Speaking our Truth

Ballaghdereen Controversy

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Mary Gallagher’s Shop in Ballaghderreen

The recent announcement of the Irish Government’s decision to locate 80 Syrian refugees in a recently refurbished hotel in Ballaghdereen in County Roscommon has prompted much comment, both local and national. Much of the commentary has focused on the absence of consultation with the local community in advance. Some of it has been of the humorous variety: “Roscommon? Refugees don’t deserve this!”.

The Government’s intends to establish the Abbeyfield hotel as an Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre (EROC) which will receive Syrian refugees for a limited period of time. On completion of the EROC programme refugees will be dispersed and housed in different parts of the country, mostly in donated accommodation suitable for families.

The issue has activated a neuralgic nerve in the public consciousness. While most people are openly welcoming to refugees, there are also many who feel that “locals” should come first, including the local homeless and people on the housing list. As it happens, there are 286 vacant houses in and around Ballaghdereen, the so-called “ghost estates” built during the boom era when so much money flowed into speculative construction. The local area plan (LAP) compiled by Roscommon County Council notes:

Growth in Ballaghaderreen particularly, was fuelled by the presence of the tax incentives (at 21.5% between 2002 and 2006) which has left many unoccupied and unfinished houses in the town (Local Area Plan 2012–2018, page 9).

The local public representatives support the LAP in its ambition to rid the town once and for all of its ‘backwater’ image and to create, in the words of the plan “a culturally rich town that celebrates cultural diversity”. A refugee reception centre was probably not envisaged by the planners. In addition, locals interviewed by the media expressed disappointment that the newly-refurbished hotel which, they believed, would be a key element in implementing the plan for a more vibrant local economy would no longer be available.

John O'Donohue, Irish philosopher and author (1956-2008)
John O’Donohue, Irish philosopher and author (1956-2008)

The Ballaghderreen situation could probably be replicated across rural Ireland wherever a similar proposal might be made. Speaking at the Céifin Institute Conference in 1999, the late John O’Donohue, noted that one of the persistent and corrosive problems afflicting Irish society i the urban-rural divide. The city simply does not understand rural life. The language used by the city bureaucrats, he said, “is a language determined by the city and is usually not an understanding language” (John O’Donohue, *Walking on the Pastures of Wonder”, 2015, p. 139). In light of Brexit and the Trump phenomenon, we are only too well aware of the dangers to society posed by elite biases and prejudices.

On the other hand, the Ballaghderreen narrative is not entirely shaped by opposition and prejudice. In fact, quite the contrary. Many from the local community have expressed their desire to be welcoming to refugees and newcomers. One lady, interviewed on RTE’s Prime Time programme, the owner of the haberdashery and clothes shop in the town, has become something of a national celebrity for her straightforward assertion of traditional moral values, shaped by generations of living and working together in community:

We were brought up to think that if somebody was needy — I’m not talking about someone who just come to work and they’re alright, they’re okay, they’ve money coming in every week. But it somebody is needy and they were driven out of their homes and you see a child being picked up in Aleppo out of the clay, how could you say no?

How could you say no? You’d be betraying every single thing that we ourselves came from.

That statement is at once an unashamed espousal of inherited deeply held community values as well as an equally generous welcoming of ‘the stranger in our midst’.

Pope Francis, in his statement for World Refugee and Migration Day, 2017, confronted us with a similar challenge, couched in biblical language, to that offered by Mary Gallagher. Citing the Hebrew Bible he said:

“Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:19). This phenomenon constitutes a sign of the times, a sign which speaks of the providential work of God in history and in the human community, with a view to universal communion.

It is difficult for us, in these turbulent and disruptive times, to grasp the profound implications of what is happening. Sometimes, the events in history that have, in the long run, the most positive longer term effects are those which are born in chaos and disruption. A bit like the story of the universe itself.

In the Pope’s remarks it is not too difficult to hear the voice of Teilhard de Chardin. Something is being born in the present chaos. Something that brings us that nano-step nearer to universal communion. As Catholics, every time we gather for Eucharist we are reminded of this ultimate goal of human history, what the liturgy often refers to in the language of ‘gathering together’. This is not a reference to an initial pre-historic unity but a yet-to-be-realised future realisation of God’s dream for the Universe, “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians, 1:10).

So, despite the practical political difficulties arising from the present situation, we can, on reflection, being to discover and appreciate a wider horizon for hope and action.

Edmund Rice School Pupils and Homelessness

Last year a gathering of young people took place in Mount Sion, Waterford to reflect on the homelessness issue. It was decided that the students themselves would engage in a campaign to raise awareness about this issue. This campaign would take place first of all in the schools concerned: Ardscoil na Mara, Tramore, CBS Midleton, The Abbey Community School, Wateford and CBS, Carlow. It was hoped that eventually a petition would be handed in to the Minister with responsibility for housing.

This has now taken place. Just after Christmas when the schools re-opened following the holidays, a petition with 10,000 signatures was handed in to Housing Minister, Simon Coveney, T.D.

Explicit reference was made to the Edmund Rice education dimension of the reflection that had taken place in the schools and with the pupils involved.

Read all about it here

On a related note, the Edmund Rice Camps met last Saturday in the Province Centre in Dublin to coordinate the annual Coats for the Homeless campaign. With the assistance of the Edmund Rice Camp Leaders coats and other appropriate clothing are collected for distribution among the Dublin Homeless. The Peter McVerry Trust is also involved.

Well done to all who took part in both initiatives!

Refugees: The Resettlement Option

We have all been rightly horrified at the plight of refugees who are faced to confront the dangers of the sea in their journeys to Europe. These journeys are undertaken not only at great personal risk, the refugees who find themselves in this precarious predicament are victims of an exploitative multi-billion dollar trafficking industry.

After World War II thousands of displaced people within Europe are facilitated in finding a new home elsewhere in Europe or even in the United States. Some were assisted in relocating in countries as diverse as Ireland and Israel.

Resettlement involves the sponsoring of refugees and the provision of protection and the possibility of beginning a new life in another country. For many refugees, returning home ie not an option. As Somali refugee Warsaw Shire said in her now famous poem, No One Leaves Home, “you only run for the border when the whole city runs as well.” There is no going back. That is the situation in which many find themselves.

European Response

In 2015, as Europe confronted its migration crisis with thousands pouring over borders heading for Germany and Sweden, the Council of Europe sought to enter into agreements with European countries to establish a resettlement option for refugees. This would mean that vulnerable people seeking asylum in a European country could do so without risking their lives. Under the 1951 Geneva Convention on the right to asylum, a person at risk can seek asylum in another country. Europe never envisaged the combination of factors which would lead to the current tidal wave of migrant flows. It is now time to put in place a structured policy for resettlement.

The European Union has ac very promoted refugee rest element over the past ten years, including rest element as an essential part of the external dimension of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). Coordination and resourcing of European resettlement has been further strengthened by the 2013 establishment of the Joint EU Resettlement Programme.

Fourteen countries, including Ireland and the United Kingdom, have signed up to the resettlement policy. This is involves a commitment to the provision of resettlement place. At the moment this number is so small as to be almost derisory. Why is this? It is partly because states have not begun to reflect on the benefits of such a policy and how it might be implemented. It remains still as a ‘nice to have’ option. But it is not taken seriously.

International Catholic Commission for Migration

Enter the NGO sector. The International Catholic Commission for Migration (ICMC) has taken resettlement seriously. Working with partners in a number of European countries, it has begun to establish a viable option for resettlement of refugees.

ICMC has established a project called the SHARE Network. This project calls for a network of European cities willing to offer resettlement places to migrants.ICMC is advocating for the provision annually of 20,000 resettlement places across Europe. Currently, some 7000 people have been resettled by ICMC through this scheme. Obviously there is room for further development of this initiative across Europe. Given the need, there is an urgent need for an expansion of the programme.

A feature of the SHARE European Resettlement Network is that it is focused on local civil society organisations, including municipalities and local NGOs. Local communities can engage with this programme to offer resettlement places.

In Ireland St Catherine’s Community Services Centre in Carlow is a partner with ICMC in resettling refugees. The Centre has worked with State agencies to ensure the provision of services for incoming families:

Our Resettlement Committee ensured that ‘arrival plans’ for the families were put in place before the families arrived. We have met every six weeks since then to oversee the development of the programme. At each committee meeting, the resettlement worker updates us on the work that has taken place. The meetings also provide a forum to discuss important matters such as mainstreaming, education and health and then to agree a co-ordinated response to any issues.

Carlow has successfully integrated members of the vulnerable Myanmar Rohingya community whose lives are often in danger in their own country. The 13 families accepted by Carlow has been living in refugee camps in Bangladesh since 1992.

If only this programme could be expanded on a European basis linking municipalities and communities in a common humanitarian effort.

A Story from Dadaab

In these June days in the Northern hemisphere students are sitting exams. Today, June 9th, Irish students will file into examination halls to begin a grueling three-week marathon of examinations to earn their graduating secondary-school qualification, the Leaving Certificate. The future of many students depend on the grades they achieve. High grades will admit them to desirable courses in the top college; sucess will lead to high-income future careers. For all Irish Leaving Certificate, it is a rite of passage whose iconic status has been guaranteed by generations of anecdotal folklore.

But spare a thought for students in refugee camps world-wide who share a similar passion for life and for a fulfilling personal future. These students may or may not have been lucky enough to have had access to schooling. For many, their schooling will have been interrupted by war, famine, disease, police brutality, racism and the sheer hardship of refugee journeys. Some students – themselves newcomers to Ireland – who sit their exams this morning will have known such horrors in their young life’s journey.

Reading Ben Rawlence’s book, City of Thorns, I came across a story that illustrates the suffering, ambition, and courage of these young students.

Kheyro’s Story

In 1992 the first flood of refugees from Somalia arrived in the North Eastern region of Kenya, making their way to the UN camp at Dadaab, today the largest refugee camp in the world. Rukia, a Somali woman, walked for ten days with an infant girl, Kheyro, on her back. In 2012, Ruykia and Kheyro are still in the Dadaab camp. That was the year Western aid workers were kidnapped by Al-Shabaab. In response to the kidnap, the UN and the NGOs retreated to their compounds. The refugees were urged to fend for themselves.

That same year Kheyro was sitting her Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE). She had been lucky and clever enough to have been among the 500 students who had gained a scholarship to study in the one secondary school operating in the camp. Her mother had spent grueling hot days out in the scrubland beyond the camp gathering firewood that could be sold to pay for a school uniform (€15) and for books. Wood sold at €0.10 per load. Some of the money was needed to purchase two batteries for a torch so that Kheyro could study at night. Sometimes the family went without food to pay for school essentials.

Only Two Ways Out

Kheyro was fired with ambition. She knew, as did everyone else in the camp, that there are only two ways out of the camp: through a UN resettlement programme or through academic scholarships provided by the Canadian government for 20 students each year who achieve the highest grades. For the rest, there is the prospect of a paid job with a UN agency, and, perhaps, eventually resettlement or Kenyan citizenship.

Such was the determination of Kheyro and some of her friends to succeed that in their final examination year they pooled money to pay €6 a month each for the cost of renting a house in the camp where they could study together. Here they studied in the evenings by the light of two naked light bulbs between forty-three students. On achieving success in the KCSE depended Kheyro’s future and that of her family.

Insecurity and Corruption

Beyond the hut where they studied the security situation continued to deteriorate. The exams had started. Kenyan police were on edge and had already begun to treat all refugees in the camp, especially newcomers, as if they were members of Al-Shabaab. Young people were rounded up and beaten. Shacks were over-turned and destroyed. Shops in the camp (we’re talking tin-hut affairs selling basic items) were set ablaze by the police and the tin cash boxes robbed.

That year, 2012, in Kenya’s North Eastern Province, 411,783 candidates were sitting the KCSE. Only one-quarter were girls. Kheyro was up against it. It was not, and could not be, a level playing field. Teachers, examination officials, invidulators could all be bribed. It is alleged that 1.3 million Kenyan shillings (€11,300) changed hands that year in bribes to education officials. Kheyro had nothing on her side except determination, courage and self-belief.

Two days after the exams started, a car carryng exam materials was attacked at a border post with Somalia a few miles from the camp. Al-Shabaan, like their Islamist co-affiliates in Nigeria, Boko-Haram, had quickly understood that the battle against the West could be cheaply ramped up by targetting education facilities. Local radio broadcasted the daily attacks. Luckily, the Kenyan education authorities held their nerve until the exams finished. The following day the first massive IED bomb exploded in the camp.

Aftermath

Kheyro was successful in her examinations. Today, she works as a professional with Handicap International in Kenya and is providing for her family.

Perhaps some Irish students, and others, who are sitting exams in these days may reflect on the challenges facing young people in other parts of the world.

Dadaab Camp, Kenya

Just two days ago the Kenya Government informed the UNCHR that the Dadaab Refugee Camp in northern Kenya would be closed in November 2016. This camp has been in operation since 1991 and has housed mainly Somali refugees. It is home to 320,000 refugees, making it the largest refugee camp in the world. Zataari, the refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan, houses 80,000 people. Dadaab is four times bigger.

While we continue to see the European migration crisis in the headlands and see nightly images of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea being picked up by EU search and rescue ships, we tend to forget the 20 million refugees who lives in protracted situations like those in Dadaab. Around the world some 60 million people are displaced persons caused by wars, famine and climate change crises.

Dadaab camp itself began in 1991 as a refugee camp to house displaced persons from Somali. There were initially 90,000 people in the camp. It has grown exponentially since, its numbers varying with the seasons of the conflict situation in Somalia itself.
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In the last two years, the Kenyan Government has become increasing convinced that the camp is enabling the presence of Al-Shabaab militants in the area and wants it closed. Kenyan miltiary forces have been engaged for some time in an on-going operation against Al-Shabaab within Somalia itself. MSF personnel have been kidnapped by Al-Shabaab within the camp and sold on to the pirates on the coast.

Damian McSweeney, an Irish Aid representative in the camp and a lecturer at University College Cork, believes that the Kenyan military operation has as its long-term goal the complete refoulement of Somali displaced persons back to Somalia itself. This will expose them to violence, a precarious living environement and, perhaps, a long-term period of insecurity beyond the reach of the humanitarian agencies. Agencies such as the UNHCR are extremely concerned about this evolving situation.

Let us not forgot the Dadaab Camp refugees.

Protection of Migrants and Refugees

In 2011 with the collapse of Libya the international media focused on the hunt for Moammar Gaddafi who was eventually chased down to a storm drain near the sea-coast town of Sirte. During all this time and since there has been very little reporting of the human tragedy unfolding for countless innocent civilians. Among these are the migrant workers, many of them from Bangladesh, who suddently found themselves stranded at desert oil-well facilities. As these were over-run they took to the desert and headed for the coast or west to Tunisia, or even further west, to Morocco.

With the collapse of regimes across North Africa countless thousands of migrants have been on the move. Add to that number the Trans-Sahara migrants coming up from countries like The Gambia, Burkino-Fasso, Mauritania, Chad, Mali and the Ivory Coast. In 2011, according to the UNHCR, approximately 61,000 people trekked across North Africa to the coast. It is as if a whole continent is on the move.

Faced with this human tide heading for the Libyan coast and transiting by boat across the Mediterarranean, the EU has responded with strengthened controls. FRONTEX, already established in 2004, beefed up its patrols in 2012 to deter migration by sea from Libya. Italy deployed its Mare Nostrum initiative as a search-and-rescue opoeration in 2013. However, this was abandoned and a series of high-profile humanitarian disasters at sea involving boats foundering in heavy seas led to FRONTEX putting in place Operation Triton in 2014.

Although naval forces, including Ireland’s Naval Service, tend to represent their operation as primarily search-and-rescue deployments, the intention still remains the same, to deter migrants from transitting from North Africa.

Foreign workers flee Libya

Externalisation

Since 2004 the EU has followed the Australian example of transferring responsiblity for migration management externally to non-EU countries. This was formalised in 2008 by the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum. Although publicly this arrangment is meant to be a set of protolcs and initiatives for the management of migration, in practice it has become the legal platform for what we now know is an externalisation of border controls and the outsourcing of immigration and asylum policy to countries such as Morocco (in the case of Ceuta) and, more recently, to Turkey in relation to Syrians crossing over to the Greek Islands.

In 2016 EU leaders have effectively set aside the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees in order to justify deporting Syrians back to Turkey, a country where most can’t work legally, despite recent legislative changes; where some have allegedly been deported back to Syria; and still more have been shot at the border (from a report by Patrick Kingsley of The Guardian newspaper).

In Greece the EU has forced the government to detail all asylum seekers arriving on their shores. The northward bound buses and trains are no more. To exacerbate the humanitarian situation on the islands, the EU has reneged on promises to provide humanitarian resources; it is to the credit of the Greek people that they have been so welcoming, providing food and other resourcs to asylum-seekers and migrants from their own resources. Under the terms of the EU-Turkey migration deal babies detained in Greece are being denied access to adequate supplies of milk formula, it has been alleged.

Readmission Agreements

Along with the externalisation of border controls, the EU has also entered into readmission agreements with non-EU source and transit countries, for example, Pakistan, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Burundi, Angola and many, many more. Again Turkey is the primary cntext for this policy at the moment.

These agreements require the countries to “take back” not only their own nationals who have entered and or stayed illegally in an EU Member State, but also any other person in this situation, irrespective of their nationality. Effectively this means that the EU gives these countries a free hand in dealing with returned migrants and refugees. Some become the victim of human rights abuses in these countries. Many can never return to their country of origin. It becomes, in short, a form of imprisonment.

Roger Zetter, writing in World Disasters Report 2012, has said:

By making it almost impossible to seek refuge in Europe we have created conditions where even those who have a powerful claim for protection risk being identified as ‘bogus asylum seekers’ or economic or illegal migrants. As immigration and asylum law become detached from International Humanitarian Law, our responsibility to protect under the 1951 Geneva Convention becomes a matter of political expediency rather than humanitarian obligation.

The bottom-line here is that, despite recent agreements and current policies, we must advocate for a return to full implementation of international refugee law. Equally, EU states must accept full responsiblity for the management of immigration policies – not pass it to other countries. The protection of the full human rights of vulnerable people must remain paramount.

The Great Story of Migration

Out of Africa

Our story as a human species is a story of migration. We came out of Africa some 60,000 years ago from the place where Homo Sapiens first evolved around 200,000 years ago. According to the fossil record this is now understood to be a place called Omo Kibish in Ethiopia.

The story tells us that we left Africa between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago, probably due to some significant climatic shift such as a sudden cooling in the Earth’s climate. Palaeontology suggests that during that climatic event the number of humans dropped to fewer than 10,000. We were barely hanging on to our tenure on the planet.

Exodus

The first group of Homo Sapiens crossed the Mandab Strait, separating what is today Yemen from Djibouti and headed along the coast first to India and then all the way to South-East Asia and Australia. Another group, about 50,000 years ago headed inland to Asia and from there colonised northern Asia and then Europe.

Some 20,000 years ago some of these early people arrived in Ireland and England. During the last Great Ice Age they disappeared completely leaving no trace. About 12,000 years ago the Mesolithic settlers arrived in these islands. In Ireland they settled along the northern coast and along the great inner lake in the Midlands.

It was the development of farming 10,000 years ago that led to the population explosion that eventually gave rise to empires, the great early migration voyages and the spread of Homo Sapiens to the ends of the earth.

The Great Western Migration Story

Another great migration began 500 years ago with the European voyages of exploration and the colonisation by European settlers (the first illegal immigrants) in different parts of the world. Between 1880 and 1930, over 27 million immigrants arrived in the United States, mainly from Italy, Germany, Eastern Europe, Russia, Britain, Canada, Ireland, and Sweden. in 1869, for example, the number of immigrants arriving in the ports of the United States was 352,569. Source: The American Annual Cyclopaedia, 1869.

The Contemporary Story

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The current migration story is just one more episode in that millennia-long history of movement, conquest and settlement. Our contemporary story began after World War II with internal movement of peoples within Europe. To a lesser extent this proves has continued with labour mobility within Europe following the Nice Treaty and the accession of new members of the European Union. In 2013, for example, there were around 7 million EU citizens — or 3.3% of the EU’s total labour force — working and living in a member country other than their country of citizenship. That trend of internal migration has deepened and continued, to the benefit of the host countries.

In terms of sheer scale, however, the present numbers of migrating peoples around the world is unlike anything that we have seen before. So far this year (2016) almost 200,000 people have arrived in Europe from Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The story of migration is a human story. It is in our DNA. Huge human, cultural and economic benefits have occurred because of it. The UK National Health Service, for example, the biggest employer in Europe, could not function with the presence of health workers from India and Asia. The challenge for governments and international organisations is to manage this movement of peoples humanely and wisely. So far, we’ve not done a good job as we stumble from crisis to crisis.

We hope for a new story of migration that will place values of compassion, care and understanding at the heart of European policies. Is it too much to ask?

Listen to some TED talks about Migration