It’s a long way from Louth to Afghanistan. Bring together one person from each and they might find themselves with something more in common than struggling to decipher the language of the other.
As the air-waves become further congested with demands for the Irish government to expand on its commitment to accommodate Syrian refugees, it’s worth remembering that over one hundred Syrians have been resettled in the country in the past year. This is noteworthy for a number of reasons:
- Among the competing concerns is the worry that Ireland is ill-equipped to deal with the selection and administration required to facilitate sizeable numbers of refugees. Ireland has been a member of the UNHCR resettlement programme since 2000 and proven itself a reasonably competent member despite selection missions drying up in recent years. The system of Direct Provision is not the only mechanism for obtaining asylum or refugee status. The state already participates in an internationally standardised framework for fast-tracking with all the necessary checks and balances. Consequently, it adheres to corresponding local reception and integration protocols. These include advance medical screening, reception accommodation for large groups of families, and coordinated partnership with local authorities, health services, education services, and welfare supports. As part of the resettlement process, a worker is traditionally recruited to coordinate a programme of support in their host community for 18 months to two years. Recent cuts in funding dramatically curtailed this support, but a cohort of experienced staff is available throughout the country, as well as many potential peer groups to offer support as only those who can empathise with their plight can.
- In the last ten years, Ireland’s UNHCR’s resettlement programmes have partnered with the following local authorities and associated core services: Monaghan, Carlow, Kilkenny, Cavan, Laois, Sligo, and Westmeath. Programmes have been evaluated, and lessons learned that contribute towards improving the process. There are many examples of good practice and case studies of empowering methodologies to build on.
- Those resettled to date include groups of families from Sudan, Kurdistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Rohingya community resettled from Burma. The challenge of resettling a diversity of people with corresponding languages, cultures and faith, has already been tested. That diversity is ultimately healthy for any society, and integration a two-way process, apparently needs repeating.
- Among the indisputable successes of the process has been involvement of volunteers; local people in the host towns who extend the hand of welcome, friendship and the offer of practical support to newly arrived families as their embark on their resettlement. These locals are as diverse as any random group of Irish citizens driven by a range of impulses that unite to meet the challenges of integration. Among them are returned and retired Aid workers, young people, folk in search of their own meaning, and those with little to their own name. Ireland has the necessary human capital and good-will in spades.
- Most refugees settled before 2011 have been granted Irish citizenship. They are now part of the skilled, resilient and knowledgeable labour-ready force of human nature; firmly in solidarity with their fellow citizens burdened with the task of pulling the country back up from its hunkers. Those who cannot work are no less grateful to be alive, and hang on to higher hopes for their children, with the same determination they had in holding on to them this side of the grave.
- Prior to participating in the UNHCR Programme, Ireland had a long history of resettling refugees; a practice that goes back as far as the 1950s, however mixed in terms of number and success. The legitimacy of domestic concerns doesn’t come under attack when aligned next to the cost of humanitarian intervention. They correspond to different points on the wedge of inequality and economic terrorism. Stacked next to financial bail-outs, the cost of resettlement is negligible but the dividends innumerable and ethical gain measurable beyond compare. To start, they are real, not virtual. Inequalities in domestic healthcare, income and access to services for Irish people didn’t coincide with the recession. They have always existed. Resettled refugees will not be in a position to avail of private healthcare, nor will they ever have sufficient disposable income to afford it. They are generally subsumed into the country’s underclass. It is always preferable to death.
The exodus of Irish refugees culminates in famine coffin ships setting sail in the sea of national memory. But we don’t have to peer farther than 1969 to dig up images of homes burning across cities with families fleeing for the border dispossessed and under threat. Only the border was internal to the island of Ireland where the displaced peoples sounded like us and blended in better. Wilful blindness to the plight of others is not a recent phenomenon. So, perhaps surprisingly, it’s this experience of displacement that informs a peculiar resonance among a diversity of people currently living in Ireland. They, and others further along rehabilitation, have proved the critical role the arts and story-telling plays in recovery from trauma and displacement. Ireland regards itself as somewhat of a leader in such disciplines. The universal need for artistic expression and story-telling is essential for those whose cultural fabric holds little or no space for western medication and psychotherapy. We are not alone in believing in miracles and cures and healing wells.
None of us have the capacity to act as UN superstars. The refugee crisis is not uppermost in all of our minds all of the time. That’s impossible; we’re not built to manage the world that way. But winning the minds as well as the hearts of people to create a groundswell of public resistance has power, and it is enough for people contending with busy and difficult lives. We don’t need to know the geopolitical complexities to challenge some assumptions about Ireland’s ability to manage refugee resettlement. An exercise in balancing pressure with purpose.
Refugees from New Barnsley, Belfast, 1969
(Source: Belfast Telegraph)
For more on the experiences of those Louth residents see