Lessons “Sofia” can teach

Sofia, a virtual child created to give a face to refugee children, haunts Cork Life Centre’s deputy director, Rachel Lucey. Here, she explains why.

Sofia is a virtual child.

She was created by UNICEF Sweden using 500 images of real children in conflict to represent many millions of refugee children globally.

“I am not real I’m the face of all the children suffering from emergencies no one talks about,” the tagline of the campaign states.

But the issues Sofia has stirred up for me are so very real, and her image has haunted me ever since I first saw it.

Sofia not only represents children across the world, invisible in their plights, but those closer to home, the children whose stories are never heard, and who never get the opportunities they so deserve.

Every day in the course of my work, I am deeply privileged to work with children whose human challenges and struggles have left them on the edges of, and eventually outside, the mainstream education system.

When families and children are brave enough to trust you with their stories and journeys and allow you to work with them, that knowledge and privilege drives you to understand, to try to make a positive impact – and to advocate on their behalf.

It is easy to be shocked and disillusioned with the lack of a response and lack of empathy to the refugee crisis and to the suffering of children in any circumstance or any part of the world. How can people not respond?

It is easy to depersonalise what we do not know, what we do not understand, what we have not experienced. But if you meet a Sofia then all this will change, and you will think and worry and feel not just for Sofia, but for all the children in similar circumstances that you have not had the opportunity to meet.

I have never met a child whose story, strength, unique personality and talents did not teach me something wonderful and hopeful about the world, albeit a confusing one that seems brutal at times.

And while I cannot always be certain of the impact we at the Cork Life Centre have made, and always feel we could have done more, I am at least assured these children were given opportunities, became part of a community where they were treasured, valued and where they mattered; where somebody missed them if they did not appear, where there was someone to not just listen but hear them, and where if there was a problem we were always ready to try and work on it together.

So regardless of the onward journey or direction these children’s lives took and even if there are further struggles waiting for them on the horizon, I can feel assured they know our red doors are always open to them.

But as referrals increase and resources remain the same, it is with a heavy heart that I think about all the children I will not meet- those we will not greet at the red door. And there are many. We receive calls almost daily seeking placements at a level of demand we cannot meet. This is one of the most difficult parts of the job.

There are many children in Cork alone –  over 4,000 annually that leave education early  – that we will not meet. Roughly 10% of children in this country do not complete senior cycle education and this figure doubles in DEIS schools. I do not know what all these children look like, and I do not have a Sofia to represent these many faces and stories. But I know without hesitation there is something good to be unlocked in each one, if only we work to find the key.

We need to move beyond statistics and stereotypes and recognise the individual needs, strengths and rights of all children to learning environments that meet their needs not just educational but social, personal and human.

Every child deserves a champion, deserves at they very least their ‘one good adult.’ But how are we going to achieve this if we do not recognise them individually? This for me is what Sofia represents. An attempt to recognise not just a collective story, but each individual one.

By corklifecentrein Children, UncategorizedApril 20, 2016708 WordsLeave a commentEdit

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


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.


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

Migrant_Routes_ Mediterranean 2016_small

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

History Repeating Itself

Following the Treaty of Paris in World War I, the Greeks were assigned Anatolia as part of Greek territory. This was an Allied response to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Greek armies advanced into Turkey and were roundly defeated by the forces of the Turkish National Front (the group founded by Ataturk). The Greek-Turkish War of 1919–1922 ended with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

The defeat of Greece and the coming to power of Turkish nationalists precipitated (a) the massacre of Armenians and (b) the mass deportation of over one million Greeks from Anatolia. Greeks had been living in that region since ancient times. They were the Greek Christians who had nurtured the early growth of Christianity in Saint Paul’s Antioch. Greek culture marked the region for centuries.

The story of what happened here in 1922 is the background to Louis de Bernières’s novel, Birds without Wings. In that novel, Bernier describes the peaceful co-existence of the three communities of the Book, the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims. The destruction of this communal peace is the central theme of the narrative. It is a book remarkably prescient on the elements contributing to our present refugee crisis.

Many of the Greeks expelled from Anatolia landed in the Greek island of Lesvos, which we call Lesbos. Their descendants still live on this island. A striking feature of the current crisis is the extraordinary welcome and openness to the Syrians coming across from the Turkish coast by the people of Lesbos. Although anti-immigrant sentiment is strong in many parts of Europe, there is a remarkable welcome for refugees in Greece, despite their own economic and social crises. It is clear that the historical memory of what happened in 1922 has moved the Greek people and the islanders in particular to being extraordinarily welcoming to the newcomers.

When one unraveled the historic knots of what happened in 1922 one quickly discovers the extent to which the self-interest of the Great Powers played a part in the tragedy. Today, the contemporary descendants of the Great Powers, now acting in consort through the EU, are once again playing on ancient rivalries and ambitions to resolve the European migration problems. On the one hand they are relying on Greek good-will and at the same time turning a blind eye to what is happening in Erdogan’s Turkey.

See the following articles on the web:

Young People Advocacy Campaign

It is simply amazing what young people can do once they are mobilised and inspired.

Some weeks ago I attended a meeting in Mount Sion, Waterford, where young people from the Abbey Community College, Ardscoil na Mara, Carlow CBS and Midleton CBS gathered to launch a school-based campaign to address the issue of homelessness in Ireland. They linked with the One Campaign to initiate a national movement of young people that will culminate in a petition being submitted very shortly to the Government (assuming we have one by then!).

What has been so interesting to observe is how the young people from various schools were able to come together to leverage the power of social media to spread their message. Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are their natural environments. Young people today are hardwired almost from birth to use these platforms.

What was unexpected – for me at leas – is to see how these young people have been able to go beyond the ‘OMG isn’t this horrible’ reaction to an articulate analysis of the issues. I had some sense of this when I heard a few of them speak at the event I attended. It has been nothing short of astonishing to see how they have been able to translate their research into clear analysis and persuasive messaging.

Our future is in good hands! Well done young people of Ireland!

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