Nancy Roe is a Social Work and Masters Graduate from Trinity College Dublin (TCD). Graduating with a BSS in Social Work, she went on to complete a Masters in Race Ethnicity and Conflict (TCD) in 2014. She has since worked as a Social Worker and as an Intern with the Irish Refugee Council. This short reflection was written during this Internship.
Every day, refugees flee war, poverty and persecution and make long dangerous voyages over sea, often on make-shift boats, smuggled below deck, in the hope of reaching safety in Europe.
The recent refugee humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean has received much media coverage. The exposure of the atrocities in the Mediterranean (20 April 2015), where 800 refugees died, men, women and children, including Syrians, Eritreans and Somalia’s, has generated a platform for discussion, whereby Europe’s borders, policies and humanitarian responses are under scrutiny on the international stage. UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards noted that approximately 1,300 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean in the month of April alone (the total figure this year is approximately 1,776).
Political leaders and representatives in Europe, and elsewhere around the world are being forced to publicly address the issue. Irish President, Michael D Higgins condemned the European response to the crisis. He suggested that we can have a generous Europe based on human values, or one that has within its borders, racism, xenophobia and exclusion.
Two days after this atrocity, Mr Higgins visited Turkey and Lebanon, attending the 100th anniversary commemorations of Gallipoli. Reflecting upon the deaths and victims of World War I, Mr Higgins described “the enormous tragedy of war” as being “linked to “the outrageous aspirations of empire”. He also stated that the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East were still trapped by the “detritus of empire”. A hundred year after Gallipoli, clear parallels can be drawn with regards to the value and respect placed on human life across borders.
Shane O’ Curry, Director of ENAR Ireland advises that the crisis did not begin with the deaths in the Mediterranean, rather “that this crisis is borne out of years of instability in sub-Saharan Africa, north Africa and the Middle East, instability for which some EU countries bear significant responsibility”. O’ Curry urges the Taoiseach in his discussions with other European leaders to show leadership, offer concrete responses, and (quoting Amnesty International) to put people before borders.
The horrific reality and experience of those crossing the Mediterranean in recent days is a source of public outcry. Death appropriately evokes a call for action. Action is equally required for those who reach our shores, after enduring such perilous journeys. Action in Ireland is required in particular to address the system of Direct Provision that fails to protect the rights and needs of vulnerable refugees on grounds such as, dignity, living standards, mental health, liberty and privacy in family life.
Refugees in Ireland are not allowed work, as permission to work is deemed a ‘pull factor’ that could potentially make Ireland an attractive destination to those seeking asylum. Ireland and Lithuania are the only two EU countries that deny asylum seekers the right to work. The Irish Times notes that this “stance causes further psychological damage to those seeking help, while revealing this State as a cold and uncaring place for the dispossessed”. Additionally for the past 15 years refugees in Ireland have received the same menial weekly allowance of €19.10 for adults, and €9.60 children (this rate is due to be marginally increased).
Sixteen years ago ‘Integration: A Two Way Process’, published by the Department of Justice and Law Reform, placed “certain duties and obligations on refugees and on the host society…to create an environment in the host society which welcomes refugees as people who have something to contribute to society”. The report emphasizes that integration policy should support initiatives that preserve the identities of individuals, including one’s ethnic, cultural and religious identity, and should remove barriers that prevent equal access to mainstream services.
More than a decade later, after numerous policies, procedures, reports and protocols, refugees and asylum seekers are still experiencing discrimination. For example, the Irish education system, which has the potential to promote equality amongst all children, is in practice unequal from the outset. The education system is largely denominational in structure, in both primary and post primary schools. Budget cuts in areas such as the provision of EAL (English as an additional language) support in schools, significantly affects many migrant students. Over fifty percent of primary and second-level principals report that many students have language difficulties, which are viewed to have significant “consequences for the academic progress and social integration of newcomer students”.
Additionally, discriminatory enrolment policies based on religious affiliation (although currently under review, with Education Admission to Schools Bill, 2015) are incongruent with the Irish government’s aspirations for equal access and opportunity for all. Recent developments regarding third level fees and refugee children may seem progressive, however in practice a refugee child’s ability to succeed within the education system is curtailed by structural inequities within the educational system, such as those outlined above.
The Mediterranean crisis has highlighted on the world stage the vulnerability of refugees, their rights and their need for protection. Irish government and media attention focusing on the European response to the Mediterranean crisis, in this context of human rights violation is welcome and appropriate. This crisis must not distract, but rather should motivate and encourage positive action by the Irish government to address the refugee crisis and associated inequalities on our shores.