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Reception Marking the Twenty-First Anniversary of the Irish Refugee Council

Áras An Uachtaráin, 7th November 2013

Distinguished guests and friends,

Is mór mo phléisiúr fáilte do chur romhaibh go dtí Áras an Uachtaráin, mar a bhfuil cothrom bliana is fichid Chomhairle Dídeanaithe na hÉireann á cheiliúradh againn. Tá an-áthas orm an deis seo a thapú chun sibhse go léir a onórú: sibhse a thug suas thar na blianta bhur gcuid ama, bhur gcuid fuinnimh agus bhur gcuid scileanna, ar mhaithe leo siúd a tháinig go hÉirinn ag lorg dídine.

[It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to Áras an Uachtaráin, as we celebrate the twenty-first anniversary of the Irish Refugee Council. I am delighted to avail of this occasion to honour all of you who, down the years, have generously offered up your time, energy and skills to those who seek refuge in Ireland.]

May I acknowledge in particular the work of two remarkable women – namely the Refugee Council’s patron, and member of the Council of State, Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness, and your Chief Executive, Mrs Sue Conlan – whose professionalism and whole hearted commitment have contributed to bringing into public focus the difficulties faced by refugees and their children in our country.

I also wish to thank each and every one of you for the assistance you provide to those who strive to reconstruct their lives in Ireland, and who do so under circumstances whereby, having had to leave their homes behind, they do not enjoy the vital rights attached to citizenship in their country of asylum. As all of you gathered here this afternoon know very well, the exclusion from full participation in society and political community – however temporary it may be – is a profoundly debilitating experience. For those who go through such an ordeal, your support and solidarity are of the utmost importance.

On an occasion like this, it may be appropriate to reflect with you on the contemporary significance of some of the ideas developed seventy years ago by German philosopher Hannah Arendt in a text entitled “We Refugees.” In this short essay, published in the midst of WWII, Arendt powerfully described the fate of refugees as that of human beings who, unprotected by any specific political convention, suffer from the plight of being nothing but human beings. With uncompromising lucidity, she explained how the concept of the rights of man, based on the supposed existence of a human being as such, “collapsed in ruins” as soon as there emerged in the middle of Europe hundreds of thousands of men and women “who had truly lost every other specific quality and connection except for the mere fact of being human.”

What Arendt pinpoints in this text is the deadlock arising from the entanglement between the rights of man and those of the citizen: in the nation-state system, the so-called ‘inalienable’ rights of man cease to be protected as soon as they are decoupled from the rights of the citizens of a state, leading to this tragic paradox that the figure who should have embodied the rights of man par excellence – the refugee – constitutes instead the radical crisis of this concept.

Herself a refugee from Germany, who went through an internment camp in France before seeking asylum in the United States, Hannah Arendt had an intimate understanding of how the loss of citizenship was akin to a loss of human status. For not only do refugees lose their homes, that is “the entire social structure into which they were born and in which they established for themselves a distinct place in the world,” they also lose the political framework, in which they had “the right to have rights.”

Indeed refugees and asylum seekers may have both life and liberty, but they are deprived of the context in which their actions, their opinions, their ability to participate in speech (and thus, in politics) have meaning. Thus for Arendt, the concept of man upon which human rights have been based is man in abstract nakedness: to be stripped of citizenship is to be stripped of wordliness, to fall to a state of utter vulnerability.

Notwithstanding the development of international human rights and humanitarian law over the course of the last seven decades, the reflection initiated by Hannah Arendt in her 1943 essay, and later expanded upon in her seminal book The Origins of Totalitarianism – this reflection has lost nothing of its accuracy.

The current status of refugees and asylum seekers still urgently calls into question political philosophies, and the principles according to which our contemporary liberal democracies draw the line between the rights of citizens and those of non-citizens (or, as it were, of ‘prospective citizens’).

We have become accustomed to narratives of how men and women throughout our world who, as refugees, find themselves living for extended periods of time in unsuitable accommodation, confined to forced idleness, without even control over their daily food, so that – as Eugene Quinn, Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service Ireland, graphically remarked – children grow up “without the memory of their parents cooking a family meal.” In my life as a public representative, I met so many women who reflected the pain of exclusion, not only from cooking for their own family, but also from the exercise of discretion as to time, space and privacy.

Molaim gach duine agaibh a dhéanann, trí bhur bpáirteachas i gComhairle Dídeanaithe na hÉireann, aghaidh a thabhairt ar na heispéiris nach mór dár ndídeanaithe nó dar n-iarrthóirí tearmainn a láimhsiú gach lá; sibhse a a dhéanann bhur ndícheall a chinntiú go bhféadfar a gcuid dóchais i bhfeabhsú saoil, nó fiú i saol atá saor ón eagla, a thabhairt i gcrích; sibhse – faoi mar a leag mé an bhéim air in óráid a thug mé do bhur n-eagraíocht anuraidh – “sibhse nár chaill riamh fís na comhdhaonnachta seo againne.”

[I commend all of you who, through your involvement with the Irish Refugee Council, tackle the daily reality faced by our refugees and asylum seekers; you who contribute to ensuring that their hopes of a better life, or simply of a life lived free from fear, can be realised; you who – as I emphasized in a speech I gave to your organisation in February of last year – “have not lost sight of our shared humanity.”]

May I conclude by encouraging you to continue to shake up societal disregard and indifference, to go on pushing discussions that challenge the faulty categories through which our society, and Europeans in general, grasp the contemporary realities of migration and asylum. In doing so I assure you of my solidarity, and I wish you success and continued courage in your future endeavours.