Monday 20 May 2019

We didn't elect President to keep his mouth shut on big issues

A refugee woman with a child sits in a bus after a police operation to evacuate a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece, yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Marko Djurica
A refugee woman with a child sits in a bus after a police operation to evacuate a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece, yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Marko Djurica

Liz O’Donnell

It annoys me when I hear mutterings of discontent about President Higgins wandering into the political space. Whoever suggested or anticipated that Michael D Higgins, veteran left-wing intellectual and politician, was going to retreat into anodyne retirement in the Áras?

Those who voted for him in all our diversity knew exactly what we were getting and more importantly what we wanted in a President.

So rather than being irked at his "incursion" into political matters, I rejoice when he speaks out, as he did this week at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul.

The President's most recent remarks calling on world leaders for a more coherent response and, in effect, a total rethink of the ethical response to humanitarian need in the world is for me absolutely correct.

Ireland's record on refugee protection has been poor from the very beginning, when significant numbers of refugees started to arrive in the late 1990s.

Unprepared for the "influx", the official response was haphazard and chaotic, with long queues of asylum seekers standing in the cold and rain trying just to register their claim. The numbers were not huge, but coming from a non-existent base, they appeared so. The asylum process, rarely used up to then, was slow and cumbersome. Applicants had great difficulty navigating it, accessing legal advice and help with accommodation and other benefits to which they were entitled.

As a minister in the Department of Foreign Affairs with a human rights remit, I found myself at times on a collision course with the Department of Justice, preoccupied with border control. Anything beyond a minimalist response was viewed as constituting a "pull factor".

Previously, responsibility for refugees fell under Foreign Affairs via the Irish Refugee Agency, which managed refugee programmes, such as the Vietnamese boat people and the Kosovar refugees from Bosnia in the late 1990s. The latter programme was during my time, and thanks to excellent community engagement regionally and a well-managed and intentioned policy approach by the government, the programme was without controversy. When the Bosnian war ended, about half the refugees were repatriated with some financial assistance and the rest stayed here and became Irish citizens.

But as we entered the noughties, and the numbers and diversity of asylum refugees and economic migrants increased, the Department of Justice reclaimed control by establishing the Refugee and Reception Agency.

Hearts and minds were hardening against refugees and asylum seekers. Cost was a factor frequently cited, raising tensions in the community about resources and the old argument about "looking after our own".

In fairness, there were abuses in the system, particularly in relation to the late arrival of pregnant women purely to achieve entitlement to citizenship and related benefits.

And reasonable changes were introduced to curb this abuse, primarily in order to relieve pressure on our already stretched maternity services but also to tighten up an overly lax constitutional entitlement to Irish citizenship.

As time passed, inefficiencies in the asylum process ensured that backlogs developed at all stages, with hundreds of asylum seekers stuck in a dysfunctional system, propagating judicial reviews and protracted appeals.

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of our asylum process was that applicants were prohibited from working until such time as their status was determined.

And because of the slow pace of proceedings, thousands of people were denied the dignity of work and the economic independence and integration which goes with it.

Direct provision was introduced in 2000, which required asylum seekers to live in reception centres providing bed and board with a tiny allowance as pocket money.

While controversial, it was excused as a temporary solution for asylum seekers competing for housing in the private sector. Sixteen years later, thousands of asylum seekers without status still languish in direct provision centres, denied the right to work and in conditions which are unsuitable for families with children.

There have been numerous reports critical of this state of affairs, most recently a high-level, Government-appointed Working Group on the Direct Provision System, with 173 proposals for major change published last June.

Ireland has also been criticised by the UN, and former Supreme Court Judge Catherine McGuinness has warned of the harm being done to children in particular.

The President was not alone in noticing that refugees either in direct provision here or in miserable camps on Europe's borders were ignored in the negotiations to form a government. Neither has there been a clamour on the opposition benches. Lethargy and avoidance have been the order of the day. There are no votes in refugees.

And a minority government struggling for survival will claim it has enough to be getting on with.

The only meaningful demonstration of Ireland's contribution is the deploying of the naval services to rescue migrants from the treacherous seas, saving thousands of lives. This is a laudable and much needed contribution, given that already this year 1,370 people have drowned trying to enter Europe.

But the fact is that the agreement reached last September for Ireland to accept 4,000 refugees as part of a Europe-wide relocation of refugees from Greece and Italy has not materialised. Only a handful of refugees have arrived in Ireland, allegedly due to delays at the other end.

The excuses for inaction by Ireland on this are feeble. As President Higgins says, if the system is flawed, change it. Europe too, with the heroic exception of Germany and Sweden, has fallen short, with a ceding of ground to the far-right, ultra-nationalist forces in some European countries.

Voices of morality and humanity, such as Angela Merkel, Peter Sutherland and Pope Francis, are too often eclipsed by the opposing forces of xenophobia.

So when progressive world leaders like President Higgins speak up for refugees, people who share those humanitarian values should support him.

Ireland could be proactive and act unilaterally to mobilise the transfer of Syrian refugees from camps regardless of bureaucratic delays elsewhere. This would be in line with expressed public support in Ireland, which is in danger of dissipating due to official inaction. Such lethargy is discordant with Ireland's track record on humanitarian aid and peacekeeping.

We are fortunate to have a Head of State to assert the nation's highest values and best instincts.

Irish Independent

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