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Refugees: Making fish of some and fowl of others, the Irish experience

Photo by Алесь Усцінаў

On 12 April, The Irish Times published an opinion piece by Jim Clarken, Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland and a member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

Mr. Clarkin notes the conjunction of two contrasting occurrences on 1 March.


…the bodies of six people washed up on the shores of Lesbos Island in Greece. These people died seeking safety and refuge, trying to reach the EU in search of international protection from conflict or oppression.


EU officials were preparing to activate — unanimously and for the first time in its history — the Temporary Protection Directive, an essential and life-saving mechanism affording people fleeing the violence in Ukraine access to a three-year residence permit, education and employment in any EU country, without having to have individual asylum claims assessed.

Mr. Clarkin cites the judgement of the EU’s Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs in support of his own conclusion that the EU’s contrasting treatment of different groups of refugees is “stark and troubling”.

“…if you compare to 2015”, refugees who arrived in the EU from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and other places of conflict were left in limbo as “just to have their asylum processed could take years. Today, it’s just one week since it [the Ukraine crisis] started and we adopted a Temporary Protection Directive. They [those fleeing Ukraine] can work, they can have help with accommodation. Children can go to school, there will be no waiting time here. This is really important.”

Narrowing the focus specifically to Ireland, in the same newspaper on 21 March, Sorcha Pollak reported the views among immigration rights NGOs of this contrast. The headline over the piece read:

State’s welcome for Ukrainians reveals ‘hypocrisy’ of Irish immigration system

And the sub-headline:

We shouldn’t be applying different standards. If we can do it for Ukraine we should be doing it for Afghanistan and Syria.

The piece recorded that there are 8,205 people, including 2,685 children, in direct provision and emergency accommodation centres across Ireland “with many in the system for years”.

According to Lucky Khambule, co-founder of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland:

We’ve had the Syrian refugee crisis, the Afghan refugee crisis, there’s Yemen, there’s Ethiopia, there’s Libya — all these are conflict zones but we’ve never seen an effort from the Government like this.

Many asylum seekers (including children) are spending months in hotels (euphemistically designated as “satellite pre-reception centres”) awaiting the Temporary Residence Certificate that is the golden ticket to access to public services including health and education (for their children as well as themselves).

In a third piece on this subject from the newspaper on 9 April, John Lannon, Chief Executive of the refugee support organisation Doras sketched the contrast:

… if you’re coming from Ukraine you’re directed to, in Dublin Airport, a one-stop shop where you get a permission letter which allows you to remain in Ireland. They can get a PPS very quickly, they can get supplementary welfare allowance and fairly streamlined access to medical cards.

It would be hard to dispute as a matter of fact the contrast between the céad míle fáilte, “come one, come all”, “embrace rather than simply admit” ethos being extended to Ukrainian refugees arriving in Ireland and the bureaucratic headwinds encountered by refugees from elsewhere.

But, it is easy to point to factors to explain if not justify it. These include but go beyond the undoubted fact that we are more receptive to them because they seem more familiar to us than refugees from the Middle East and Asia, in part because of the substantial influx of people from Eastern Europe generally over the past two decades, including more than 3,000 from Ukraine itself.

One is the nature of the conflict that has caused them to flee Ukraine. It’s a simple, straightforward narrative. Ukraine is the victim of an unprovoked assault by a larger neighbour. While there is or was external involvement in the other conflict locations cited: Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Ethiopia, they are largely seen as internal, more complex and not so easily reducible to a clear binary contest between good and evil.

Another is visibility. The war in Ukraine is happening “here and now”. Thanks to television and social media, it is unfolding before our eyes and it is horror stories of death and destruction that dominate our screens, if only because they are easier to tell. They hold our attention and our sympathy better than more complex and less visual narratives about, for example, the overall shape and direction of the war.

Like tracking a courier package from shipment to arrival, we have all seen Ukrainian refugees crossing into adjacent EU countries, often on foot. Immediately before and during the early days of the invasion, the principal “coverage” of it was by media organisations plonked en masse, mainly at crossing points into Poland. Relatedly, the welcome extended to refugees by Poland especially set a tone for other countries to follow, even if it was in marked contrast to Poland’s aggressive expulsion of “refugees” being pushed towards it mischievously by Belarus only months earlier. Similarly, the stories of Ukrainian refugees arriving at Dublin Airport or Rosslare Harbour and settling in accommodation, schools, clubs and communities across Ireland provide “happy” visual stories for the media.

By comparison, visual media access to the Middle Eastern conflicts was and remains between sparse and non-existent. These are hostile and dangerous environments for independent media activity. So news coverage is indirect and sporadic, encouraging hazy perceptions of them as faraway fights in places of which we know very little.

A third reason is that Ukrainian refugees comprise mainly women and children, intuitively unthreatening and whose impression of “worthiness” is enhanced by their command of English and their enforced and poignant separation from their spouses who are staying behind to put their lives on the line to defend their country. By contrast, the 2015 “wave” of immigration from the Middle East to mainland Europe included a high proportion of individual adult men over whom hung a collective shadow of prejudicial suspicion engendered by contemporary incidents of Islamic terrorism.

A more speculative factor contributing to the greater empathy towards Ukrainian refugees is the expectation that their presence here will be temporary, that they will return home as soon as things settle down, whereas refugees from further afield might be keener to stay here even when it is safe to return home because of the superior lifestyle Ireland offers.

I am compelled to re-emphasise that I list these factors to help explain rather than justify our greater receptivity to Ukrainian refugees. The perceptions underpinning them may or may not be forensically accurate but I venture that they are widespread.

Shifting ground, just because Ukrainian refugees are being “fast tracked” for social integration here relative to refugees from elsewhere, it doesn’t automatically follow that the Government is morally obliged to accelerate the “processing” of the latter to the same speed.

The influx of Ukrainian refugees is unique in scale and the compressed period within which it is occurring. If it is true that it will comprise 30,000–40,000 people coming here within a few months, that is already 4–5 times the number of refugees already in the queue for processing. A “bulge” of this size qualifies more obviously as an “emergency” justifying greater urgency and allocation of resources.

Also, if equality of treatment were the absolute yardstick of a “fair” immigration policy, then levelling down the rate at which Ukrainians are processed is as justifiable a remedy as levelling up the pace for all others. Equality of treatment might be desirable but it is not obviously essential for an overall refugee immigration policy to be morally defensible — if also, arguably, sub-optimal.

A truth that dare not shout its name is this. Leaving the Ukrainian influx to one side as a “once off” event, the handling of refugee immigration is tuned to facilitate it but not to encourage it. Grit may not be inserted deliberately in the system, but it won’t always be removed hastily either.

But, but, but… The argument will be made that the transcendent consideration that should govern the treatment of refugees is not where they come from or the specific circumstances that brought them to Ireland’s shores, but their common humanity which endows them with the same rights to equal treatment.

That case was made indirectly by Fintan O’Toole in another opinion piece in The Irish Times on 9 April about the war in Ukraine. This was not about refugees but about the alleged Russian war crimes (“murder, rape and torture”) that had been discovered as Ukraine regained controlled over areas of the country occupied by Russian troops during the early weeks of the war.

According to Mr. O’Toole, this immensely serious and almost certainly accurate charge…

is undercut by the continuing refusal of the US to join the 123 states that are members of the ICC [International Criminal Court]. The US is equally fierce in its insistence that the ICC cannot investigate any crimes committed by its citizens in countries (like Afghanistan) that do accept the ICC’s jurisdiction.

Mr. O’Toole points out that the idea underlying the establishment of the ICC is crimes against humanity as such.

All atrocities are equally revolting because the lives and dignity of all human beings are of equal importance — whoever they are and whatever the identity of their attackers.

He goes on.

In reality, though, “our” atrocities are not the same as “their” atrocities. “We” occasionally suffer an unfortunate lapse by a few junior soldiers… “They” are barbarians and savages whose violation of civilised rules puts them beyond the pale.

There is a lot of this double vision closer to home, too. Boris Johnson, who enthusiastically supports the idea that the ICC should prosecute Putin, has been pushing for an amnesty for crimes (including murder) committed by British soldiers in Northern Ireland.

But, however high minded in principle and theory, I fear that Mr. O’Toole is tilting at windmills in attempting to eradicate the blurring distractions of “ours” and “theirs” from the moral calculus surrounding both perpetrators and their victims. And that is not to ascribe a reflexive antagonism between “ours” and “theirs”, only difference and distance.

For example, the detention of an Irish person abroad in circumstances that are not immediately explicable is a cause for our attention and concern, whereas the background to any other detentions (especially of local citizens) in the same place is almost certain to go entirely unnoticed by us.

Focusing on a specific example of this kind of contrast, the lead story on the front page of The Irish Times of 13 January was about the possible lifting of the remaining COVID restrictions. In the centre of the page, below the fold, was an account of the murder of an as yet unnamed woman while out jogging just outside Tullamore. The latter became the lead story the following day, by when the victim had been identified as Ashling Murphy. It occupied the entire front page of the following day’s Saturday edition. It was the lead story again on the Monday, a front page story on Tuesday before reporting of Ms. Murphy’s funeral filled the front page again on Wednesday. Coverage of the event receded from that point.

Tucked away on Page 7 of the newspaper on 13 January was a report of a car bomb explosion in Mogadishu which killed eight people and injured nine others. And that is the first and last we heard of them. We were not even told their names.

I am not retailing any of the above to diminish or trivialise by front or back door the appalling tragedy of Ashling Murphy’s murder or to take a dig at the newspaper.

It is not always true, as Stalin said, that a single death is a tragedy, a million a statistic. But it is generally true that a close single death has the moral significance of several similar deaths far away. Circumstances do alter cases.



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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain


Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.