The Message: Ireland's Racism Problem

Ours is an increasingly multi-cultural society. However, our vast State bureaucracy has refused to move with the times. Fundamental changes are needed if asylum seekers coming to Ireland are to receive justice.

Last weekend, Hot Press played in the SARI – that's Sport Against Racism in Ireland – football tournament. This is not the place for a football report, nor for the (alter) ego of the infamous player-manager of the mighty men of Hot Press Munchengladbach to step to the fore. Because the issues surrounding racism in Ireland are still far too raw to risk being humorous. Indeed, the extent to which racism is manifest at an official level makes it imperative that we work very hard to quickly get to the heart of the problem.  

The football, of course, matters. Hot Press had two teams in the tournament and we had a great first day, with the team wearing our current black and gold strip keeping a clean sheet through four games and topping its group with a goal difference of 11-0. Our ‘blue’ team also battled through.

We may have spread ourselves a little thin. On day two, our black-shirted team drew two games and lost one, to the eventual winners Dun Laogharie Guards. One goal in the final game against South Africa Ireland would have seen us progress, but it was not to be. We have our excuses. Our talismanic Brazilian striker Jean Kunze, who scored a hatful on the first day, had to work on Sunday and couldn’t play. We were also without our second main striker Jordan Ojo, through injury. In seven-a-side games of 20 minutes, with small goals, getting on the score sheet is hard. We created chances but couldn’t convert them. That, as they say, is football.

The standard was high. Several sides had players who are signed to League of Ireland clubs. It was tough too. Generally, though, the games were played in the right spirit. In the end, that is what is most important. Because the SARI tournament is probably the biggest and best celebration of Ireland’s recently acquired status as a genuinely multi-ethnic society.

With 40 teams participating, an estimated 50 countries were represented. All the colours of the rainbow and every shade of skin were in evidence through the weekend. And there was a women’s tournament too, which formed an important part of the programme on Sunday. 

Of particular interest is the “Hat-tricks and Hijabs” project, run by SARI. In March of this year, FIFA lifted its ban on hijabs. As a result, Muslim women can play international football wearing their traditional headgear and the “Hijabs and Hat-tricks” project is dedicated to encouraging Muslim women in Ireland to play soccer.  

The H and H team showed impressive skills. But the real win was in the fact that they were there, competing as equals against all of the other women footballers. The underling theme of the SARI tournament is the fundamental equality of every race, creed and gender. Why is it so hard to get that simple but profound message across?

Some of those who competed in SARI either have been, or are still, asylum seekers. Many of them come from the world’s worst trouble spots. On the football field, however, everyone is equal. It is the skill, the commitment, the energy and the organisation that matter. And in this respect, all the old clichés and stereotypes fall away. Who’d have imagined that it’d make complete sense for a woman to leap into the air and head a ball with the adornment – or the cover, depending on what way you look at it – of a hijab still intact and in place.

It wouldn’t quite be true to say of SARI that all human life was there. I don’t think I saw anyone from Greenland. But the presence of the Minister of State for Justice and Equality Aodhán O Riordáin emphasised just how broad the SARI church is. O Riordáin is an interesting character. At the age of 30, he is young and fit enough to tog out and play ball (literally). But, as someone who has no time for the institutionalised racism of our current treatment of asylum seekers, he also has the potential to become a genuinely radical influence.

O Riordáin is on the record as saying that the way we treat asylum seekers says a lot about us as a country. He is absolutely right. And what our current policies say about Ireland is deeply unflattering. Despite our own history of famine and forced migration, with 40 million who claim to be Irish scattered all over the world, Ireland is among the European countries that treat asylum seekers in the least humane way. In many respects, we are the cruellest of the lot.

The system of 'direct provision' in which asylum seekers are kept here is essentially a form of detention. They are not allowed to work or study while their applications are being processed. They are allocated ‘accommodation’ in one of a number of closed 'communities' of asylum seekers. And they are given an allowance of just 19 euro a week to spend. It is a pittance. They have no freedom. They have no autonomy. We make them prisoners by any other name.

Worse again is the fact that so many asylum seekers have been shackled in that hopeless condition for endless years. When their applications are finally heard, they are met with one of the most bloody-minded regimes in Europe – with a huge number of applications being rejected.

Earlier this year, the United Nations expressed its concern at the length of time that people have to wait in direct provision in Ireland. Meanwhile, a Eurostat report in June showed that Ireland is the worst offender in Europe for refusing refugee status to asylum seekers. In 2013 Ireland gave asylum to just 205 people. In comparison, Denmark – with a similar population to Ireland – granted refugee status to 3,360 people. In fact, only 150 out of 840 applicants were granted asylum status here, while 55 others received interim permission to remain in the State.

At this stage, the behaviour of the Refugee Appeals Tribunal – and in particular five members of that body  – is notorious. A report prepared for the Irish Refugee Council by Sue Conlan, Sharon Waters and Kajsa Berb is extraordinarily damning of these individuals.

“All five Tribunal Members,” the report states, “displayed distinctive styles which were evident in their decisions. In most cases, the comments made suggest a negative and sometimes quite hostile attitude towards those whose appeal they considered, notwithstanding the significant differences between the countries of origin, the grounds of application, the personal background of the applicant, etc.”

One tribunal member incorrectly stated that a rape victim hadn't included an account of being raped in her initial questionnaire, and went on to accuse the applicant of fabrication. “I don’t believe the applicant was raped as she alleges,” the Member stated, “and has also fabricated this story to enhance her claim for refugee status.” 

Reading accounts of the decisions made by the Tribunal members is like entering a twilight world where prejudice and paranoia rule – and where the vast majority of asylum seekers are treated as morally bankrupt. You might ask: who appoints these bigots? And why? There is a political dimension to all of this. And the truth is that it is the system – and at least some of the people who operate it – who are in the wrong. 

We desperately need to address this appalling betrayal of the idealism on which the Republic was founded. On the positive side, we now have a Minister who understands the fundamental issues – and who is motivated by a desire for justice and equality for all. Now, it’s time for action...

 

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