WE Irish are celebrated for the hundred thousand welcomes to give to those who visit our country. It’s something we are renowned for all over the world.
At this moment in history, we are extending that welcome to people from the Ukraine.
Our Taoiseach Mícheál Martin was speaking on the BBC on March 13 when he was asked if Irish authorities were carrying out security checks on the refugees who were arriving here. More than 5,500 have come to date, and there is talk that we will accept 100,000 in total.
The Taoiseach answered by saying that we weren’t carrying out any such checks at present because “our primary impulse was to assist those fleeing war.”
Many people felt a surge of pride in the Taoiseach when he uttered those words. They felt that he had given voice to an aspect of the Irish character, an aspect that drives us to stretch out a helping hand to those who are suffering and in need.
I must admit that I was among those to feel proud. Because I know how good most Irish people are and I’ve witnessed their generosity of spirit throughout my life.
This pride was quickly followed by an acknowledgment that this is far from the full story.
Sure, Ukrainians arriving in Ireland are being warmly received. More than 15,000 households have already pledged to offer them accommodation.
Our politicians have said that they will have a legal right to work here and will be helped to engage in education if that is what they want.
This same approach has not been taken with refugees from other countries, for example refugees from Syria.
The war there started in 2011 and in 2015, Putin offered his military assistance to the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.
Since then, millions have fled, travelling across land and sea to reach a place of safety. Thousands have died along the way.
I’m sure lots of you remember those heart-breaking images of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old who drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Syrian refugees are as terrified as Ukrainians are.
They have lost everything just like Ukrainians have.
But we haven’t welcomed them in the same way. We accepted 3,000 or so of them and for the most part, we offered them accommodation in the direct provision centres that are found scattered across the country.
These are places where refugees are housed together while their backgrounds are checked to make sure they don’t represent a security risk to Ireland.
During this process, refugees are limited in the work that they are allowed to undertake in Ireland. For the most part, they are not allowed to cook for themselves and instead have to eat whatever food they are given.
This might not be so bad if people only had to spend a few weeks living in these centres, but that’s far from the case.
The average length of time people spend in these centres is one year but there are plenty of people who have had to live there for much longer, in some cases even up to ten years.
Terrible stories regularly emerge from these places.
Stories about people who are on hunger strike because they are so unhappy. Stories about people who are severely depressed or have even gone so far as to take their own lives.
What is the difference between refugees from Ukraine and the refugees who are funnelled into these direct provision centres? Aren’t they all fleeing conflict?
Is it that they don’t look the same? Is the difference in the colour of their skin the reason we treat them so differently?
It pains me to say this, and I hope it’s not true. But can any of you suggest any other reason why our famous Irish welcome isn’t being rolled out for dark-skinned refugees in the same way it for Ukrainians?