - could close the shutters on refugees and other immigrants. The judgment reflects the spirit of the Dublin Convention which is designed to prevent asylum-seekers "hopscotching" from one country to another when their original application is rejected. In practice, this could mean that people like Ms Olga Anisimova and her daughter will be deported to Britain without any investigation of her circumstances in this State. And since few of the countries which generate refugees have direct transport links with Ireland, the Dublin Convention will conveniently rid us of the great majority of recent asylum seekers.

Mr O'Donoghue - the champion of zero tolerance - has now weighed in with new procedures for immigrants; he told the Dail yesterday that the current arrangement involving formal consultation between the refugee and the UNHCR was no longer workable because of the "huge increase in numbers".

There is a need for some perspective here. Although the numbers applying for asylum have increased dramatically, they are still minuscule when compared with those in most EU states. But there is a need to widen the debate beyond this level; the current wave of immigration to this prosperous State raises much more fundamental questions about the drift of our society. Do we wish to frame the kind of legislation on immigration that reflects our own historical experience as a nation of emigrants? Do we want immigration laws that reflect our sense of generosity and compassion? Are we ready to establish a truly multicultural society? Or are we content, at a time of unprecedented economic success in this society to close the door on those less fortunate than ourselves?