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Lynn Ruane: Some refugees are vilified for being from certain places or because they are men

Whether it is sinister actors or simply those with misplaced fears, many now seem comfortable asserting a hierarchy of who is worthy of protection, Senator Lynn Ruane writes.

Lynn Ruane Independent Senator

I READ TWO sayings recently used by Eritreans in Sally Hayden’s My Fourth Time, We Drowned. I will open with one and close with one. Both act as warnings to their people about the dangers of hope and ambition.

‘Chamaka mare egreka’ translates as, ‘Your shoe should be equal to your foot’.

I interpret this as never wanting better, never reaching beyond your circumstances or your lot in life. Reflecting on our history, we can all appreciate any endeavour to find a place free from deprivation, persecution and conflict.

We, as people, left this island in droves to find safety. People will seek that refuge here in Ireland in the same way generations of Irish people have, something I naively hoped we understood intimately.

However, when we sought refuge, we had our white skin and Christianity, which many who enter Ireland don’t have. This seems to matter when we consider who is and isn’t equal and who is entitled to shelter. 

This week I was bombarded with videos of the ESB building on East Wall, a barrage of anti-immigrant sentiment and then the more obvious racism and fear-mongering from some of the crowd.

There has been a noticeable increase in xenophobic and racist discourse in Ireland, and hostility is there in the light of day for us all to see.

Some people seek to assert superiority, complaining over some nationalities’ rights and access to public services. Others move along with the narrative that there is something to fear, that your group and your identity and your safety are under threat. 

At yesterday’s joint committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, we discussed the refugee accommodation crises. At that committee, I asked if there was parity between the teams tasked with securing accommodation for two groups of refugees: Ukrainian refugees (who have been granted special protection under the EU Temporary Protection Directive) and all other refugees seeking International Protection.

Minister Roderic O’Gorman confirmed that there is parity, and no one group is prioritised over the other.

However, what was clear is that it is more difficult for the Department to secure offers of accommodation for those non-Ukrainian refugees seeking International Protection. Here we see structural racism playing out in real-time, as certain types of refugees receive resources more readily than others.

Seeking refuge is not solely about fleeing war but encompasses those fleeing domestic conflict, persecution, human rights abuses and torture. Many people worldwide have been targeted because of who they are, their religious views or their membership of a particular community such as LGBTQI+.

Tiered response

All these people are in need of protection, whether they are fleeing a specific war or not. And I think, as a nation, we understand this – yet we see the anti-immigrant sentiment on the rise across our country.

We see certain types of refugees being de-prioritised or vilified, because they are from certain countries or because they are men.

We see it in the questions being asked about the rights of people to international protection; who are they, where are they from, and are they vetted? (Keeping in mind nobody is vetted for accommodation, including the individuals asking for it.)

Working in parallel to structural forms of racism is ideology. We see the spread of the idea that migrants are a cause of concern – that they are a threat to jobs, to housing, and to the poorest in our societies.

Some actors deploy this idea disingenuously, with the intent to stoke fear and manipulate others, with the intent of furthering their racist agendas. Others, including those whom the State has systematically disenfranchised, may be working off fear and worry about their own families’ lives.

That fear gets displaced onto immigrant communities who are also in a precarious position regarding safety and shelter.

Whether it is sinister actors or simply those with misplaced fears, many now seem comfortable asserting a hierarchy of who is worthy of protection – whether in terms of ethnicity, gender, age, or country of origin.

But how do we challenge this in ourselves and others?

How do we welcome people to our shore while also demanding the State provide adequate resourcing for integration, reception and support?

We can do both, and many communities are doing both. 

Returning to the idea of perceived threat, it is clear that fear – both unfounded and
manipulated by a minority with a racist agenda – leads to prejudice.

Prejudice leads to discrimination, and the scenes we have seen this week at East Wall.

If you unpack some of the narratives from people on the street or the online commentary, people say they are concerned about housing and services – something this country has been concerned about for years, especially communities that have suffered most under austerity.

It has never been the fault of migrants, nor is the solution found in racism and discrimination.

Many have felt the total weight of oppression and poverty and struggled to flourish under a neo-liberal regime.

Anger, fear and a sheer lack of power to turn it all on its head threaten to manifest in other ways.

This powerlessness gets translated into people finding ways to exert influence over an easier target, that easier target sometimes being migrants, especially migrants who are not white. 

Some groups and individuals do not receive the same levels of care or possess the same capital within our social structures. When those without capital turn on one another, this is to the benefit of the status quo.

The more we exert the pressure of power downwards or at one another, we all lose in the race to the bottom – and all the while, the concentration of power remains intact at the top.

Rather than creating disunity, we must fight for the structural and environmental conditions that support relations and integration between those with the least power – the poorest in our society, those seeking asylum. 

‘Nab laeli ente temitka hgus aykit kewn eka’ translates as, ‘If you look up, you will become unhappy’. 

Beyond power, class and race, although they thread through much of all human relations, we must remember at the heart of all we are and all we are is human. Extending humanity and empathy in the direction of others creates conditions for others in worse situations than us to look up – to take their ambition for better to us, to our communities.

Lynn Ruane is an independent senator.

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About the author:

Lynn Ruane  / Independent Senator

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