- 23 Aug 12
To mark World Refugee Day, members of the Karen Community, representatives from the UNHCR and Minister Alan Shatter gathered in the Lighthouse Cinema to watch Moving To Mars, a documentary on the plight of refugees.
On the evening of June 20, the residents and visitors of Smithfield Square were treated to a wonderful and uplifting sight. A choir of beaming children, teens and adults gathered outside the Lighthouse Cinema to sing.
These were not your average buskers. Organised by the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR to celebrate World Refugee Day, the choir comprised members of the Karen Community who have escaped the violence of Burma and been resettled in Castlebar, Co. Mayo. The Karen people – along with members of the UNHCR and the Minister for Justice, Equality & Defence, Alan Shatter TD – subsequently attended a screening of Moving To Mars, Mat Whitecross’ documentary about resettled refugees, some of whom were in attendance.
Moving To Mars is warm, insightful and enlightening. Featuring two Karen families who were moved from a primitive Mae La camp in Thailand to Sheffield in the UK, the documentary focuses on the attempts by the group – many of whom have been separated from family and friends – to acclimatise.
In most respects, their knowledge of England and the hopes they have nurtured for their new lives are endearingly naïve. They speak of wishing to see the Queen and David Beckham – though they also express an uncanny understanding of the local mindset. “It’s cold, so you have to drink alcohol all the time,” one of them observes. Barely able to conceal their wonder at taking a ride on the airport escalator, it’s clear that their journey to England will be an exciting one – though it also proves emotionally difficult. As the adults battle to fight feelings of despondency and the children struggle to learn English, it’s easy to forget about the larger problems they once faced.
But subtle, off-hand references to their former life are bone-chilling. When Thaw Htoo, the intelligent and articulate patriarch of one of the resettled families, expresses a desire to reignite his career as a civil engineer, he’s asked if he brought his diploma to the UK. “No,” he replies, “the Burmese army burned down all our houses. So we had to leave everything.”
The Karen people are one of the largest ethnic groups in Burma, making up around 7% of the population. Successive military dictatorships have persecuted them, forcing them from their homes and denying them basic human rights. Desperate and fearful, thousands of Karen people now live as Internally Displaced People (IDPs), hidden in the jungles of Burma, where they are vulnerable to attacks from the military. Many others have crossed the border into Thailand, where they live in large refugee camps. There are 92,000 registered refugees from Burma in Thailand, as well as an estimated 54,000 unregistered asylum seekers in nine camps along the Thai-Burmese border.
In 2007, 97 members of the Karen community were resettled from a refugee camp in Thailand to Castlebar and Ballina in Co. Mayo. But Ireland could do more for such besieged people. The UNHCR have been pressing for a change in legislation so that more refugees can be assisted. While the Minister Alan Shatter and the UNHCR may not always agree, they do share an understanding that we need a better system than the present one, which is rife with prohibitive waiting lists and red tape.
There are arcane aspects to it. Refugee protection deals with those who faced individual persecution because of their race, religion, politics or nationality. So-called ‘subsidiary protection’ deals with those not facing specific personal threats, but who live in a country where violence is widespread and everyone is a potential victim of a bombing or other violence.
“The difficulty in Ireland at the moment,” explains Sophie Magennis, head of office at UNHCR, “is that you do the refugee bit, which takes about a year, and then you apply for this other type of protection, and there’s a huge backlog of cases. There’s currently 6,000 people waiting for that piece of their case to be looked at, and that’s particularly difficult for people in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, who have to wait for many years for possibly the most important piece of their case to be looked at. So we want all the questions to be asked at the same time in the first interview, which is what happens in all other EU member states.”
Speaking of the on-going reviews and reforms of the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2010, Minister Shatter stated that “in addition to the large number of technical amendments required, a number of other enhancements to the Bill will be necessary to reflect Government policy.”
Even though the new Bill won’t be brought for approval and publication until later this year, significant strides have already been made in relation to the application process.
“I am proud,” said the Minister, “that since I came to office, I have made decisions on nearly 28,000 applications for citizenship.” He also added, “If I can give you a contrast, in the year 2010 my predecessor made just about 7,000 decisions.”
The Minister spoke of the “privilege” of deciding who is awarded citizenship.
“You’re obviously aware you’re dealing with very real, human situations, and in determining citizen applications I have to be guided by the statutory criteria prescribed in the citizenship laws – but also deal with things with some degree of insight and sensitivity, and often I think it’s a matter of applying a degree of common sense.”
Let’s hope that this is indeed how decisions are approached from here on.
To show support for refugees, asylum seekers and those in need of international protection, visit UNHCR’s Do 1 Thing campaign at unchr.ie/do1thing
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 11 Jul 23