Speech at a Reception for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Filippo Grandi
Áras an Uachtaráin, Wednesday 10th July
High Commissioner Grandi, a chairde,
I am so pleased to welcome you all today to Áras an Uachtaráin, the official residence of Irish Presidents since the foundation of the State. It is such a pleasure to welcome High Commissioner Grandi; we last met in June 2018 at my visit to the UN High Commission for Refugees Headquarters in Geneva.
I am particularly delighted to welcome four families who have arrived to our shores at different times over the past forty years from Iran, Sudan, Syria and Vietnam respectively. Each of you has made enormous sacrifices, leaving family behind, taking risks to leave your homeland in order to create new and better lives that have undoubtedly resulted in making valuable contributions to your new communities. You bring to us a rich story and experience to add to ours and never to be forgotten.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has had a continuous presence in Ireland since 1998, working with the Irish government, officials, NGOs and other partners to protect people forced to flee their homes and support them to live their lives with dignity and respect.
Since we last spoke, just over a year ago, there have been some welcome developments, notably the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Global Compact on Refugees. However, the scale of the humanitarian crisis has risen: only last month your Commission produced the shocking statistic that the number of people fleeing war, persecution and conflict exceeded 70 million globally last year – the highest number in the UN agency’s almost 70 years of operations. The 70.8 million people forcibly displaced is 2.3 million more than the previous year, according to your Agency's Global Trends report, highlighting the growing scale of the challenge we face in helping refugees, asylum-seekers and those internally displaced.
As President of Ireland, I have welcomed the opportunity to visit and meet with many of those refugees and asylum-seekers living here in the Irish system of Direct Provision. Last month, Sabina and I were delighted to welcome here representatives of groups supporting asylum-seekers and refugees in Ireland, as well as volunteers and host families who assist in direct provision. Above all, I was delighted to be able to welcome people who had made Ireland their home, some having fled war, natural disasters or persecution.
The challenges that refugees face remain, and indeed some pressures have intensified. Part of the growing challenge is linked to a changing climate. Dangerous shifts in climate are placing stress on communities, where ecosystems can no longer support populations. Unless we collectively take action to prevent catastrophic climate change, as well as assist communities to prepare for, and adapt, to changing climates, these population flows driven by climate shifts are only going to increase.
Refugees turn to their fellow global citizens for protection and shelter, with the hope for a better future and increased opportunities for themselves and their families. Many have had to grapple with a foreign language, a different climate, and a new set of social customs. Others I know have experienced prejudice and stereotyping born of ignorance and fear. As President of Ireland, when I hear of this, I am deeply saddened, and I have offered an apology on behalf of the people of Ireland to any of those affected by such callous and unacceptable behaviour. We are all on our shared vulnerable planet challenged to give authentic meaning to what we mean by hospitality.
The challenge of building a real republic – one that is inclusive, diverse and respectful of all its peoples – is very much a challenge that remains, and I do want to acknowledge, as President of Ireland, that we have too often faltered, and too often continue to falter, and fail to reflect on why and what it means to be insufficient in our hospitality, and have often neglected our duty and our obligations to others.
I wish to acknowledge the work and leadership of Justice Bryan MacMahon in the completion of the Report to Government Working Group on the Protection Process on Improvements to the Protection Process, including Direct Provision and Supports to Asylum-Seekers. That report is a greatly welcome development, representing an important and urgent agenda for work as we commit to treating those who are displaced, who have come to our shores seeking shelter, with empathy and a sense of shared humanity. I also strongly support Justice MacMahon’s recent proposals in relation to facilitating the application processes for various forms of interaction with Irish life.
Migration is central to Irish consciousness. Our country, which once saw people leave by the thousands – during the 1950s, around half a million Irish men and women made the journey to Britain alone; my sisters among them – is now a country that provides shelter for those forced to leave their own countries. While Ireland was once a place that people were forced to leave, now it is a place which welcomes others.
In 2018 there was a total of 3,673 asylum applications in Ireland, a 25 percent increase year-on-year. As a result, the number of people living in reception centres increased by 19 percent to 6,106 individuals. Of these, 12 percent had refugee status but were unable to leave because of continued pressure on our housing sector. Ireland continued to welcome refugees on the Resettlement and Relocation Programme, with 338 refugees arriving from Lebanon, and 267 from Greece. The first people to arrive via the Community Sponsorship Programme did so in December last. Overall, 17 percent of the population of Ireland were born overseas, according to recent census data.
Ireland of the 21st century has become a dynamic and cosmopolitan place, a country that embraces the innovation, opportunity, dynamism and creative energy that cultural diversity brings.
We should welcome the opportunity it gives us to widen our horizons, embrace other cultures and other lives, and my message to refugees has been to ensure that their stories and experiences are added to ours in order to create an interwoven tapestry of rich cultural heritages, all of which are playing a vital part in our shared identity.
We Irish are a migrant people and must always recognise both the responsibility and blessing that it is to respond to the needs of migrants, wherever they may be. Ireland is a country with a long history of migration and exile. By 1901, more Irish people were abroad than were on the island of Ireland. Today, Ireland’s diaspora is said to number 70 million.
Our nation’s history contains many tragic reminders of the desperate plight of migrants fleeing the country. In 2011 a storm in Canada uncovered human bones along the shore. In the following years, experts worked to determine their origin and, just last month, researchers published their findings, concluding that the bones belonged to passengers of the Carrick, a ship which left Sligo in 1847, laden with people fleeing the Great Famine in Ireland, and hoping for a better life across the Atlantic. However, the Carrick ran into a storm, and was shipwrecked off Cap-des-Rosiers in Gaspé, Canada.
Among the remains, researchers found the bones of three boys, two of them aged seven, one aged nine. They exhibited severe signs of malnutrition, a sign of the severe hardship which they were fleeing. Even at the remove of all these years, the thought of those children, hungry, desperate and afraid, is something which moves us, and speaks powerfully to us. The collective memory of the Famine, and of people forced to flee their homes, is something which resonates strongly in Irish society. As a country, we have known what it is to be hungry, and to be forced to flee our homes. This memory of our past shapes our values and approaches today, instilling in us a moral calling to help others in need.
Today millions of people around the world face the same fear, suffering and desperation of those people who fled aboard the Carrick. I suggest that the current status of asylum-seekers 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, 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, strikingly 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 people 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.
Notwithstanding the development of international human rights and humanitarian law over the course of the last seven decades, I am minded to recall the reflections of Hannah Arendt in her 1943 essay, We Refugees, and later expanded upon in her seminal book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, reflections which have lost none of their accuracy and potency.
Arendt described the fate of refugees as that of human beings who, unprotected by any specific political convention, suffer from the plight of being unrecognised by the state. She identifies the deadlock arising from the entanglement between the rights of humans and those of the citizen: in the nation-state, 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 refugee, who should have embodied the rights of humans par excellence, 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, Arendt had a profound 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. For Arendt, therefore, to be stripped of citizenship is to be stripped of words, to fall to a state of utter vulnerability.
Europe has for many decades been a leader in championing the rights of refugees and, since 2008, has processed over 5 million asylum applications. It is clear, however, that the rise of populist political ideologies that are based on fear, division and exclusion – with the excluded often being abandoned to become the prey of xenophobes and racists – presents a major threat to European solidarity. I agree with your recent words on the matter, High Commissioner: only if Europe is strong and unified will Europeans be able to deal with refugee and migration issues in a principled, practical and effective manner.
For it is clear to me that if we enable and promote a reciprocal sharing of cultures and ideas, as well as forging multiple symbioses, the cultural diversity that follows will bring with it innovation, opportunity, dynamism and creative energy that enriches our society.
May I conclude by encouraging you, High Commissioner, to continue with the critical work that your Agency has been doing for almost 70 years, protecting refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people, assisting in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country, highlighting the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers, shaking up societal disregard, apathy and ignorance, and advancing discussions that challenge the often defective categories through which our societies grasp the contemporary realities of migration and asylum.
I want to pay sincere tribute to you and your staff. By working in some of the most difficult conditions around the world, you bring vital assistance, hope and dignity, to those in greatest need. Your organisation puts the individual at the centre of the response. May I assure you of my solidarity, and the solidarity of the people of Ireland, and I wish you and your Agency continued success and courage in your future endeavours.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh