Hidden in Plain Sight: The Covert Conflict of Interdependence

Refugees Welcome Sticker
Brianna Walsh

25th of May 2022

“I feel like I am about to completely collapse: Totally disheartened, in despair, I cannot eat or sleep”

“There is an atmosphere of fear everywhere” 

“We needed to get out right away”

“They are beating and shooting us. There’s no food, no water. The children are crying, starving. Please.”


As the hearts of Europe beat for Ukraine, human voices cry out. Sounds from those most impacted by conflict and forced migration. The opening quote of this article emerges from a village near Kyiv in March 2022, from the pages of a civilian diary, an account of burgeoning war. The second is an aid worker in Myanmar that same year, in an article by The New Humanitarian concerning eight “other” ongoing conflicts. The third, from Amin Nawabi, expresses the requirement to  ‘flee’ Afghanistan during the 1980s Soviet-Afghan war. Finally, the fourth surfaces from Sally Hayden’s new “book of evidence”, My Fourth Time, We Drowned, a 21st century account of migrant suffering across the Mediterranean. 

Our Irish and European response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine is welcome. The relaxation of European border controls to welcome Ukrainian refugees along with the concerted Irish effort to provide appropriate, conscious accommodation has been commendable. However, it may prove imprudent to pat ourselves on the back too soon. For all our achievement and praise, international attention must also divert to something of equal salience: what we could have been doing all along. 

In the last year, we’ve observed resources “appear” in mere days to provide thousands with pandemic unemployment payment. Structures once embedded in society, from education to employment, were turned on their head as working-from-home became the “new normal”. Much like policy’s speedy adjustments during the coronavirus, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict highlights a new way of thinking in times of crisis.It would be lovely to say that our world order has changed  in the wake of this pandemic.  A pandemic that demonstrated the unavoidable importance of global interdependence. It would be lovely, but it would be naïve. Vaccine inequity persists. Efforts to collaborate more sustainably are insufficient. At least eight other conflicts continue. And as more and more Ukrainian refugees enter Ireland, those living in an inadequate direct provision system risk even slower processing of their claims for international protection. 


So, why the change of heart? Why Ukraine, but not Syria or Afghanistan? Ethiopia, The Sahel, Yemen or Haiti? Why not the climate? Why not those who are already here?



People on Protest Against War in Ukraine


Sharon Mpofu, on behalf of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), asks “if they can do it for [Ukrainians], why can’t they do it for other migrants?” She speculated that the media’s disparate depiction of Ukrainian refugees perpetuates a euro-centric approach towards asylum seekers; “I think it’s based on what has been portrayed in the media – they are from a European country, [they receive] preferential treatment compared to people of colour from different migrant societies. But [there is] one human race. We need to be treated equally regardless of race, creed, religion…” She shared her frustration at the quick processing and housing of Ukrainian applicants despite similar struggles of those living in direct provision for months now. The effort to “put tools down” and focus on Ukraine, “because its Ukraine.” 

While the physical distance of this conflict from Ireland is certainly worth consideration, it was when asked to share a final message from MASI that Sharon exposed perhaps the deepest roots of these discrepancies:


“[We want to] spread the word; we are not bad guys. We want to work with the government and Irish society and build a better future for tomorrow. We are here for protection, not to sponge off the government. If we work, we pay tax. We want to contribute to this country… and integrate properly.”


Structural racism in Ireland has become so entrenched, it’s even internalised by those suffering the bulk of its impact. Sharon emphasises migrants’ ironic understanding of Irish policy, expressing the desire to achieve public approval and “earn” a place here, rather than recognising the right that everyone should have to safe asylum. To food, shelter and adequate healthcare. The “right to have rights”, that can only be secured by international mobility and residence.


Where does this belief stem from? Why does it only affect people coming from specific countries and crises? The answers may be hidden in plain sight. 


Revealing our own implicit biases is hindered most ardently by the obvious; the fact that they are implicit. Implicit biases are the “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner”. As overt displays of racism become less prevalent, and a robust far-right political movement fails to form in Ireland compared to other European countries, it is easy to mistake our normative opposition to intolerance as evidence of goodwill. That’s not to say blatant discrimination isn’t present, especially for minorities such as the Travelling community. But peeling back layer upon layer of the past lets slip an even darker undercurrent. A harsher, covert truth. 

The origins of the Irish Free State itself lead to a homogeneous, closed, Catholic society, where in the wake of British invasion patriotism triumphed and “the only enemy was outside”. Despite, and because of this history, Ireland shared an equal hand in the suppression of black societies, through charitable, religious missionaries overseas and the use of this “inherent” nationalism to justify xenophobic policies. Western biases also began to dominate Irish media and culture.  Essentially, in our pursuit of independence and establishment on the world stage, our capacity to discriminate was heightened. Our suspicion of outsiders. Our involvement in inequity. A sovereign state, but an active participant in exclusion. 

The “unproblematic” assertion that Ukraine is “closer to home” and therefore, matters more, says it all; this country differentiates without regard and without critical examination of its own preconceptions. It’s a reality that may be harder to accept in the context of our own occupation. But it is reality all the same. By taking a stand against brazen intolerance and sharing a history of colonisation with developing countries, it’s understandable that most Irish people would be offended if dubbed “racist”. But laced within that history are influences we haven’t escaped. Influences that are inherited, absorbed and instilled, whether we like them are not.


“The Europeans like our fish, but they don’t like our people”. Dr Rashid Sumaila, Professor and Director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the University of British Columbia. 


This reality was only intensified by international economic development. While globalisation liberalised borders in terms of goods and services, states re-asserted their sovereignty in response to this evolution. International laws loosened to allow for easier trade, while migration policies tightened. What was lacking was a corresponding international obligation to secure human rights. Although many nations have prospered economically from this neoliberalism, the share of the wealth, the work and the impact is disproportionate, with the most devastating effects felt by those in developing countries. In essence, border control was framed in financial terms. Resources, companies and capital were let in, while people, and more often than not, black and brown people, were the ones left out. And in a murkier twist, they’re the ones frequently blamed for the inequalities that neoliberal policies generate. Myths of “welfare cheats” and “security threats” emerged during the early 2000s throughout Western media and politics, beginning the long journey that leads today to Sharon Mpofu’s plea; “we are not bad guys.” Asylum seekers are not, in fact, a burden. 

Ironically, it isn’t immigrants who are “draining resources” from the government. It is the Irish State itself, through a policy environment in which asylum seekers were denied the right to work and contribute economically in Ireland until 2018. In which assimilation into Irish society is arduous, for children and adults alike. Through no fault of their own, asylum seekers are placed within a privately funded, profit-making system that has cost the State over €1.3 billion since its inception. An approach that yet again puts the lives of people in the hands of corporations. An approach that many have contended costs the government more than a socially-funded model would. 

And it’s arguably not just domestic policies that contribute to this strain. It has been long documented that the continuous pull of resources by Western countries from developing countries exacerbates the impoverished conditions that drive people to migrate in the first place. In a similar vein, the impact the West has on climate change intensifies the effects of conflict and poverty overseas. Nobody wants to leave their home. But due to these neo-colonialistic tendencies, again tied up in economic greed and a history of prejudice, many don’t have a choice. Proving that no matter how badly States want to protect their sovereign lands from the monetary weight of migrants, the flow of those seeking asylum is not set to cease any time soon. 

Lastly, asylum seekers are not a burden because asylum seekers are people. And people are not goods or services or capital. People are people, experiencing the same challenges, joys and realities that life presents, no matter where they come from. Except for some people, these realities are made infinitely harder based on exactly that; where they come from. One country’s “economic migrant” is another’s “expat”, based solely on their nationality and a refusal to recognise our shared humanity. 


And yet:


 “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Anne Frank, 1947. 


The Ukrainian crisis illuminates deep hypocrisies on an Irish and international scale. But the war, alongside Covid-19 and the climate crisis, also signifies the potential for change. The necessity for change, as even the Western economy faces risk. Potentially another reason behind our increased attention, the Ukrainian-Russian conflict represents another threat to our globalised system, unveiling the fragility of the neoliberal agenda in the same way Brexit, Trump and Covid-19 did. Our capacity to connect is both a blessing and a curse. In the face of international challenges that will continue to affect us all, it is time to reimagine a new way of working together. A system that places people and the planet at the centre, rather than on the sidelines. There are inklings of a shift towards this system. The pledge to abolish direct provision by 2024. A new scheme to regularise long-term undocumented migrants. The mass welcoming of Ukrainian people in itself is indicative of good intention. Of a system where we are independent but aligned on issues that matter to all. Where everyone can prosper, economically, socially and environmentally. Not just Ireland, Europe, Ukraine.  





Featured Image by Markus Spiske from Pexels

Image in article body by Mathias Reding from Pexels

This article was supported by: Engagement Coordinator Aislin


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