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Opinion Preferential treatment of white European war victims is a lamentable reality

Dean Van Nguyen looks at how Ireland has helped Ukrainian refugees and wonders why others have not been treated as well.

JUST OVER TWO years ago, asylum seekers were at the centre of Irish political discourse. This was in the shadow of the early shots of the pandemic, when government formation negotiations between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party following the 2020 general election hit a thorny issue: Direct Provision.

Abolishing DP was said to be a key demand of the Greens, with the party insisting it was included in the programme for government. I wrote at the time that my gut instinct was that this move was borne out of cynicism, because of course it was.

Direct Provision had been lingering in the background of Irish politics for years with seemingly little appetite from either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil to do away with the policy, despite human rights groups’ scoldings, intensifying activism, and the human beings sitting in the centres waiting for their torment to end.

Now, refugees are back at the top of the news cycle, but not as we expected.

Answering the call

​​The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused a humanitarian crisis. According to the United Nations, more than 12 million people are believed to have fled their homes since the conflict began: over six million have left Ukraine, while another 6.5 million are thought to be displaced inside the country itself.

Ireland answered the siren call. From the beginning, the government’s language was strong. “The humanitarian response trumps anything as far as we’re concerned,” said Taoiseach Micheál Martin in March. The following month, he dismissed the idea that the number of Ukrainians welcomed to Ireland should be capped.

More than 4,000 people a week were arriving in late March and early April, with those numbers dropping to about 1,600 a week by mid-May. There’s been a clambering, both from government and among the people, to make it work.

There’s been talk of bringing vacant social housing into use; personal stories have been shared, like the five Ukrainians living in a medieval castle in Galway. Get these people out of danger and within the safety of our borders and we’ll figure it out from there has been the mantra.

This is all entirely appropriate. Yet people already caught up in the system, and those who seek their liberation, have been left to audibly scream “huh?”. Because the response to the Ukrainian war is in contrast to the painfully slow-moving process that those living in Direct Provision have faced.

One treatment of one group

An EU Temporary Protection Directive was activated at the beginning of the conflict “to provide immediate protection in EU countries for people displaced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

Ukrainian nationals or nationals of another country living in Ukraine before 24 February this year can avail of Temporary Protection. Recipients are entitled to work, medical care, education and social welfare support. 

International Protection applicants do not have the same entitlements while their application is processed, particularly when it comes to the type of accommodation and the rights to work. International Protection applicants are entitled to Direct Provision.

In functional terms, this fast-tracking of Ukrainian refugees into Irish society, though the right and proper thing to do, has created a two-tier system that pushes asylum seekers from other countries to the position of B-class people, seemingly less worthy of our help.

As Ukranians pick up the pieces of their lives, refugees from Afghanistan, Palestine, Syria and other parts of the world who have also fled conflict continue to toil. And it’s not just those coming from war-torn lands. There are people who have claimed asylum due to persecution over their sexuality, those who faced the threat of forced marriage and the victims of sex trafficking, all endlessly waiting for the same rights in employment, housing and education – such as student grants and free tuition – now granted to Ukrainians.

The government seems to deem this to be acceptable because of geography. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said it was “only natural” that Ireland would respond differently to Ukrainians than to those from other countries as Ukraine is in Ireland’s “neighbourhood.”

Priority treatment

For what it’s worth, it’s only about an extra 700km to travel from Dublin to Aleppo as it is to journey to Donetsk. But let’s leave that to one side for a second and reflect on what this means. Coded into policy is the assumption that we deem victims in a white European nation as somehow more deserving of our help.

This highly discriminatory – racist, I would argue – attitude was witnessed in many clips from some news networks that emerged in the early days of the conflict (Ukraine is “civilised”; “It’s very emotional” to see “European people with blue eyes and blonde hair … being killed every day” and so on).

But even so, it’s shocking to see it percolating within our own government. I don’t mind admitting that as the son of a Vietnamese refugee, I find this upsetting on a personal level.

And with full solidarity with the people of Ukraine, who are suffering greatly, watching people from Europe effectively being ahead in the queue for refugees, it’s hard not to question the thinking behind it all.

‘They’re more like us’

It’s true that for each individual, different tragedies elicit different emotional responses. For example, the November 2015 Paris attacks that saw 90 people murdered in the Bataclan Theatre watching Eagles of Death Metal, a band that many of us have listened to, with several more killed on the streets of a city that many of us have visited.

It sparked an outpouring of grief not always emulated when incidents of similar death counts occur elsewhere. But it’s a very different thing to enshrine the importance of one tragedy over another – one life over another – into policy. And it’s certainly not good enough when we apply that binary to people already within our borders.

The media focus on Ukraine has centred it in people’s minds. People instinctively feel sympathy for the Ukrainians. But I believe Irish people also instinctively know that one life does not have value over another. And that the same story isn’t more or less tragic depending on which part of this planet you happened to fall into hardship in.

Some call this whataboutery. But whataboutery is a tactic used to deflect attention. Nobody is suggesting we do so from Ukraine – and, again, every call-out of the subpar treatment of asylum seekers from other lands must be caveated by saying it’s right that we help as many Ukrainians as we can. I simply call on people to look at the flagrant hypocrisy going on and ask that we do better.

Even promises to abolish Direct Provision have proved punishingly slow. In February 2021 the white paper was published, an impressive document when compared to what came before, but over a year on there’s been little movement on the initiative.

Indeed, last September, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (Ihrec) found that its rollout was behind schedule, with some commitments made by Roderic O’Gorman “slipping”. A senior figure in his department admitted that the commitment to ending DP by the end of 2024 may be in doubt due to challenges.

It’s often argued that generations will look at Direct Provision as a historic stain on the nation. The recent crisis has eradicated insulting assertions that it has been an imperfect but necessary system.

In future analysis, there will be nowhere for our political leaders to hide. I hope this heightened awareness of the plight of refugees improves our treatment of those already here and who come in future, regardless of what corner of the planet they originate from. 

Dean Van Nguyen is a music journalist and cultural critic. His first book, Iron Age: The Art of Ghostface Killah, was released in 2019.


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