Ireland must welcome people fleeing persecution ‘without distinction’, says President Higgins

President calls for sympathy for refugees and modern-day slaves on visit to Senegal

President Michael D Higgins has said it is necessary to think about today’s victims of slavery while calling for more sympathy towards refugees as he visited a former slave trading site in West Africa.

Displacement is one of the “great human failures”, he said. “We are at a point where we really have to ask about the viability of the multilateral system… I think it is very good that Ireland has opened its doors to those who are fleeing from their countries where it is no longer safe to be, and I think we have to realise that we have to do so without distinction.

“Politicians will differ in their views in relation to it,” he continued, but “if you believe in the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights], if you believe in the full principles of international law, if you believe in the rights of the person, well then I think this places serious obligations on you into how you in fact deal with the stranger at your door.”

Mr Higgins was speaking after a tour around cells where slaves were shackled hundreds of years ago before being transported across the Atlantic. He said people trapped in debt bondage and those who are exploited producing goods for broader consumption are modern-day slaves.


“As well as that, I think everything we do in relation to our world of consumption has to take on the responsibility of the circumstances in which a material object is produced,” he said. “For us to realise that slavery still exists” we have to understand “how did it come to be”.

Mr Higgins is currently on a five-day official visit to Senegal. On Tuesday morning, he visited Dakar’s presidential palace to meet Senegalese president Macky Sall, who is also chairman of the African Union.

This is the President’s first time on the African continent since 2014, and his third official visit to Africa in his current position. On Wednesday, he will speak at the opening of the Dakar 2 Summit on Food Sovereignty and Resilience in Africa, a conference on food security expected to be attended by dozens of African heads of state.

Mr Higgins called his meeting with Mr Sall “wonderful”, saying they were “able to exchange discussion and opportunities for how we can be of assistance to each other in so many different areas”. The two also discussed climate change, including the “incredible price that the continent of Africa… is paying for emissions that it didn’t create”, and the importance of “facing the past” regarding the historical relationship between Europe and Africa.

On Tuesday afternoon, the President visited Gorée Island, located 3.5km off the coast of capital city Dakar. He was accompanied by his wife Sabina and a group of officials including Senegalese arts minister Papa Amadou Ndiaye.

The island operated as a slave-trading centre from the 15th to 19th century, according to Unesco, which named it as one of Africa’s first World Heritage sites in 1978. It now serves as a museum and memorial.

Previous eminent visitors include Pope John Paul II, Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela.

A group of male musicians sang and played djembe and assiko drums as the President disembarked the boat. The jubilant mood was very different to what came next, however. It was a short walk to the “Maison des Esclaves”, or House of Slaves, where four Senegalese women stood wearing ornate dresses: the traditional dress of the African wives of the slave traders, they explained.

Eloi Coly, the site’s chief curator, led Mr and Mrs Higgins around a series of cells, telling them how groups of up to 30 men had been shackled in one, while virgin girls were kept in another before they were raped.

“The final destination of the slaves depended on the buyers,” Mr Coly said, explaining that couples could be separated, and parents separated from their children, before they were sent to different US states, or to other countries. Mr Coly said six or seven Africans probably died in Africa for each one taken abroad as a slave.

Mr and Mrs Higgins stood together to look out from what is known as the Door of No Return. “Let it not be forgotten,” said Mr Higgins. “Forgive but not forget,” replied Mr Ndiaye, the arts minister.

Mr Higgins was presented with a certificate saying he was an “ambassador” of the history of Gorée Island. “I congratulate you in what is a wonderful exercise in the ethics of memory,” he responded.

He called the visit a “very, very moving experience”, particularly realising the “degradation of the human body that was involved… the commodification, the commercialisation, the complete stripping away of dignity from an inbuilt belief that some people are lesser and some people are not sharing the fullness of humanity”.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa