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“The Land of a Hundred Thousand Welcomes”

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

Rebecca Deasy-Millar interned with us in Paris all summer. She, similarly to last month's guest author, reached out to us earlier in the year, while we were still confined. She has been a tremendous help these past months, with everything from engaging with our young members during cultural excursions to helping us with social media projects. Here she offers an insightful look at what an Irish welcome looks like for asylum seekers in her home country.

In Ireland there is a phrase, “céad míle fáilte”, that we use when greeting people. In shops, on doormats, and plastered on the walls of the arrivals hall in Dublin airport you will see this phrase staring at you and probably confusing you because it has no resemblance to English. It is a phrase in the Irish language which means “a hundred thousand welcomes”, and it is from this phrase that the famous epithet “the land of a thousand welcomes” originated. Over time, “the land of a thousand welcomes” became a sort of synonym for Ireland, seemingly because anyone who visited would be captivated by the welcoming attitude of the Irish people towards foreign visitors. However, despite this flattering label, there exists a portion of the Irish people who have and still do often fail to extend this welcoming attitude to foreigners when the current for-profit system is not in Ireland’s best economic interest.

In 2019, Ireland pledged just over 15 million to the UNHCR for the following year, promising to welcome approximately 2,900 refugees into the country over a four year period; this is about 725 refugees per year. According to the UNHCR, in 2020 there were approximately 82.4 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. In theory, what this means is that if this figure is not set to increase over the next four years, something which is highly unlikely due to the already growing number of political and environmental factors that are forcing people to flee their home countries and seek refuge elsewhere, Ireland will be taking in approximately 0.0035% of the global number of refugees in any one year.

 Image of protest calling for an end to Direct Provision at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin
Photo © Tom Honan, 2018 - Image of protest calling for an end to direct provision at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin

Alternatively, when one looks at the figures for the number of foreign tourists that are welcomed on the island of Ireland each year (over 10 million), there is no comparison between this and the amount of refugees and asylum seekers Ireland supposedly “welcomes” annually. Essentially, what a comparison of these figures shows is that if it is in the best interest of the Irish economy and the general image of the country, there is no limit to the amount of foreigners that Ireland will receive with open arms, or so certain asylum seekers in Ireland at this moment believe is the case.

“You abandon everything”, says Diana, an asylum seeker who is a member of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), when you come to Irela nd. Placed in a room in one of the countless direct provision centres that are dotted around the island, with people who have nothing more in common with you than the fact that they are also asylum seekers, there is no sign of the famous Irish welcome. “[Asylum seekers] are just commodities” in this country, she confesses. What Diana is saying is that asylum seekers are not recognised as equals to Irish people who were born on Irish soil; they are alienated, “othered”, as she calls it; something that the people who are at the top of the direct provision system knowingly and happily perpetuate.

Room shared by six men (migrants or refugees) in Glenvera Direct Provision Centre in Cork city
Photo © MASI (published April 2020) - Room shared by six men in Glenvera Direct Provision Centre in Cork city

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in America in 2020 highlighting American systemic flaws, the hideousness of this Irish-made system into which asylum seekers and refugees have been thrusted since its foundation in 1999, and one from which they struggle to escape, also came to light. The truth about the conditions in which refugees and asylum seekers are expected to live was unignorable when information on the topic emerged; no access to self-catering facilities; isolated centres preventing people from accessing potential job locations; an allowance of less than 40 per week provided for adults living in the centres, reportedly driving some women into sex work; numerous reports of deaths and suicide in the centres which, as decided by the Irish government in 2017, would no longer be information that the public would have access to.

Rally organised by the Anti-Racism Network in Galway, Ireland, January 2018
Photo © Joe O’Shaughnessy, 2018 - Rally organised by the Anti-Racism Network in Galway, Ireland, January 2018

Another revelation that came out around the same time that can perhaps provide an explanation as to why the direct provision system still exists despite its inherent flaws, is that direct provision centres are run for profit on behalf of the Irish State. Each year, millions of euros are made by providers of direct provision accommodation, one of which is the largest prison catering company in the USA, Aramark. Meanwhile, even in as recent as of February 2021, residents in these centres feel the need to go on hunger strikes due to the less than satisfactory conditions in which they are expected to live. Fleeing unimaginable circumstances in one’s home country only to arrive in Ireland to be herded like livestock to an isolated residence catered by the same companies that serve criminals – are these the actions of a country that claims the title of one of the world’s most welcoming countries? Or, rather, are they the actions of a country that sees the financial benefit in the construction and normalisation of the “Us vs.Them” dichotomy?

It is towards the end of our discussion that Diana describes her experience of living in Ireland so far as being a “mentally and emotionally draining” experience, and the phrase “céad mile fáilte” suddenly loses all meaning for me. When asked directly whether or not she believes the Irish people to be welcoming, i.e. whether or not they live up to the phrase “céad mile fáilte”, she makes it immediately clear that “most Irish people are not welcoming”. In the small village in which she lives with her family, she remarks on how she has “never been approached by anyone” and how in the direct provision centre in which she and her family reside, the only organisations that interact with the residents are ones that come to check up on their general health.

Locals and residents of the Skellig Star centre in Cahersiveen, County Kerry standing together in solidarity. Hunger strikes took place at this centre in 2020.
Photo © Alan Landers, 2020 - Locals and residents of the Skellig Star centre in Cahersiveen, County Kerry standing together in solidarity. Hunger strikes took place at this centre in 2020.

What our discussion highlighted for me is that all over the world people, myself included, have the privilege of shutting off their laptops at the end of their nine-to-five working day and returning home to their regular lives; lives that are untainted by the kind of worry familiar only to refugees and asylum seekers; lives where questions about whether or not one will have a job in a month, or whether or not one may be deported in a week, are as foreign to us as the concept of “the land of a hundred thousand welcomes” is to Diana and to hundreds of other asylum seekers and refugees in Ireland.

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