On my short visit to the Republic of Ireland this week I was privileged to meet members of a new and vibrant community who were working hard to set roots in this country. This new group of people were from Somalia and had come to Ireland in search of a better life for themselves and their families.
Most of the Somali people I met lived in the capital Dublin in privately rented accommodation in close proximity to each other and a few resided in the Mosney refugee centre which is one of the largest privately run refugee camps in Europe. Many of the people I met were still awaiting the decision of their immigration claim which they collectively thought was taking “forever” and hampering their ability to support themselves. Even those that have been successful in their immigration applications were only given leave that can be extended yearly and does not give them the full refugee status which would allow them under the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention to bring their families to join them.
Of course some have been very lucky and have received full refugee status and as a result have been lucky enough to have been joined by their families in Ireland. These handful of people are extremely lucky according to Ahmed (not his real name), who is yet not able to bring his children to join him as he only has Leave to Remain which he has to renew every year. The reason for this is that the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service rarely awards refugee status even to those who clearly have a right to it which allows for family reunion with those immediate family members refugees left behind or were separated from in the usually hasty process of leaving their countries and seeking asylum abroad.
” I think the issue is that the Irish government is used to seeing large numbers of their people emigrating and the arrival of refugees has caught them of guard,” Said Ahmed. “I think they are confused because they are wondering why we didn’t go to the UK, Sweden, Denmark and other places Somalis typically go.”
So why then did the Somali community decide to come to Ireland? Anyone who has worked with refugees will know that refugees, unlike the right wing Western press continually suggests, have very little choice over their final destination. While they may have an idea of where they would like to go for the opportunities it may offer them, most refugees travelling illegally in the European Union area must seek asylum where they are caught. The idea behind this is that, as a result of the political, social and economic harmonisation of the European Union Member States, refugees ought to get similar protection wherever they seek asylum. “I really wanted to go to England because I thought I could find more work there but I was forced by circumstances to seek asylum in Ireland,” said one man who wished not to be named. “I was sent back from another European Union country because they found my finger prints here in Dublin,” confessed another. However, despite this there also are those who chose Ireland as their preferred new home State.
“My uncle had come to Ireland and had been given asylum quickly and he had also been made welcome and supported into education,” said a young lady. “I heard how hard immigration control was becoming in other nations such as England and France and did not want to go there and waste my time. I wanted to come to a country that was going to support me after my struggle back home in Somalia.”
However they came here and whether Ireland was their preferred destination or not is irrelevant today as the members of the Somali community are already here and most of them face the same challenges. Those who have yet to receive their legal rights to remain in Ireland can only await the outcome of their cases but even those who have successfully attained this are struggling. Even though Ireland is a nation with a global population that lives in all corners of the world, some Somalis I have spoken to feel that they have faced some discrimination and although they can easily report it to the police it is something they feel that is deeply psychological in a small minority of Irish people which cannot just be legislated out. Some even felt that the deep recession Ireland is in would make the situation worst as institutional racism may prevent genuine asylum seekers from receiving citizenship and the support they need to start their lives again because they realise that economic hardship in the past has led to racial tensions in other parts of Europe.
Unemployment has been rising all over Europe and the Western world as a result of the financial recession and from the boarded up shops on most Dublin high streets, the for sale signs on family homes and the queues at the benefit office, it is evident that it has hit Ireland hard. Once dubbed the Celtic Tiger for its impressive period of rapid growth between 1995 and 2007, today Ireland is a shadow of its former self. High unemployment, smaller corporate tax receipts and rock bottom consumer confidence has made the educated Irish population emigrate to global greener pastures. The less affluent and educated Irish people and asylum seekers of different descents are not so lucky. They still have to live here with the prospects of no employment and for the latter group, an uncertain immigration future.
Despite the financial recession, Somali immigrants and asylum seekers and their children have access to free education, medical care and housing. Most I spoke to were pleased with their welcome to Ireland and the on-going support they receive from the State.
“I go to school now and I have many friends,” smiled one teenager attending a Dublin secondary school. “You can see my English is good but I don’t like rugby more than football.” Rugby of course is the nation’s favourite sport but the Somali community wherever they have gone have been skillful in mixing their own culture with the best parts of their host nations practices. It cannot be forgotten that Somalis are nomadic by nature and have rich cultures and traditions that will enrich and benefit Irish society in the long term.
On a visit to the only Somali community centre I met many people enjoying a traditional meal of bariis, hilib, maraq and suugo. The meal was absolutely delicious and I suggested as a means of raising capital to run projects to support each other and their children they sell it widely to non-Somali customers. This I was told was a long term ambition which will be realised when the community is more settled. Aside from serving wonderful food to its customers, the small community centre serves as a meeting place for all Somalis who wish to meet their friends, discuss key issues such as employment and housing and the affairs of the homeland they left behind.
“Somali people are sociable and we cannot just stay in our homes all alone reading a book like the Irish people,” said one man who did not want to be named because of his unresolved immigration case. “This is our embassy in Dublin as it is the place where we find interpreters and volunteer advisers on every issue.” “Sometimes you just feel a little low and miss your family back home and you come here and are cheered up,” smiled another man. “Refugees and new comers are given help but they are expected to locate it and travel round to get everything done for themselves often with no financial support,” stated a young lady who I met at a bus stop. “But I usually go to the members of the community that know where to go to get what I need and they make life easier for me.”
The Somali community centre or the “embassy” as the above interviewer put it is a testament to the Somali values of friendship, entrepreneurship and public service. As small as their numbers are the Somali community in Ireland is united, hardworking and self-reliant. This may change as the population increases like in some UK cities but for now this has been their strength.
The young Somali community in Dublin is truly impressive as they have achieved so much so quickly with their own resources human and otherwise. However, they can be more effective if they organise themselves better and become more professional. They also need to learn to create links and build strong relationships with their Local Authorities and other ethnic groups in Ireland who are able to assist them and support them in their development and growth. Furthermore, they also need to be honest about their needs and not shy away from asking for local government support as their experiences and the realistic possibility of them not been able to integrate quickly and effectively may lead to other socially crippling problems for them such as mental health issues and greater social exclusion and poverty.
All this would help them fundraise within their own community and compile a strong case for funding from Local Authorities to aid the members of their community in their fundamental integration journey. It may even set an example for other new struggling community groups who like the Somalis have come to Ireland to start a new life after fleeing their own home nations. Who knows, it may even help Dublin City Council and other Local Authorities find more innovative ways to improve their skeletal services to refugees and asylum seekers which in turn attracts central government support and long term funding which would benefit Irish society as a whole.