Around two million Irish people migrated to Britain and America during the Great Famine (1841-1850). Our ancestors sought refuge in foreign lands because, for many of them, staying in Ireland meant death. Present-day, the circumstances for Irish people have changed for the better. However, the issue of people fleeing their home countries in search of a safe life still remains in the world. Rather than being the ones seeking refuge, Ireland has transitioned into a country that provides it.
This article provides 10 facts about refugees in Ireland. I spoke with Roos Demol, co-founder of the International Community Dynamic organisation, and the social enterprise, Recruit Refugees Ireland. I also had a fascinating conversation with a former asylum seeker. She requested to remain anonymous, so for this article I will use the pseudonym Amirah.
Firstly, let me briefly explain what the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee is, for those not familiar with the process.
- An Asylum seeker is a person seeking to be granted protection as a refugee outside of their country of origin.
- A refugee is someone who had to leave their country due to a fear of persecution because of reasons relating to race, religion, nationality, membership to a particular social group or political opinion.
So, when these particular migrants (those fleeing their home), arrive in Ireland initially they are asylum seekers. They must apply to the government of Ireland to be granted refugee status. The government subsequently decides whether they qualify as a refugee or not. If the applicant is unsuccessful, it does not necessarily mean deportation. Many asylum seekers that do not receive refugee status are granted subsidiary protection. This means they are not entirely recognised as a refugee, however, they are still recognised as needing international protection.
1. The number of refugees currently living in Ireland
Currently, there are roughly 8,200 asylum seekers living in direct provision and emergency accommodation centres in Ireland. Approximately 6,200 adults and 2,000 children.
The number of people with refugee status living in Ireland in 2020 was 9,070, a 16.36% increase from 2019. To put this into a global context, in the same year the Netherlands (Population 17.4 million) had 78,911, our neighbours, the UK, had 132,348, the USA had 340,881, and Germany had a staggering 1,220,636.
Ireland will never have a huge population of refugees as they tend to go to Spain, Belgium and Germany first. According to Roos, “Ireland is the end of the road” as far as EU migration is concerned. Roos explained that Ireland’s distance from the originating countries is a contributing factor to Ireland receiving highly qualified asylum seekers. They are the ones that can afford the plane ticket.
2. Refugee countries of origin
In 2020 there were 1,566 applications for asylum. These applications came mostly from Nigeria, Somalia and Pakistan. Other countries that featured prominently in the applications were South Africa and Zimbabwe.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has resulted in thousands of Afghan people fleeing the country due to fear of the Taliban. So far, Ireland has taken 150 Afghan refugees. In September, the government announced 500 additional places for Afghan refugees. They will be granted immediate refugee status, no direct provision. The scheme allows current or former Afghan nationals, living in Ireland, to apply to bring over family members who are currently vulnerable in Afghanistan.
However, Roos reckons that over the next year this number may grow. In fact, this year a group of NGOs wrote an open letter stating Ireland has capacity for 1,000 refugees under existing arrangements. The civil war developing in Ethiopia may also contribute to an influx of refugees from that region in the coming year.
Overall there were applications from 50 countries, spread across all of the continents.
3. Social acceptance of refugees in Ireland
In 2018, the Social Change Initiative launched a survey on Immigration and Refugee Protection in Ireland. Some of the findings were:
- 74% agree no child should grow up undocumentted in Ireland.
- 66% agree that everyone should be treated fairly when the government is making laws.
- 70% of survey respondents believe refugee and asylum seeking children should have access to education and training.
The study also found that the Irish describe their country as welcoming, optimistic, tolerant and open. Values such as ‘fairness’ and ‘compassion’ are strongly supported in Ireland. Roos mirrored these findings and acknowledged that the majority of people in Ireland are really welcoming. Many older Irish people have commended her on the work they are doing with Recruit Refugees Ireland:
“They are older men who have lived in England and sent money home. They understand being away from home and having to send money back.”
Amirah explained what life was like when she first arrived, and her experiences in school. Amirah and her family began life in Ireland in Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo. She described Ballyhaunis as a very multicultural town and her experiences were all positive. Her teachers treated her the same as any other student, and it was generally a nice time:
“I felt normal, like a human being, like it is supposed to be. We had a cultural day, where the foreign kids could showcase traditional food, music and dress.”
Unfortunately, there is also the less welcoming side, as is the case everywhere in Europe at the moment. However, in Ireland it appears to be mostly online, “laptop warriors”, as Roos called them.
4. Refugee Housing
Asylum seekers in Ireland generally live in direct provision accommodation centres. These centres are located all over the country.
When Roos was questioned on the standard of living within these centres she stated;
“If it was for a few months, I think it would be bearable. But it is hard, you are still sharing a room, sharing the shower rooms and toilets. It’s still difficult to live in these circumstances. And you don’t get to choose who you live with.”
People originating from different parts of the world, making calls throughout the night to different time-zones and practicing different religions within the same room can cause friction, Roos explained. Additionally, she remarked that direct provision is not suitable for children whatsoever, as there is ongoing sexual activity between the adults in the centres.
Amirah spoke of the accommodation herself and her family shared throughout the asylum seeking process:
“I personally think the accommodation for families is good. A whole family can get their own house. It’s good because you have your own place, do your own celebrations and cook your own food.”
It is more difficult for people travelling on their own, Amirah remarked. They have to share a room with three or four other individuals. There is less freedom, they can’t cook their own food, so meals can get repetitive.
Once asylum seekers are granted refugee status they are free to leave the direct provision centres and find their own home. However, as a result of the housing crisis, several hundred residents, that have obtained refugee status, remain in direct provision as they cannot find accomodation.
5. The wait for refugee status
The official government of Ireland website states that an application for refugee status should be decided within 6 months. However, this does not seem to be the case in reality.
This waiting period tends to range quite drastically. Roos explained that the average waiting time is around 2 years, but some people may only spend a few months, whilst others end up spending many years in direct provision. For example, Roos’ business partner came from Burundi, and was made to wait four and a half years. This is effectively spending four and half years waiting for your life to kick start again.
Amirah and her family arrived in Ireland in 2007, and she didn’t receive subsidiary protection status until 2013. She waited six (almost seven) years as an asylum seeker. She applied for refugee status, but her application was unsuccessful, she received subsidiary protection instead. Under subsidiary protection you still have similar rights to that of an Irish citizen. One significant term is that Amirah is not allowed to return to Iraq.
6. Refugee status acceptance rate
- 50% men
- 30% women
- 19% children
- 1.5% unaccompanied children
7. Government payments to refugees
Whilst asylum seekers are in direct provision centres, the government grants them money to live off. They receive €38.80 a week per adult, and 29.80 a week per child.
Roos detailed how the money is allocated. Asylum seekers go to the post office to receive their payment. The total money allocated to an adult is €181, from that, the government takes close to €150 off immediately for accomodation and food in the direct provision centres. Leaving them with €38.80 spending money for the week.
Once refugee status is granted they receive similar rights to that of an Irish citizen, and therefore, apply for work. If refugees are unable to find work they are entitled to the same social welfare as an Irish citizen (which is currently €210 a week).
8. Education provided to refugees
Primary and secondary education are provided for children awaiting refugee status. If you are an asylum seeker and you want to do third level education, you have to pay international fees.
“It is completely ridiculous, but still the case in universities, unless you get a sanctuary scholarship” Roos remarked.
What is a sanctuary scholarship? Well, some universities have a minimal number of places set aside for asylum seekers. So, if you are lucky enough to get one of them, your fees are paid, otherwise, you have to pay international fees.
However, once you gain refugee status, things change. You can apply for a SUSI grant and seek a scholarship.
Amirah walked me through her experience in the Irish education system. She detailed how secondary education was provided for her, and furthermore, finance resources were available for school books. However, once she had come to the end of secondary school, she could not transition directly into third-level, as she was still an asylum seeker:
“I had to repeat the year, then take a year out, hoping to get subsidiary status and then go to college.”
Once she received subsidiary status she applied for, and received, a SUSI grant, making third-level education effectively free for Amirah.
9. Family reunification
Family reunification is the process of applying for family members to join you in Ireland. Unfortunately, not all families travel together, as in many cases it is simply impossible. Some family members may not be able to get out of the country of origin, whilst others may have been separated along the treacherous journey.
When Roos was asked about family reunification she mentioned how they are the real sad stories:
“Most of the men that you see here have family at home, especially the ones that had to run to save their lives. My friend waited six years before he saw his family”
She continued by explaining that many families separate as a result of this, but the strength and resilience that she has seen in people really provides hope.
“I just witnessed my friend being reunited with his family, his two children. He never met his youngest daughter, she is now 5. Can you imagine what that does to someone?”
A partner, child, parent or sibling can only be reunified after the asylum seeker is granted refugee status in Ireland. The Irish government facilitates the process. Family reunification can take up to two years, that is after refugee status is granted.
10. The journey of refugees
The final fact about refugees, not just in Ireland, but worldwide, is that each and every one of them goes through their own unique journey to get here. I feel that this is a fact that many people don’t take into account when talking about (or to) refugees.
Roos enlightened me with some examples of the harrowing stories she has heard throughout her work with refugees:
“In a place where there was ethnic violence one refugee saw his father being macheted to death in front of him.”
Another story Roos provided was of a boy who stayed home, sick, from school one day. That same day his class went to church. Whilst the class were inside, the church was locked from the outside and set alight. All of the boy’s classmates died. Roos came in contact with an unaccompanied Afghan boy, he made the journey on the boat, witnessed numerous people drowning and subsequently had to walk thousands of miles.
“We need to think about these when we interact with people from direct provision centres.” Roos remarked.
Amirah described what life was like in Iraq, and why they had to leave:
“Life was very hard. At the time there were lots of killings, people killing each other, bombs, it was very unstable. The only safe place was your home. You had to constantly think about where you were going and which paths you could take. My parents wanted a better life for us.”
Amirah was actually luckier than most in terms of her journey to Ireland. She had an uncle living in the UK at the time, so they managed to get a visiting visa to travel to him. They stayed with him for a week and subsequently travelled to Northern Ireland, and then onto Dublin. Amirah and her family were in Dublin for two months before being moved to Ballyhaunis.
It is important to consider these journeys when discussing refugees and asylum seekers. I think Roos summed it up perfectly when she said:
“You have to remember, they are all human beings that had a normal life, and all they want is a normal life back.”