Address by Minister of State Liz O'Donnell at the Opening of Art Exhibition Mosney Centre
Ladies and Gentleman, Children
I am very pleased to open this beautiful exhibition today.
These works of art portray beautifully the human face of the asylum-seeker. Far too often, we hear refugees and their situation described as endlessly problematical with scant mention of their human story, their talents and their aspirations. Douglas Ross has captured in these portraits our common humanity which requires that we see and deal with asylum-seekers and refugees as human beings, individuals and not as statistics or as a burden on society. We Irish know how cruel the stereotype can be, how diminishing of the individual, how hurtful to the person it is to be treated as a class particularly as a problematical class.
Creative talent such as we see here on display in the works the refugees themselves can be found in abundance. The refugees that spend time here at Mosney and in other centres, awaiting the determination of their status, are arriving at a time of immense change in Ireland. Mono-cultural Ireland is truly gone and is replaced by the rich potential of a multicultural society that I believe will enhance the quality of all of our lives. These changes do need nourishing and management by the Government and society generally to help both the new arrivals and our own citizens to adapt to the changed situation. Cultural events and positive events such as this help to foster an understanding in our society of the context in which asylum-seekers seek protection here in Ireland - a context most of us in Ireland thankfully will never have to endure. That context is one of conflict, chronic underdevelopment, religious and cultural persecution and mass displacement of people. Each person here in Mosney has an individual story to tell. A story that will constitute their application to the Irish Government for refuge and asylum here in Ireland. This is their absolute entitlement and each case is judged on its own merits.
Over the last five years the numbers seeking refuge here in Ireland has dramatically increased. This is to be expected given our economic success has placed us now amongst a group of developed nations where people see as a destination to receive protection and a better life. As Minister with special responsibility for human rights and our overseas development programme, I have always argued that a human rights perspective must pervade and inform all of our policies in relation to asylum-seekers and immigrants. This is a fundamental principle.
Yes, illegal migration must be countered and regulated. Illegal and dangerous trafficking of people must be tackled and stopped. But meeting these challenges need not at all diminish our compassion and obligation to asylum-seekers and refugees. Asylum-seekers of course are only a minority of the non-nationals who have found their way to our shores of late. Many non-nationals are here legally under working visas and work permits to meet very important service and professional needs in our economy.
Those who seek asylum, however, are here in very different circumstances. Their right to asylum is grounded in international law and in our domestic legislation. Many asylum-seekers will be granted refugee status here and will then be entitled to establish themselves and their families here permanently and indeed in due course become citizens. It is true that some non-nationals are illegal migrants or economic migrants who have travelled from afar to make a better life in this country. We understand that phenomenon ourselves having been a nation of economic emigrants who fled the chronic underdevelopment, famine and lack of opportunity which was the stuff of Irish life for generations. Therefore our own history should inform our attitudes to migrants of all types. Our attitude should be one of empathy, understanding and tolerance.
Many of the residents here at Mosney I know are from African countries. Ireland has a long affinity with the African people and with the African continent. Irish missionaries and individuals have for many years worked tirelessly as humanitarians, teachers, nurses in development in Africa, working in dangerous conditions trying to help those in chronic poverty to better the lives of themselves and their families. The Irish official programme, Ireland Aid, for which I have Ministerial responsibility, is growing at a very rapid pace in line with our own economic development. Just as our overseas development programme is increasing and growing in accordance with and compatible with our economic success, so to does our obligation grow stronger to respond to global refugee flows and in particular the relatively small number of asylum-seekers who arrive here looking for our protection. Undoubtedly this places administrative pressures on us as a society. People have to be housed, fed, looked after, their medical and educational needs met and I hope that we have managed from very humble beginnings in a rapidly changing environment to respond as best we can to the needs of individuals and their families and in the determination of their status.
Ireland has a long proud history in peace-keeping, overseas development and conflict resolution. We are now on the Security Council of the United Nations. We are moving to being one of the leading donors in development cooperation in the world particularly in Africa where we focus on six programme countries, the poorest countries in the world. There is strong public support for our overseas aid endeavour, reflective of the traditional compassion of Irish people for the poor, the marginalised in developing countries. Irish people have a race memory of famine and chronic poverty and mass migration. This race memory fuels popular support for our programmes overseas. It should also inform our policies in dealing with refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, who arrive in Ireland looking for a better life.
Sadly, of late, there have been people mobilising public opinion against non-nationals and refugees in a most unfair and generalised way. The abuses of some are scandalously used to scapegoat and demonise a whole group of people called non-nationals. Some politicians have even gone so far as to speak publicly against refugees and used terrible words to describe them. This is very much to be regretted and I absolutely condemn such intolerance from public representatives. Racism is dangerous and illegal. It would be shameful indeed to see politicians playing the race card at election time in particular just to garner votes for themselves.
The Government is aware of the dangerous potential for a growth in racism and intolerance of difference in our society and we are embarking on a national campaign to counter such tendencies. Having said that, there are of course important policy issues to be addressed, relating to asylum, immigration and citizenship. They are modern policy challenges for a modern and new Ireland. Such policy challenges can and should be embraced by Government and Irish society without recourse to intimidation of refugees and non-nationals and those who support them. I know all about such intimidation. Because those who wrongly and unfairly scapegoat and target refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants also target those few politicians who publicly defend the rights of refugees such as myself. I deplore the distribution of anonymous leaflets in my constituency targeting me for my vocal defence of refugees' rights and my stance against racism.
How we as Irish people deal with these new social policy issues will be a defining test of this generation. We are already seeing a frightening escalation in racially motivated assaults both verbal and physical. Our children are watching adults and listening to what is said. Prejudices are being formed and acted out. Leadership is really needed from every corner of society. Evil can and will prosper when good people stay silent. None of this is to ignore or minimise the thousands of individual acts of kindness and welcome shown by many Irish people to refugees, non-nationals and visitors alike over the years. People such as the managers and staff here at Mosney and RIA staff who care for and make welcome the 490 residents. I applaud them also in their valued contribution.Top