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Opinion The riots were a scaled-up version of what we migrants face every day in Ireland

Teresa Buczkowska says the riots in Dublin sent a very clear and disturbing message to all migrants.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 29th 2023, 9:15 AM

THE DUBLIN RIOTS last week broke my immigrant Dubliner’s heart. Seeing the city’s inner streets torched and looted in the name of protecting the city and its people from migrants, was so much to bear. It felt like there were people who hated migrants so much that they would rather destroy the capital city than see us as equals and let us live in peace.

On Friday morning, I woke up to a flood of messages on various migrant group chats.  Numerous people were trying to build each other’s courage and hope that the streets of our home city were safe for us to walk on. It is hard to speak with compassion to build hope in a situation of imposed collective responsibility and punishment.

The burning cars, buses and broken windows felt like a message: one hoping to instil fear in Dublin’s migrant communities. The message was received, in the same way we have received all your messages before. The events on Thursday night were a scaled-up example of the everyday experiences of the majority of migrants living in Ireland. There are many stories in my migrant life that burned scars in my heart, just like the riot burned scars on Dublin’s streets.

Paying for the sins of others

The riots were to impose a collective responsibility on the migrant population over the actions of one single man. Ask any migrant, and they will tell you about other times they were held collectively responsible for the actions of someone else. One of my stories is from the time I was working at a till register in a local shop.

A customer who was a regular one day walked into the shop with intention other than shopping. He read a story in a newspaper about Polish people who did something he didn’t like, and he decided to hold me responsible too.

He demanded that I apologised. When I refused, he told me to go back to where I came from.

I know there will be other times we will have to respond to demands for apologies on behalf of other migrants we don’t even know. Can you imagine, if you’re an Irish person living abroad (of which we know there are many) being asked to account for all Irish men and women whose horrific crimes have hit the headlines? How would that make you feel? It makes no sense. 

The message was that we are all guilty in the eyes of the rioters for being migrants and occupying the same space as them. It reminds me of the time when my housemates and I were repeatedly harassed by our Irish neighbour for talking in our back garden. One day we asked her to tell us what the true problem is because two people talking can hardly be considered a disturbing noise. She said that while she acknowledged we were not too loud she deserves to rest in silence because she works, and we don’t. I worked two jobs at that time, but I still could not escape the harmful public narrative that I was a welfare-sponging migrant. The message we got that day was that in the eyes of our neighbour, we were guilty of being migrants, and it offended her that she had to share a space with us.

Stories of harassment

Only last week on one of the migrant group chats we were providing emotional support and advice to a migrant woman who was pelleted with stones for walking on the streets and speaking her mother tongue. She was also victimised during an anti-migrant rally.

The stories I recall may have been on a small scale compared to what took place in Dublin but each of these events brought a similar level of fear, guilt and shame.

The Dublin riot was to remind us that we could never feel content and safe. Being a migrant means you live your life in a perpetual state of alert because even something so normal like speaking your mother tongue may bring violence upon you.

In the hours following the violent eruption in the heart of Dublin, Irish people rushed to put public statements out to distance themselves from what happened. I cannot read those words without thinking ‘Haven’t we told you this is going to happen?’. Each of the racist incidents that I responded to when working at the Immigrant Council of Ireland was a story of a migrant experiencing a personal anti-migrant riot that burned down their soul and heart.

I found it difficult to read through the quickly put-together statements lacking meaningful reflection that would go beyond the cliché declaration ‘not in our name’, ‘we are better than that’.

Who are you talking to in those statements, and who are you talking about? It is so easy to point a finger at the far-right leaders and the despair of people struggling with destitution. It is so easy to distance yourself from the events that were a burst of long-time brewing hate. The ’not in our name’ slogans offer absolution to people who sip their morning coffee while reading your op-eds thinking racism is a marginal issue in Ireland.

It is so easy to say, ‘It’s not us.’ But is that strictly true? Is resentment of immigrants just a little more endemic than you care to admit? The woman who told me to keep quiet when sitting in my own back garden is a public servant. The man who demanded my apology for being a migrant is a respected member of the local community. The migrants who are seeking help from anti-racism services are victimised by nurses, teachers, neighbours, journalists, work colleagues, lawyers, Gardaí, politicians, civil servants and other people usually not associated with far-right circles.

Genuine inclusion means platforming the voices of immigrants. Take public and media discussions, for instance: If you take up the entire space that should be shared by all, then it is you who perpetuates the unwelcoming environment. It is you if you are fixating on the nationality of any person accused or convicted of a crime that is not Irish. It is you when you are only interested in the stories of migrant victimhood, sidelining stories of our personhood and leadership. It is you who is controlling the public narrative. 

The clean-up after the riots will soon remove the signs of violence from Dublin streets. But the scars will remain in people’s souls. Migrants will keep living our lives in a constant state of alert waiting for another personal anti-migrant riot to launch. Meantime, I will continue walking the streets of Dublin as a proud immigrant Dubliner claiming my right to keep calling it home.

Teresa Buczkowska is a Polish-Irish migrant rights campaigner. She spent 10 years working at the Immigrant Council of Ireland.

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Teresa Buczkowska