Speaking our Truth

Ballaghdereen Controversy

mary_gallagher_ballaghderreen
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.

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.

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.
kenya_police_dadaab_camp
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.

No More Fences – Brother Alois (Taizé)

Across the world, women, men and children are being forced to leave their land. It is their distress that creates in them a motivation to leave. That distress is stronger than all the barriers that impede their move.

I can vouch for this, since recently I spent a few days in Syria.

In the city of Homs, the extent of the destruction caused by the bombing is unimaginable. Much of the city is in ruins. I saw a ghost town and I felt the despair of the inhabitants of the country.

Today Syrians are flooding into Europe; tomorrow it will be other peoples. The large flows of migration that we are seeing are inevitable. Not realising this would be shortsighted.

Looking for ways to regulate the flow of migrants is legitimate and even necessary, but to want to prevent it by building walls bristling with barbed wire is absolutely useless.

When we are confronted by this situation, fear is understandable. Resisting fear does not mean that it has to disappear, but that it should not paralyse us. We must not allow the rejection of foreigners to take root in our minds, for the refusal of the other is the seed of barbarism.

As a first step, the rich countries should acquire a clearer awareness that they have their share of responsibility for the wounds of history that have caused and continue to cause massive migration, particularly from Africa or the Middle East.

And today, some specific political choices remain a source of instability in these regions. A second approach should cause them to go beyond the fear of foreigners, of cultural differences, and begin courageously to shape the new face that migration is already giving to our societies in the West.

Instead of seeing foreigners as a threat to our standard of living or our culture, we should welcome them as members of the same human family. And we shall find that although the flow of refugees and migrants certainly creates difficulties, it can also be an opportunity.

Recent studies show the positive impact of migration on the population and the economy. Why do so many speeches emphasise the difficulties so much and never highlight the positive aspects?

Those who knock at the door of countries richer than their’s cause these countries to learn solidarity. Do they not help them to gain a new vitality?

I would like to mention here our experience at Taizé. It is humble and limited but very real. Since last November, in connection with the local government, the community of municipalities to which our village belongs and local associations, we have been hosting at Taizé 11 young migrants from Sudan—most from Darfur—and from Afghanistan, all coming from the “jungle” of Calais.

Their arrival has sparked an impressive show of solidarity in our region: volunteers come to teach them French, doctors treat them for free, neighbours take them to outings in the area and for bike rides….

Surrounded by friendship in this way, these young people who have gone through tragic events are rebuilding their lives. And such a simple contact with Muslims changes the outlook of those around them.

In the village, these young people have also been welcomed by families from various countries—Vietnam, Laos, Bosnia, Rwanda, Egypt, Iraq—who came to Taizé in past decades and who are now an integral part of our wider community.

All have experienced great suffering but bring vitality to our village as a result of the richness and diversity of their cultures.

If such an experience is possible in a small region, why cannot it be undertaken on a much larger scale?

It is wrong to think that xenophobia is the sentiment most widely shared—often there is above all a great deal of ignorance. Once personal encounters are possible, fears give way to fellowship. This involves seeing things from the other’s point of view. Mutual friendship is the only way to prepare for a future of peace.

By taking on together the responsibilities required by the wave of migration, rather than by playing on people’s fears, political leaders could help the European Union regain a momentum that has been greatly slowed down.

A whole younger generation in Europe aspires to this openness. We are aware of this, since for years we have been welcoming on our hill of Taizé, for week-long international meetings, tens of thousands of young people across the continent. They see that the building up of Europe finds its true meaning only if it shows solidarity with other continents and with the poorest peoples.

Many young Europeans have difficulty understanding their governments when they declare the intent to close their borders. These young people ask rather that the globalisation of economics be associated with a globalisation of solidarity, and that it be expressed in particular by a dignified and responsible welcome offered to migrants.

Many of them are ready and willing to contribute to this. Let us remain confident that generosity also has a major role to play in the life of the city.

Article by Brother Alois Löser is Prior of the Ecumenical Community of Taizé in France

Refugees: Basic Information

Who is a refugee?

In plain English, a refugee is anyone who is forced to leave their country. This situation is dramatically illustrated by Warsaw Shire’s poem, No one Leaves Home. Refugees, according to the UN Convention on Refugees (1951) are people in danger of persecution for any of the following reasons:

  • Race: Including ethnicity e.g. Roma people.
  • Religion: In some countries not belonging to a religion (e.g. agnostics or atheists) is viewed as badly as belonging to the ‘wrong’ religion
  • Nationality: And not just nationality. Membership of a particular social group, for example, a trade union can be an issue. It is also unfortunately the case that gender (i.e. male or female), sexual orientation, age (i.e. if children are in danger of persecution) can be a consideration.
  • Political opinion: This applies not only in relation to membership of political parties but also arises because of political opinions held. Sometimes things can go wrong even if people think you do. For some people who are refugees their only ‘crime’ is thinking differently from the mainstream.

Who is eligible for subsidiary protection under the Convention?

A third country national, not a refugee, who if returned to his/her country of origin, faces a real risk of suffering serious harm is entitled to protection. Many such persons often face potential dangers such as: execution for political reasons, torture, degrading treatment or punishment.

A person can also qualify for refugee status if it is determined that a serious threat to an individual’s life exists because of situations where indiscriminate violence exists. This often arises in situations involving armed conflict, whether international or internal (e.g. in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Burundi, South Sudan, and many other countries where civil unrest exists).

Who is an asylum seeker?

An asylum seeker is someone who is seeking to be recognised as a refugee. If they are granted this recognition they are declared a refugee.

Where do refugees typically come from?

The top three countries of origin globally for refugees are Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.

How do asylum seekers live in Ireland?

While their application is being processed, asylum seekers are housed by the Irish government’s Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) in direct provision accommodation centres around the country. This means that they live in hostel-like accommodation, where families are often housed in one room, and singles usually share a room with others of the same sex. Shower and toilet facilities are often shared. Televisions are provided in each room and some centres have a games room. Meals are cooked for the residents, and served at a set time each day. There are no facilities for preparing meals in the vast majority of centres.

What kind of welfare entitlements exist for asylum seekers?

Do asylum seekers get social welfare or children’s allowance?

Asylum seekers receive a weekly allowance of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child. This must cover any additional school expenses, clothing, footwear, toiletries, phone credit, internet access, etc.

Can asylum seekers work?

Asylum seekers are not permitted to work in Ireland, therefore they are forced to depend on the state.

Can children who are asylum seekers or refugees go to school?

All children that have been given refugee status are entitled to the same rights as Irish children including the same access to education.

Children that are waiting for a decision on their asylum application can attend primary and secondary school, but they are not entitled to free fees for college and must pay non-EU fees which they usually cannot afford. Remember, asylum seekers receive only €19.10 per week per adult and €9.60 per child. It would take a long time to save enough for college fees!

Note: See this RTE special RTE Investigates programme on Asylum Seekers in Ireland Click here

Ireland’s Reception Rate

This is from the RTE Investigates TV programme Information Graphic.

  • Sweden: 318 per 100,000 of the population
  • Germany: 50 per 100.000 of the population
  • Bulgaria: 96 per 100,000 of the population
  • United Kingdom: 15 per 100, 000 of the population
  • Ireland: 9 per 100, 000 of the population

Irish Attitudes to Refugees

Irish attitudes to refugees are represented in the following Infographic from Newstalk radio based on data research by RED C in a poll conducted with 1038 Irish people. The Newstalk radio poll was commissioned in late 2015 to assess public response to the Irish Government proposal to accept 4,000 refugees into the country as Ireland’s contribution to the EU refugee intake plan.

Newsalk RED C Poll Graphic

The Cost of Migration

In the middle of the current migration crisis confronting Europe it is difficult to reflect objectively and dispassionately on what it is happening. We know something about the reasons why so many from the Middle East and from Africa are seeking a new life in the West, particularly in Europe. Very often, as we know, those who undertake arduous, life-threatening, journeys are among the best and the bravest. Some are well-educated by local standards. A small minority have educational qualifications that rival those of many Europeans.

One aspect of migration that has occurred to me in recent times is the cost to the country of origin when migrants depart for Europe. In Ireland we are more than aware of the ‘brain-drain’ when our highly-educated young people leave to take up employment in the United States, Australia, Britain or mainland Europe. There is the cost arising from a lost education investment. Even greater is the potential loss arising from the contribution that the departing person could have made to the local economy. Ultimately, in a European context, it is believed that the direct cost arising from the lost investment and potential is more than compensated for by the benefits arising from the free movement of labour. The highly-educated German who takes up a job in Ireland and decides to stay will, over time, compensate for the loss of the young Irish person who departs.

However, this balance sheet approach masks several greater losses. There is an immediate emotional cost in terms of the dispersion of a family and the weakening of family ties. This loss is real and permanent, no matter how effective FaceTime and Skype may be in maintaining communication. Another immeasurable and equally severe cost is the impact on local communities when young people leave in large numbers. Sometimes this cost arises from internal migration within the country as young people leave rural areas to take up employment in the cities.

But to return to Africa and some data.

What is the cost to Africa of the loss of its departing migrant population? The World Bank estimates that 70,000 of Africa’s most qualified people leave each year and the continent spends $4bn to replace them with expatriate workers. It would seem that this estimate has to be on the low side since it clearly represents the cost of replacing ‘qualified’ people whose replacement can be measured by reference to local education provision costs. The actual cost to Africa when the vastly greater numbers of ‘unqualified’ people are taken into account is probably significantly greater and incalculable.

Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo has reportedly said that food production in Nigeria was falling because so many farmers were fleeing the fields for the West. The current food shortages in Nigeria is, in part, due to this phenomenon. It is also assuredly the case that drought and environmental damage in the delta areas are having an even more severe impact on food production. Nonetheless, the of loss rural populations in agricultural areas, whether due to drought or migration, undermines sustainable food production in the long run and contributes to food insecurity.

A more positive assessment of migration would place an emphasis on the financial value of migrant remittances to the home economies. This is a well-known positive aspect of international migration. Many. countries rely heavily on remittances from citizens living abroad, The Philippines and Bangladesh would be relevant examples. Worldwide, migrants in the West sent back $72.3bn to poor countries in 2001. Informal money transfers probably count for two or three times more.

In Africa Senegal earns 2% of its national income from remittances, Nigeria 4% and other countries even more.

Jean-Philippe Chauzy from the International Organization of Migration says it is very difficult to say whether the benefits of the remittances outweigh the problems caused by the departure of so many people. In the overall context of migration it would be well for international agencies, donors, and governments to reflect on the cost factors involved in migration.,/p>

Would enhanced social investment, fairer trade conditions, more collaborative approaches, and a positive engagement with the Global South be more cost effective formal in the long run? At the end of the day no migrant willingly leaves home.

Creating Signs of Hope for Syria

Global Call for Acts of Solidarity and Days of Prayer and Fasting for Syria
In solidarity of all victims of this brutal war
15 March 2016: 5 years since the start of the protests

Pax Christi International is calling all people of good will to organise acts of solidarity and days of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria between 15 and 20 March 2016. We call on individuals and organisations to show solidarity with refugees and victims of war and violence and create signs of hope that peace can come again in Syria.

In March 2011, Syrian civilians started non-violent demonstrations to demand basic freedoms and rights. The regime’s extreme repression led to the militarisation of the protests, evolving to a systemic war that has affected the whole region.

In the five years since, more than 250.000 people have been killed, more than 13.5 million people inside Syria are in need of emergency relief and 6.5 million civilians are internally displaced, including hundreds of thousands in besieged cities, deprived of food and basic services. Moreover, more than 4.6 million Syrian refugees have fled to neighbouring countries and the wider region.

The conflict in Syria has also worsened the situation of the Palestinian refugees in Syria and Iraqi refugees living in the region. Their plight must not be forgotten. We are also in solidarity with the thousands of civil society activists in Syria. Despite scarce resources and limited solidarity, they continue their struggle for justice and are intensely engaged in humanitarian relief efforts.

This war has lasted too long and there is no perspective that it will end soon. The destruction of human lives and of a whole country must come to an end. We urge for the respect for human lives. The attacks against civilians and the bombardments need to stop, and the sieges should be lifted. The protection of civilians is at the forefront. Talks need to be intensified!

Organising an act of solidarity or day of fasting or prayer is also an occasion to meet with refugees in your own community. Please share your events and stories and photos with us via Facebook or Twitter (#HopeforSyria). In the course of the coming weeks we will provide you with update information so that you can prepare your actions.

Whatever resources you may have are welcome. Please share them with us. We will add them to https://hopeforsyria.wordpress.com/ that will be created on 18 February, 2016.