Colette Sheridan: Describing asylum seekers as 'spongers' was a bad call for TD

Colette Sheridan: Describing asylum seekers as 'spongers' was a bad call for TD

STRONG MESSAGE: Protesters in Oughterard, Co. Galway this week. Picture: Hany Marzouk

THE very fact that independent TD Noel Grealish described ‘Christian’ refugees fleeing Syria as genuine, while African asylum-seekers come to this country to “sponge off the system”, says a lot about his prejudices.

The Galway TD, who made his comments at a meeting in Oughterard recently, is sympathetic towards Christians because they’re like us, while Africans are ‘other’ — because they’re black.

But Noel, known in his locale as a sound man who gets things done, wasn’t being very Christian when he made his remarks, criticising the proposal to open a direct provision centre in Oughterard.

As it happens, almost everybody is opposed to that possibility, given that the small and under-resourced Connemara town couldn’t absorb up to 300 asylum-seekers.

But calling asylum seekers spongers is insulting and racist.

It’s the kind of incendiary talk that stokes hostility towards non-natives and reflects poorly on a country such as ours that was highly dependent on emigration during particularly bleak times in our history.

Yes, economic migrants come to Ireland in the hope of better lives and the dignity that comes from working for a living. Others come here because they are fleeing war and persecution.

We should be welcoming towards these people. Consider the fact that some 37.4 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. The Irish in America have been and are still mainly economic migrants.

The idea that asylum-seekers are only in Ireland to get their hands on ‘free money’ is a myth.

Noel should be aware that there is a campaign led by the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland for the right to work and to end the inhumane system of direct provision.

Living in direct provision on an allowance of €38.80 a week is not exactly attractive. Try having a life on such meagre means.

You would want to be in dire straits, with no feasible alternatives, to put up with the reality of being an asylum-seeker in Ireland.

Add to that the fact that people in direct provision are not allowed to leave the centres at night and don’t even have the facilities to cook their own food. It’s certainly no gravy train.

There are currently 5,000 people living in 34 direct provision centres around the country.

Journalist Clare O’Dea, author of the newly-published book, The Naked Irish: Portrait Of A Nation Beyond The Cliches, writes: “Reports of arbitrary cruelty by staff at the privately-run centres, such as denying a snack for a sick child, are having an impact on public opinion.

“The connection is being made in people’s minds with historical state injustice involving the detention of vulnerable groups such as unmarried mothers and their children.”

Will we, in years to come, look back in shame at the system of direct provision?

Clearly, asylum-seekers want to work. In 2017, a Supreme Court case ruled that the ban on working was unconstitutional. Applicants who have been in Ireland for nine months or more and haven’t had a first decision made on their refugee status, have the right to work in any job without the restrictions that were there before.

This applies to approximately 3,000 people.

Cries of ‘they’ are going to take our jobs should be called out for being xenophobic. Remember, Ireland produced more emigrants per capita than any other European country during the age of mass migration to the New World, between the middle of the 19th century and the beginning of the First World War.

Of this cohort, four out of five Irish emigrants travelled to the U.S. Irish people were fleeing the Great Famine (1845-1848). Hunger drove them to risk perilous voyages on ‘famine ships’.

The 1950s was the worst decade in the 20th century for Irish emigration. Some 15% of the population moved, mostly to the UK. There, they encountered racism. They worked in menial jobs. But they had no choice. Emigration is rarely embarked upon lightly.

That’s worth remembering next time you express something negative about immigrants. The debacle that is Brexit is largely fuelled by hostility towards immigrants.

Clare O’Dea writes: “Official Ireland currently welcomes immigrants, that much is clear and contrasts with the language used by political leaders next door in the UK.”

She adds that efforts to set up political movements “with an anti-immigration, nativist platform such as Renua in 2015 (‘putting Ireland’s interests and people first’) and Irexit Freedom Party in 2018 (‘taking back control by the Irish people of... our borders and immigration policy’) have produced feeble results, indicating that there is no great appetite for this style of politics in Ireland.”

Let’s try and live up to the Cead Míle Fáilte that we’re supposed to be famous for.

Noel Grealish has done himself no favours with his remarks. They appeal to a paranoid fear of the ‘other.’ Get over it.

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