Wednesday 18 September 2019

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'An immigration problem? You haven't got the first idea'

The shocking sights in Ethiopian refugee camps should shame those protesting here into silence, writes Dr Ciara Kelly

'One of the recurrent themes the alt-right harks back to is immigration.' Stock image
'One of the recurrent themes the alt-right harks back to is immigration.' Stock image
Dr Ciara Kelly

Dr Ciara Kelly

We've seen some strange scenes on the streets of our capital over the past few weeks.

Nazi salutes given by people calling themselves patriots. And, indeed, counter-protesters in fancy dress with colourful flags, dancing in the face of it all.

Who knew the main enemies of the fledgling alt-right movement here would be unicorns and rainbows?

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One of the recurrent themes the alt-right harks back to is immigration. The idea that we are being flooded with foreigners who, according to them, appear to be both taking our jobs and sponging off our social welfare system at the same time.

They are drawn to the white supremacist idea of white replacement theory: the idea that white people - who in the main, let's be honest, are the most powerful people on the planet - are being somehow wiped out as a race by those of various other races. And they seem to believe our largely homogeneous Irish population is somehow in imminent danger of becoming extinct.

It reminds me of when men's rights activists whine that men are being obliterated somehow by feminism. And it illustrates very clearly how equality feels like an erosion or attack when you come from a position of true privilege.

But back to immigration. We have relatively small amounts here, as I think most people can see. Most of it comes from within the EU - eastern Europeans have been coming here for the last 20 or so years and doing a great job of keeping our hospitality and construction industries going. And among non-EU nationals, the CSO says we had a net immigration of 20,900 in 2018. Hardly a massive figure in a population of 4.6m people.

It is this last group the alt-right seem most incensed by - and I can only infer it is because they are racists.

I'm not long back from Ethiopia, where I travelled with aid charity Goal to see the work its volunteers are doing on the ground there in refugee camps.

Violence in South Sudan over the past six years has resulted in thousands of refugees fleeing the region and entering Gambela in western Ethiopia.

To give you some kind of context, the native Ethiopian population of Gambela is 400,000. And there are almost 500,000 South Sudanese in camps there.

In fact, in all of Ethiopia, there are three million displaced people - and Ethiopia wasn't exactly a wealthy country to start off with.

I spent days in the camps, walking around talking to the refugees and the Goal workers, and some of the scenes I saw and people I met will stay with me for the rest of my life.

I've been to Western Africa, Central America and South-East Asia previously. I worked in a rural hospital on Java as a medical student, so I thought I knew what poverty looked like. But nothing prepared me for Ethiopia.

There are levels of poverty and desperation I was lucky enough not to have seen before.

I met women covered in scars from bombs going off in their villages. I met women who had lost children and had no idea what had happened to their husbands, whom they hadn't seen in years and had no word of. I met a woman who had left four young children to fend for themselves across the camp in their hut because she had a baby critically ill with malaria that she had to stay with and feed in an NGO compound.

The worst place I saw was the transit camp, the place where those refugees first arrive when they walk the 50km across the South Sudanese border. If there is a hell on earth, this place is it. The refugee camps are basic, thousands in huts and tents living on dry rations. But they are organised. There is some order in them. The transit camp was the bleakest place I've ever seen.

It was the rainy season. Heavy downpours had turned the ground to mud. Huge potholes full of filthy water were everywhere. People with just the ragged clothes on their backs were sheltering in vast empty barns. No furniture. No bedding. Just damp soil to lie on. A pit latrine is too far away for people to use, so they defecate behind the barn. Men, women and children in the same miserable space. Two bowls of porridge a day keeping them alive.

But what really struck me in all of this was talking to one woman a little younger than me who had lost her husband in the fighting. When I asked her how was life in the camp, she said: "Better."

This was better than what she had left in South Sudan. "But before the fighting it was different," she said. "I was a primary school teacher. I had a home. A salary. Possessions. A life. I did things and I went places. Now I live in a refugee camp."

She had had a normal life, much like any of us. And this was now her reality.

You see, these people are us. They have the same hopes and fears. They want the same things. Security. A roof over their heads. Their children to be okay. They are exactly like us - they just live on a different bit of the planet. That's it. The only difference.

The Ethiopians are struggling to cope with the level of refugees there, but they aren't talking about Ethiopian replacement. They aren't talking about being obliterated by the vastly greater numbers of people coming into their country. Why? Because they don't look down on black people as lesser or different. They see these people are in desperate straits. And they are helping them. And I was proud to see Irish NGO Goal helping them too, doing an incredible job in terrible circumstances.

So if you are one of those people who find yourself drawn to the rhetoric of hate, the nonsense about Irish people being squeezed out by hordes of people coming here, I have two things to say.

You have no idea what hordes look like. We are dealing with a trickle.

Secondly, what would you have people who have lost everything - their home, their family, their previous lives - do?

What would you do if you were them, except try to build a life again somewhere else?

Maybe you should think on that when you're throwing a Nazi salute in a pathetic tribute to a genocidal regime.

And maybe you should donate something to Goal, which is actually dealing with the issues you are just prattling about.

@ciarakellydoc

Sunday Independent

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