OPINION: We try hard but we can't hide our racism towards refugees in Offaly
The Offaly Express has reported extensively on the direct provision centre opening in the old Marian Hostel in Tullamore in the coming weeks. There has been considerable opposition with a protest group established on social media and a protest planned for this Saturday, February 29.
Just four months ago, the story of migrants came sharply into focus when 39 people were found dead in the back of a lorry in Essex. The investigation there focused on trafficking but the nucleus of the tragedy was the fact the 39 people clambered into that trailer out of desperation to escape dire situations in their home countries.
There was widespread grief as newspaper headlines bled with stories on the tragedy and the sinister element at its root in the haulage industry.
In 2015, we offered prayers and sympathetic Facebook posts when the body of toddler Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. His family were trying to make it to Greece and eventually Canada in search of a better life. The photographs shocked the world.
A year later, a video of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh being placed into the back of an ambulance in Syria following an airstrike went viral. We took pity on the images of the dust-covered boy in a shellshocked state who had been pulled from the building he'd been living in with his family. Eight people died in that one airstrike, including five children.
In all of these instances, we post heartbroken emojis and comments condemning the actions of those in power in these countries, people who allow such devastation to befall children like Alan and Omran. We do so rightly and with the best of intentions, but in the next swipe of our newsfeeds, we become hypocrites.
'Direct Provision Centre to open in Tullamore this month.' That was the headline of an article published by this outlet on February 18. We were inundated with comments, the majority criticising the decision, urging politicians locally and nationally to "look after our own first."
"And our own dying on the streets. Seems pretty unfair to be housing non-Irish ahead of our own."
"I'm so sick of these direct provision centres, there's enough of them going up now."
"Tullamore will no longer be a safe place to walk down the street."
These were just a sample of the comments under that story. Two comments were removed as they encouraged acts of vandalism and criminality at the site. One suggested "we should do a Rooskey job on it," referring to a Leitrim hotel earmarked for a direct provision centre which was set on fire on two occasions during weeks of disquiet over the plans in 2019.
We speak out of both sides of our mouths in this country. It's the same way we discriminate against travellers, both as a society and systemically in public policies. We all, in theory, agree that sites should be designated for them, but 'just not in my backyard.' In that word, 'but,' we continue to reveal our racism.
In terms of the arrival of refugees, it is veiled behind comments of concern for local issues. Homelessness is a legitimate and major issue in this country, but using it in every argument is often a ploy to justify ignoring some other form of social tragedy. The conflating of issues that have no link to one another is the go-to.
Healthcare, housing, welfare - these are the areas referenced when people criticise the accommodation of refugees in their areas. This is where the much-fabled phenomenon of fake news comes into play. 'They get expensive buggies, social welfare, top-of-the-range phones and social houses.' This is the nonsense and faux outrage shared on our social media networks in an attempt to justify the deeply entrenched opposition.
While a person’s asylum application is being processed, they are accommodated by the government’s Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) in Direct Provision centres around the country. That's a fact.
These centres are a communal style of accommodation, where families are often housed in one room, and single people usually share a room with other single adults, quite often up to four people in one room. Shower and toilet facilities are often shared. Hardly the lap of luxury. That too is a fact.
While in this process people are not entitled to usual social welfare payments. They receive a weekly allowance of €38.80 per adult and €29.80 per child. This must cover any additional expenses a person may have. Another fact.
People in this system also receive a medical card, and this is another sore spot for critics, as is their children being given access to one of our most basic rights - education. Are we really a nation that would begrudge the likes of Alan Kurdi or Omran Daqneesh an education if they were to make it to our shores alive?
The alternative to accommodating them is unthinkable. Pushing them back out into the Mediterranean in overcrowded rubber rafts, modern-day coffin ships. Is that the humanity we want to endorse? People say, 'that's not our problem,' and ask, 'why can't their own governments look after them?'
They are fleeing war-torn countries and those run by dictators. Yes, those countries should be civilised and safe for their own citizens. But they're not. That is also a fact and one not likely to change in the near future. The reality is far harsher and far more difficult to resolve than we think and yet there remains ignorance to it.
Many Irish people have short memories of the horrible histories we read in school of mass emigration from this island. The coffin ships during the famine, the economic migrants leaving this country as recently as the last decade when our youth left for the UK, America and Australia due to recession.
The democratic deficit of the countries refugees are leaving for Europe nowadays is far worse than an economic downturn. As it was for Irish people in the 1800s when the alternative to trying to make it to America or the UK was to stay and die. We now celebrate our history of emigration in the EPIC museum in Dublin.
Irish people who went abroad and built cities, cured diseases and became presidents. Lest we forget the opposition they met in all of those countries. 'No blacks, no dogs, no Irish.' The hardship our ancestors fought against to achieve parity in a place that didn't want them. They were seen to be stealing jobs - cast as outsiders, migrants, pests.
Are we so different now in the opposite role? Is our scaremongering and resistance any different to those that stood on the docks in Liverpool in the post-war era with posters bearing the above slogan? Workplaces, shops and public houses that shunned Irish people deemed a scourge to society?
The mantra we use is that bit more palatable - 'our own first' - and yet, it stands for the same thing.