The Impact of Refugee Intake in Ireland: An Interview with Mick Barry

There are many concerns, valid and invalid on taking in refugees in Ireland and Motley staff writer Ryan O’Neill met with TD Mick Barry to discuss these

In September 2015 Ireland pledged to take in 4,000 refugees by the end of 2017 under the European Union’s relocation programme, as revealed by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. According to current UNHCR statistics, Ireland takes in a proportionately lower number of refugees than many countries smaller or of similar size, such as Bulgaria and Armenia. Many more asylum claims are rejected than are approved in Ireland, and large amounts are deferred. Between the years 2012-2014, Ireland registered just 677 asylum requests. To put that in perspective (admittedly, somewhat unfairly given the relative economy and population size), the USA accepted 68,137 refugees during that same period. I spoke to Mick Barry, TD for Cork North-Central about the growing epidemic.

“Ireland could and should take in more refugees. I think that measured against the scale of the humanitarian crisis, the government response has been poor. I don’t think this is a zero sum game in terms of resources for refugees versus resources for people here. It’s often posed that way, for example, if refugees come in there will be less houses to go around, but as a socialist I think there is a huge amount of wealth concentrated in the hands of a few; and that if society had control of even a significant portion of that wealth, there would be enough resources in the state both to address the housing needs of the Irish people and to accommodate refugees.”

Indeed, reception to news of this new intake among the public hasn’t been all positive. A Newstalk/Red C poll in February this year revealed that one third of Irish participants think that 4,000 is too many refugees to take in, while 49% believe it will lead to increased crime in Ireland. There has been much debate regarding the role of the media in the recent immigration surge, not only in Ireland but across the world. For TD Barry, the portrayal of refugees by sections of the media has played a role in cultivating a negative public opinion of migrants, and one which is untrue.

“There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that an increased intake of refugees would lead to an increase in crime. In fact, surveys show that refs are less likely to be involved in crime and more likely to, for example, start their own businesses, than the average [person]. Certainly the media has a lot to answer for in terms of the way in which large portions of them portray refugees in a negative light.”

“But I don’t think the so-called quality media should escape criticism here either. The distinction that is made both by the political establishment and the corporate media between so-called ‘good’ refugees and so-called ‘bad’ economic migrants is entirely false, as even a glimmer of understanding of Irish history would show. The millions who fled the famine were strictly speaking so-called ‘economic migrants’ as opposed to refugees fleeing political persecution. It’s a false distinction and not one that I am ever going to buy into.”

An increase in numbers of asylum seekers creates another associated problem; that of integration. Although security screening, language training and orientation programmes theoretically exist, many families struggling to adapt to a new set of customs and cultures face delays or long waiting periods for the integration services they need.

“Yes I do [think there is a problem with integration in Ireland]. For example, asylum seekers are banished to the direct provision centres, putting them in significant isolation from the rest of society. There are not sufficient resources put in place in terms of facilitating new arrivals, assisting with the learning of a new language etc.”

In August this year a 36-year-old South Korean woman died in one of Ireland’s direct provision centres on the Kinsale Road, Cork. Set up in 1999 as accommodation for asylum seekers in the Republic of Ireland, there are now 35 centres across the country, many of which are constructed in clusters of basic mobile homes. The Green Party representative of Cork North Central, Oliver Moran, recently labelled conditions in these facilities as akin to a “modern-day concentration camp”. Barry too believes asylum seekers in Ireland are mistreated due to the conditions of such centres, finding a more apt historical comparison in his reflections

“The direct provision centres are an inhumane way of dealing with asylum seekers. I wouldn’t so much compare them to the concentration camps as to, for example, the shameful Magdalene laundries that we had in this country in the past. Unfortunately there is a long and shameful tradition in this country of maltreatment of minorities such as the Magdalene women in the past, and a very forceful example of such maltreatment in these days is asylum seekers and their families… I would go further and say that the direct provision centres and system needs to be shut down… Something not sufficiently investigated is the [number of] lucrative contracts and small fortunes being made among property owners around the country following from the decision to lease their properties as direct provision centres.”

When talking about the current crisis, it is not enough to view the situation from the purely emotional and human perspective of a refugee, but to consider the complexities of negotiation, cooperation and intervention with and between nations, institutions and local communities. There are currently eight Syrian families who have been relocated in Cork. One of these in particular, the Al Raai family in north Cork, was done so with the help of United Nations intervention. But the effectiveness and importance of global institutions such as the UN and the European Union have come in for harsh criticisms during the crisis, with which TD Barry agrees:

“I think a lot of questions have to be asked about the role of what is described as the international community. Most shameful of all is the role of the European Union, which has enforced a ‘Fortress Europe’ policy and turned the Mediterranean into a graveyard for refugees fleeing North Africa. The decision of the European Union to outsource the hosting and processing of refugees and their claims to the Turkish regime is absolutely scandalous in the context of human rights given the appalling human rights record of the Turkish regime, not least towards the Kurdish community. I am and remain a critic of the so-called international community and the EU in this regard.”

Whatever way you look at it, 677 accepted asylum seekers is a criminally small amount. Furthermore, such strong negative comparisons for our direct provision centres are an indication that, somewhere in the process, there is a problem. While the perceived errors of the government and EU in solving the refugee crisis are notable, the endless complexities of the issue cannot be underestimated either. Solutions to such a nascent phenomenon will take time to feel out and, though TD Barry offers some alternative measures to tackle the crisis, full-blown working solutions are yet to be rolled out. Even if they eventually are, the process will most likely not be synchronised across all areas and will take time to develop.