Opinion: Irish response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis
It goes without saying that the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, has had a seismic effect on us all. This impact is obviously, and tragically, multiplied a thousand fold for the people of Ukraine themselves. This is an unnatural disaster, the scale of which is staggering, and the impacts of which will be felt for generations. In addition, we currently have no way of estimating how long this conflict will endure for, how many Ukrainians will suffer and lose their lives, and for how long those who have fled the country will be displaced. This uncertainty, coupled with the daily reports of further attacks and casualties, could give us all cause for despair and hopelessness. Thus, we must try to be resilient against such feelings, for despair and hopelessness only serve the tyrants and belligerents behind war and do nothing to offer us a path out of crisis. The answer, as always, is in fostering and deepening our human connection with those who are suffering at present – the people of Ukraine.
The Irish public, as always, has shown its true colours in recent weeks. The immense outpouring of public good-will has demonstrated once again that values such as compassion, empathy and solidarity are the guiding light of the Irish public.
In line with the public sentiment, the Irish government has reacted swiftly and decisively to the emerging crisis, with values of solidarity and compassion firmly to the fore in our national response. They are to be commended for this.
However, what is needed now is large-scale planning and investment in the short, medium and long-term implications of the likely movement of tens of thousands of Ukrainians to Ireland. If the number of migrants arriving in Ireland does reach over one hundred thousand, as has been mooted, this will represent a doubling of the usual migration flow to the country in any given year, within the space of a few months. Thankfully, the Temporary Protection Directive has made the situation clear as regards immigration rights for the majority of those who will arrive here. The challenge will be medium and long-term supports and integration. Behind every number is a person with complex needs. They will have trauma, fear, hope; they will have skills, qualifications, language needs. There will be children who, just a few short weeks ago, were in school in Kyiv or Kharkiv and are now sitting in a classroom in Carlow, or Castlebar.
That it has taken this most recent senseless tragedy to inspire a level of European governmental solidarity, which was sadly lacking in 2015 when Syrian nationals sought to seek refuge on this continent, should be reflected upon in the extreme. We can speculate on the reasons for the difference between then and now, which are no doubt complex and likely disturbing. As a European Union, we must own this reflection and use the lessons of it to guide us towards a response that is more supportive of human migration. One that does not see skin colour, religion, or any other factor as being an impediment to the level of action we are seeing at present regarding Ukraine.
The framework we need to build in Ireland to receive Ukrainian nationals will be complex and multi-dimensional. In addition to the need for cross-departmental coordination at senior government level, there will be a need for clear communication and collaboration with civil society, community groups (including, crucially, Ukrainian and Polish led community organisations), faith-based groups and many more. Investment will be needed, which hopefully in-time will be supported and supplemented by aid from the European Union.
Indeed, the structures we build for those who flee from Ukraine must set the template for how we as a country react to those already here in Direct Provision, those experiencing homelessness, and those who come seeking protection in the future. This is our opportunity for developing a new landscape of migration and integration rights in Ireland– one with compassion and solidarity at its core.
We owe it to the Ukrainian child who will be sitting in that classroom in Carlow to get this right. We owe it to the Nigerian family living in Direct Provision. We owe it to ourselves, as a country that so evidently has an incredibly strong values-based national psyche, to demonstrate that those values come to the forefront and are acted upon. And though it brings with it many challenges, we must remember – migration is an overwhelmingly positive thing.
In tragedy, we must look for the humanity. We look to those whose lives have been destroyed by senseless aggression and war, and we stand shoulder to shoulder with them; we offer them solidarity because there is no difference between us and them, save for the vagaries of geography, history and luck.
Finally, we can seek inspiration in unusual places. I was recently reminded of the words of American children’s television legend Fred Rogers who described his mother’s wisdom. “When I was a boy..” he said “..and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me. ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping’”.
Brian Killoran is CEO of the Immigrant Council of Ireland.