Ukrainians arriving in Ireland should be embraced as diaspora not refugees

Let us draw on our own history of grief, loss and trauma in our efforts to help newly exiled

“It struck me that distant cities are designed precisely so you can know where you came from. We bring ‘home’ with us when we leave. Sometimes it becomes more acute for the fact of having left.” (Colum McCann, Let The Great World Spin.)

Reports that 500 Ukrainian people have been arriving daily at Dublin Airport are heartrending. That Dublin Airport Authority has provided a place of welcome is in direct contrast to the harsh treatment people have been receiving at Calais.

The “no visa required” approach creates risk but it is the morally right action.

One story tells of a woman landing alone on a flight to Dublin. Within hours her friend’s mother arrived to bring her to the warmth of that home. Immediately she connects with someone who understands her language, her favourite food and her cultural way of dealing with grief, loss and trauma.


While the Irish are supposedly good at these things, we are not Ukrainian.

Our history too has been one of grief, loss and trauma but seldom were we referred to as refugees. We owe it to the Ukrainian people to embrace them as a diaspora community and not just as refugees.

The term has its origins in Greek (dia: over, sperio : to sow) suggesting that you sow the seeds of your culture, society, politics and beliefs in a place other than your homeland.

Seek one another

The people who have been left behind in Ukraine need the support of those who are now in exile from their homeland. What appears as simple intervention to connect people from the same country with one another is what a diaspora do – they seek one another.

They give support and comfort to those who need it and send on whatever support they can give to those left behind.

The Irish did the same for many decades. However, diasporas are more than mere agents of aid and sources of welfare. They maintain a very strong political influence on their homeland. This was exemplified by Ireland’s diaspora, which has had a strong political influence on our nation.

The signing of the Belfast Agreement would not have been possible without the support of the Irish diaspora, which in turn was facilitated by the granting of a US visa to Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in 1994, allowing him to outline to the Irish in America the advantages of a new political direction.

‘Exerting influence’

In 2003, referencing the growth and influence of diaspora communities, the Economist observed that diasporas “are increasingly exerting influence on the politics of the countries they have physically, but not emotionally, abandoned”.

Diaspora communities are known to hold on to the social and political vision of their homeland where their compatriots continue to struggle for peace, food and basic human rights. They often provide leadership and create future leaders for countries that are torn apart by civil war or by an unjust aggressor.

We know from our own history that our diaspora communities were divided on whether support for Ireland should have been for the armed struggle, political-ends alone, or elements of both

Importantly, remittances provide three times more aid than the total provided by official development assistance and foreign direct investment. Diasporas provide assistance to places where it is most needed, as half of all remittances are sent to rural areas where aid agencies find it difficult to access.

One further lesson we have learnt from our diaspora is how difficult it was to be Irish during the IRA campaign in Britain. The Guildford, Birmingham and Canary Wharf bombings made the Irish a target of hostility and forced many to live hidden lives.

The Irish in Britain have spoken of ostracisation and violence, while some went as far as changing their name by deed poll to protect themselves and their family. Russian people in Ireland have similar feelings and have made the point that this is not a people's war.

Alternative narratives

Others are speaking alternative but truthful narratives to their family and friends at home, some of whom may not want to listen to what they have to say. Russian people in Ireland are a diaspora, too, who must be supported as many are holding on to an alternative social and political vision for their homeland.

Supporting diasporas is not easy as they thrive on the same passion for homeland but which can often take a different direction. We know from our own history that our diaspora communities were divided on whether support for Ireland should have been for the armed struggle, political-ends alone, or elements of both.

However, the global experience has shown the most effective elements that support diaspora engagement include listening to all, especially the smaller, less well-organised groups.

By engaging diasporas there is an opportunity for Ireland to share its experience of peace and reconciliation for the benefit of Europe.