Joint Irish Refugee Council and Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland
Dame Street, Dublin, 3rd October 2014
A dhaoine uaisle,
Dia dhaoibh go léir ar maidin. Tá an-áthas orm bheith anseo inniu.
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le Sue Conlan, Príomh-Oifigeach Feidhmiúcháin Chomhairle Dídeanaithe na hÉireann agus le Edel McGinley, Stiúrthóir Ionad Chearta na nImirceach in Éirinn as an cuireadh a thabhairt dom labhairt libh agus bhur n-oifigí comhpháirteacha á oscailt againn.
I am very happy to be here with you all this morning, ocáid ceilúiradh, to formally open the new joint offices of the Irish Refugee Council and the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland. I want to avail of this opportunity to acknowledge, once again, the vital work carried out by your two organisations in supporting migrants and asylum seekers as they strive to build new lives for themselves and their families in Ireland.
As we meet, these are very difficult times for refugees and migrants all over the world. The rising level of conflict in many regions of Africa and the Middle East has created extraordinary levels of displacement.
Despite the efforts of the UN and its agencies, the international response to these crises has been inadequate, with insufficient funds and resources available to the services working at the frontline of refugee movements. At a wider level, the impact of climate change and global economic instability has also forced the movement of millions of individuals and families seeking employment, food and shelter.
In Europe, the response to inward migration has been coloured in recent years by a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric and racism. When we see the tragic and horrific loss of life among those crossing the frontier of the continent, we are forced to question the purpose and the consequences of the immigration control policies of the Union.
And at the national level, too, grave concerns are being expressed among our legislators, through our judicial system, by our religious leaders and through the wider public about how refugees and asylum seekers are to be treated while they await a decision on their status. It is right, I believe, that these concerns are now entering the public realm and I hope that the discourse that is currently underway will reach a positive and early resolution. We in Ireland are entitled to expect that this discourse should have a great depth and richness, given our long history of emigration, of Irish people making their way abroad and experiencing the complex journey, often filled with obstacles, into full participation in the destinations they have chosen.
In the Ireland of the future, we will be judged with reference to how our policies and practices responded to the plight of those who sought refuge here. We will be judged on how we treat and make judgements on those who present themselves at our borders as strangers in difficulty, on how we respond to their stories as they seek our protection, and on the respect we afford them in the legal and administrative processes we oversee. Did we do so with empathy and compassion, as well as ensuring these people justice, as is our obligation? On all of these dimensions the current high level of public interest and concern, and the openness to necessary adjustment and change, is long overdue, and thus most welcome.
While there are international obligations laid down in law regarding the protection of refugees, different national cultures reveal their strengths and weaknesses in how these are interpreted and executed in practice. Ireland as a country with such a long and defining experience of people who travel abroad can thus reasonably be expected not to follow or lag behind, but to share the lead, in showing understanding and care.
Our discussions, of course, extend beyond refugees and asylum seekers, to the situation of the most vulnerable among our labour migrants, those who are undocumented or who live on very low wages. According to the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, there are an estimated 30,000 men, women and children who live undocumented in Ireland. These people often live in the shadows, under tremendous stress and fear. They are typically engaged in more informal job sectors – working, for example, as home carers, restaurant workers, or cleaners – and, because of the uncertainty of their legal status. Not only are they more vulnerable to economic exploitation, but they also encounter significant problems in accessing basic services such as health and education.
I have had an interest in migration throughout all of my public life. Migration was the experience of my own family and a special area of study in my academic life; but above all, my concern has been rooted in my meeting, for years, week after week, with recent migrants and their families at my advice centres in Galway.
On virtually all of my visits overseas, I meet with members of Irish communities, some of whom have built stable and successful lives, and others who are struggling to do so. As their President, it is my concern that those who are not established, and their families, meet as few obstacles as possible in their way of building new lives in new territories. Not just a wish for consistency, but a recognition of the universality and indivisibility of human rights, suggests that we should apply an ethical test to our practices at home and to our advocacy abroad.
Given how great a concern the treatment of our undocumented citizens abroad has been to our representatives and to our communities over the past decades, I believe that we should now move beyond rhetoric and establish a meaningful connection and consistency between our own history of emigration and the contemporary challenges facing migrants living in Ireland.
As President of Ireland, I feel that it is my duty to remain responsive to the particular predicament of all of those who, having had to leave their homes behind, are particularly vulnerable in that they do not enjoy the empowering rights attached to citizenship in the new place they wish to call ‘home’, which is Ireland. Any genuine concern for the dignity and well-being of the people of Ireland must, I believe, extend to all who live within the boundaries of our country, including those who live in distinctly precarious circumstances – circumstances that do not always allow the discretion needed to lead a dignified life as persons and as families, a discretion we all take for granted as the exercise of the essential freedoms to be human, to dispense care and enjoy both privacy and sociability as a matter of choice.
For refugees and asylum seekers, the exclusion, not just from full participation in society and political community – however temporary it may be –, but also the very inability to exercise discretion in these areas, can be a profoundly debilitating experience. It was my own experience when I was a TD in the West of Ireland to encounter the distress of those families living lives of precariousness and uncertainty. It concerned me greatly then and it concerns me now.
This positive development we are celebrating today, the opening of these joint offices, will hopefully be but one among many other steps taken to create a more humane environment for those from foreign shores who seek to build a future in Ireland. I regard such engagement with how we treat those who come to our country to be one of the most profound questions of ethics we face as a society.
When I launched the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative, in November of last year, my purpose was to stimulate a national conversation about the values by which we want our society to be defined. Already, civil society organisations such as the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, the Wheel, Dóchas and the Congress of Trade Unions are responding to this Initiative by undertaking their own processes of debate on ethical questions such as poverty, homelessness, international development, and the nature of work.
In this context, the moral question of how we treat “the other”, “the stranger”, in our community must be a central concern, not only for government, but for all sections of society. The arrival on these shores of people who are fleeing war and persecution, the movement of workers and families who are escaping destitution and poverty are global issues, in the addressing of which Ireland has a moral duty to play its part, through our role in the international community, and in our laws, policies and practices at the national level.
There are encouraging signs that some of the most serious issues facing asylum seekers in our country are about to be addressed. The government has announced its willingness to review the current system, and the Irish public has made it clear that they do not want the time that people spend awaiting a decision on their status to become a time during which men, women and children are deteriorating. There is also, I believe, a new willingness to review our approach to labour migration.
As we look to the future, it may well be asked what values should provide the bedrock of a future response to migration. I believe that, in responding to migration flows, states have the capacity to put in place more robust protections for the non-citizens living on their territory, even if these protections fall in a different category from the rights attached to full citizenship.
I feel that our response must, above all else, respect the dignity of the person and the importance of individual discretion in areas such as food, clothing and education, as well as discretion around the usage of time, privacy, and the intimacies of family relations.
I believe that it is not unrealistic to conceive of a migration system based on a regime of support rather than one of deterrence, so that newcomers are enabled to achieve their potential and make their contribution to their new home society.
While there are historical legal distinctions between different categories of migrants, there are also many features that are shared in common in the circumstances faced by asylum seekers and those migrant workers who lead precarious existences in our country. Therefore it makes perfect sense that the Irish Refugee Council and the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland should move closer together.
Beyond the differences in your respective approaches – the Irish Refugee Council placing a particular emphasis on legal support and advocacy work on behalf of asylum seekers, while the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland develops a community-based approach – you share a commitment to fostering positive systemic change that will benefit all those whose daily lives and future prospects are shattered by the uncertainty of their status and rights in Irish society.
Both your organisations have played a vital role in providing crucial services to asylum seekers and migrants in Ireland, as well as in carrying out research and collecting accurate information that challenge some of the misconceptions surrounding issues of migration – and in so many ways, both the services you provide and the data you produce are complementary.
The Refugee Council and the Migrant Rights Centre also share a commitment to creating appropriate conditions for the participation of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in the devising of policies that affect their lives. This “politics of presence” – by which is meant the genuine consultation and hearing of those who are the recipients of policy solutions devised in their name – is indeed a hallmark of any ‘good policy.’
Given all these positive forms of cooperation between your two organisations, your coming together in these common offices is a very welcome move. I have no doubt that this new spatial proximity will facilitate even closer interaction between members of your staff, through daily conversations, and the sharing of information, experience and expertise, and give you the inestimable gifts that come from solidarity in a shared ethical purpose.
Importantly, this co-location here in Dame Street, in the bustling centre of Dublin, will also better enable you to deliver on a core concern you have in common, that of making your services as accessible as possible to those who need them. Indeed I understand that the Information and Referral Centre of the Irish Refugee Council and the Resource Centre of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland are to be combined into a one-stop centre. My hope, too, is that you will have many visitors who will commit to advocacy, the dissemination of information and the formation of a consciousness on the experience of migration – one which we can be proud of and call ethical.
Such a holistic approach to the provision of information, advocacy and support to asylum seekers and migrants is most welcome, and I want to congratulate you for your initiative and vision. I hope that this common enterprise will stand as an example of what can be achieved when organisations work together rather than in parallel.
So may I say, once again, how delighted I am to open these new offices of the Irish Refugee Council and the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland. I am sure that this joint venture, in this new place, will serve you well as you continue to deliver the best possible support to those who have chosen Ireland as their new home.
Both your organisations have down the years, on behalf of all of us, played an essential role in expressing those virtues of care, friendship and hospitality which the Irish cherish so deeply. I know that this advocacy work has not always been easy or popular, and I want to thank you very warmly for that. May you go on sustaining our national debate on migration and asylum with accurate information, drawing on the experience of those you assist.
I very sincerely wish your two organisations, their staff and the countless people they have helped, and all those they will help, the very best in your future endeavours.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.