A Manifesto for Migration Activism

Ireland’s unjustifiable mistreatment of refugees and immigrants is the next frontier for social justice.

This piece was originally published in Trinity News on November 26th 2018.

Photo by Ciarán Sunderland for Trinity News

Ireland has a xenophobia problem. I think there’s something in the national conscience that makes us think we’re above that, partially or entirely. Perhaps because we’re an ex-colony that experienced oppression at the hands of an empire ourselves. Perhaps because our country was, until recently, relatively sheltered and homogeneous. Perhaps it’s just the standard ignorance of a western European nation that imagines itself to be tolerant, even in the face of all evidence. Whatever it is, it’s wrong.

The most famous example is direct provision. It was initially designed, when implemented in 2000, to be an “interim” system meant to house people for no more than six months while their asylum application was considered. The concept in itself is not the issue – asylum seekers need to be and should be housed by the state. But people spend an average of two years in the system and in that time are frequently and routinely treated horrifically. They are given an allowance that amounts to less than €1200 annually per adult, they consistently report extremely poor quality of food and accommodation, and there are numerous examples of bizarre and seemingly random restrictions on what residents are allowed to do in the centres (their de facto homes), such as bans on use of electronic devices at night.

Only this year were asylum seekers allowed to work while their applications are under review, and even then the process remains Byzantine. Among other things, permission to work only lasts 6 months, employment dozens of sectors is off limits, and any slight hiccup in any of the numerous administrative processes of the asylum application will cause the work permit to be revoked – and vice versa.

Treating anyone in state care this way would be unconscionable, but to do it to asylum seekers – people who’ve literally fled to Ireland because they fear persecution and violence – is nothing short of criminal. None of these are unfixable or even particularly complicated problems, they remain in place because successive governments don’t want to change them. They don’t care.

That’s just the beginning of the problem, however. The twin cases of Eric Xue and Shepherd Machaya last month hint at something more systemic. Both have been living in Ireland for nine years, the former since he was actually born here, the latter after fleeing torture in Zimbabwe. The logic behind forcibly removing an Irish boy to a country he has never lived in and to which he has effectively no actual connection escapes me. Similarly, an asylum seeker on his second third level degree (an incredible achievement, given those in direct provision are not entitled to free fees), who’s lived in this country for a third of his life has as much right to stay here as anyone. And yet both should, by law, have been removed.

They were lucky enough to have their cases become high profile and attract public support, but this is very much the exception. Deportation orders are routine, with approximately a thousand made each year. Indeed just a week before those two, an Offaly teenager who’d lived in Ireland since he was two narrowly avoided being sent to Nigeria – again, only because he had support from his community.

This is not the cultural persona of “a hundred thousand welcomes” that Ireland would like to imagine for itself. This is something between callousness and active hatred for those not lucky enough to have Irish parents. When considered in the context of Ireland’s centuries of history as a nation of emigrants, it’s also almost laughably hypocritical.

One arrives at that conclusion without even going into detail about, say, the pitifully small number of refugees Ireland agreed to host in 2015 (1 for every 1200 Irish people, of whom less than a third had been resettled by mid 2017), or the record-high numbers of racist incidents being reported in recent years. All this considered, several things are clear:

First, the 27th amendment needs to be repealed as soon as possible. If nothing else, a recent poll indicates 70%+ of the population want it gone, and that should be reason enough. On top of that, it is both ridiculous and disgusting that someone born in Ireland and having lived their whole life in Ireland should have no inherent right to stay in the country. Eric Xue should be the last person we have to save from exile to a place they may literally never have been to. Opponents of such a move argue birthright citizenship incentivises people to come to Ireland exclusively to give birth. Personally, I think this view comes from a xenophobic assumption that migrants must be in some way underhanded or opportunistic. Either way though, if a person is desperate enough to secure a better life for their child that they will cross borders (sometimes illegally, at great personal risk) while heavily pregnant, then we, as a ludicrously well-off country, have no excuse not to give their child that life.

Second, the direct provision system as we know it must be ended. It is an egregious stain on our national conscience and has been for 18 years now. Responsible citizens should be aggressively lobbying their representatives to take a stand, and heavily punishing those who refuse, come the next election.

Third, in the meantime, we should be aggressively resisting efforts to enforce unjust deportation orders. Anyone with a clear right to live here and/or who is being sent to a place where they face significant danger should be protected from removal by any reasonable means. Successful public campaigns as we saw in October are ideal, but direct action to stop deportations aboard aircraft is absolutely justified too. The leaflet reportedly handed out in Trinity some weeks ago with information on taking such direct action was a wonderful piece of activism. It caused a significant stir among some commentators online – they were horrified that people would endorse “illegal” forms of protest – but this is, I think, the point. When the law fails to protect the vulnerable, it is the right but more importantly the duty of citizens to act outside that law. It should shock and appal people that such things are necessary.

As a country, we’ve made genuinely incredible progress in the last few decades – the marriage referendum, Repeal, our wholehearted embrace of the EU – but there’s still so much to be done. I say that not to diminish the importance of past activism and social change, but to make clear that it’s time to turn that same energy towards things like migration and homelessness, as many people already have.

Successive referenda have shown us the resilience and the selflessness Irish activists are capable of in the face of injustice. It’s time to use those again.

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