Refugees - The Global Challenge

By Paul Tobin, CBS James's Street, Dublin, IRELAND, 1998

Contribution to the EDUVINET "Global Challenge" subject

This presentation is divided into five sections.


A major global challenge which faces all nations in modern times is the issue of Refugees. Since earliest recorded times there have been instances of large numbers of displaced peoples forced to move from their homelands. In the modern world, thanks to telecommunications, we hear of these events immediately they occur and we feel the urge to respond. However there is often a great difference between what we believe we should feel and what we actually feel.

On the theoretical level we feel sympathy for these sufferers. They are the underdog. Pictures of distressed women and children evoke in us an instant sense of outrage and a longing to help. On the other hand the reality is not so romantic. Some people see asylum seekers as out to get their jobs. They often have different customs to us. They quickly become ghettoised in the host country. Their colour or their language sets them apart. More than food and shelter, the most difficult challenge to be tackled is that of the harmonisation of relations between refugees and the host population.

This is a huge global problem and can only be tackled as such, on the macro level, by governments and governmental agencies. However, as with so many large problems, the efficacy of the solution depends on the quality of work done at local level. Merely providing aid is not enough. The issue must also be managed properly and sensitively by the people most closely involved with refugees.

In Ireland we are more accustomed to looking at the topic of emigration than immigration. In our past there has been much poverty. Our people frequently had to travel abroad for employment. Because we have never been a colonising power we have never had to deal with an influx of people from former colonies. Lately, however, with a boom economy, more and more people have been looking at our country as an attractive alternative to political oppression in their own country.


Our school, Christian Brothers Secondary School, James's Street has been considering this problem and wondering how we can help.

Our interest in this topic springs from the practical consideration that we are dealing with increasing numbers of applications from refugees to have their children placed in our school. These children come to us with little or no knowledge of our language or culture. They come from Somalia, The Ukraine, Bosnia and Nigeria.

We are an old school located in Dublin's inner city. It is an area with many problems, drug abuse, unemployment, high density local authority housing. In recent years many asylum seekers have been housed here by the Department of Social Welfare. In school we have 400 students, mostly boys, many from a disadvantaged background. Over the past 16 years our school has adopted many new and experimental educational programmes. We are used to change and to challenge. Our teachers are open minded and generous in their willingness to accept students applying for entry.

The refugee children we are meeting are extremely ambitious and focussed on what they want to get from school. They are pleasant, well mannered and a pleasure to teach. The problem is how to integrate these new students into mainstream schooling. As there is no history of immigration in Ireland so there are no structures for the induction of immigrant students into secondary education. We in James's Street are 're-inventing the wheel' in trying to work out for the first time the best way to integrate the children of asylum seekers into regular classes. The Christian Brothers, who own the school, have been very supportive of this initiative and Brother Peadar Cronin has volunteered to work as a support teacher with special responsiblity for refugees in the school. Up to now we have had no help from the Department of Education but we will be lobbying the Department later this year with a view to getting resources and teachers from them for the coming academic year.

We want to achieve two things: We want to develop our own expertise so that we can provide a good schooling for the immigrants and we want to respect the cultural integrity of these new students so that the whole school community will benefit from the new cultural mix.

The process of induction for new students begins with an interview with the Principal. This often involves having a translator present. Usually the applicant has been to four or five schools already, but with no success. If this interview is succesful - as it is in 90% of cases - then the child is interviewed and academically tested by Brother Cronin. After that there is a process of consultation with teachers. Applications never come at an ideal time, such as August or September, so it is vital that all teachers are agreeable to accepting a student into their class, sometimes well into the school term. In fact this is rarely a problem, but it is important not to take people's goodwill for granted!

Next, school books and school uniform must be organised. These are all supplied by the school. Bro Cronin then goes to the relevant class and selects a student whose function it will be to 'buddy' the new boy until such time as he is able to 'go it alone'. The class is introduced to the new student and told a little of his background. In the past this stage has been very successful. Our regular students love the new students and make a big fuss over them. There has been no sign of racist feelings or prejudices.

Over the next few weeks the boy will meet Bro Cronin for basic English and basic Mathematics at times when his classmates are in Gaelic language classes.

We see a great opportunity for the school in getting more involved in the Refugee issue. There is no tradition of this sort of education in secondary schools in Ireland. If we develop expertise in this area then we will become a centre for immigrant education. We have made contact with a unit in Wimbledon, London which teaches immigrant students exclusively. They have built up an enormous amount of experience and skill in this area and they are willing to share with us the fruits of their experience. We have asked the Christian Brothers for increased funding to develop our own small unit within the school and we are confident they will oblige. With all the goodwill in the school we are determined to make a success of this project and, in our way help to integrate asylum seekers into Irish society.


To prepare the resident student population for any influx of new, foreign students it is essential that there be some research and discussion of the issue in advance so that our students get some preparation for what will be a new experience for many of them. Ideally a class or two will be set aside before the new student arrives. The aim of the class(es) is to awaken interest in the refugee problem among students and to elicit responses from them. The best way to initiate a discussion is by questionnaire and/or Question and Answer sessions. It is important that the teacher avoid making judgements or giving opinions. The objective is to get an honest account of how children feel about these matters. The following is a list of sample questions the teacher might use:

Where do you find information on the refugee challenge facing the world at present?

Our School:
Talk to some of the refugees in our own school and listen to their stories.

Newspapers :
Read, cut out relevant headlines and articles and paste them on the class notice board.

Agencies In Ireland:
Contact the Refugee Council of Ireland for information. Contact your European representative for a European view of this challenge.

Internet Technology:
Make use of the internet technology available to you to research and examine critically material on the global refugees challenge.



(Picture 1 to be added soon)


The Irish are often known as a nation of emigrants. They left Ireland for many reasons. You had the 'Flight of the Earls' after the Battle of Kinsale 1603. Most fled to Spain, France or Italy and settled down to a new life. Their descendants are still to be found in those countries. You had the Flight of the Wild Geese after the capture of Limerick by the Williamites. Again many of these are still remembered in their adopted countries because of the contribution they made.

The descendants of these Irish families are still involved in the production of world famous wines. Many fought and died for their adopted countries like the members of the Irish Brigades in the armies of France. They faced a language problem like many of our present refugees but they were made welcome and soon adapted to the language and customs of their new neighbours.

The Irish who fled to England to find work contributed to the growth of industrial England and played - and continue to play - an important role in the political life of their adopted country. We must come to see that the refugees on the streets of Ireland to-day have an equally important contribution to make in the Ireland of the future.

The Great Famine of 1845-1849 led to a sustained decline in the population due mainly to emigration. This decline was not reversed until the 1960s. By 1851 one million had died and another million had been forced to emigrate. This emigration continued until the 1960s.

The following table shows the numbers of emigrants for the given years, from 1871 up to 1961. Note the year 1911. 40,000 people left our country. The following year, 1912, saw the launch of the Titanic which sailed from Ireland with 2,000 people aboard, many of them Irish. It was struck by an iceberg and 1,500 people died.


(Picture 2 to be added soon)

Most Irish emigrants went to America in the nineteenth century. They made an important contribution to Irish and American history. One side effect of emigration was the fact that younger and more energetic people left the country. This continued from the 1960's to the 1980's when the brightest and best-educated led to the brain-drain so often talked about in the '80s.


Refugees face many problems when they arrive in Ireland. The main difficulty is that we have no experience of processing large numbers of immigrants and so people have to wait a long time before their application for residency is dealt with. Newspapers have shown hundreds of refugees queuing in the cold rain outside the Department of Justice. The tabloid media talk of floods of refugees arriving when in fact the numbers are very small in comparison with other European countries. It should be possible to treat the aslyum seekers with dignity and privacy while their claims are being processed.


"I came to Ireland to escape civil war in my country. I travelled some of the way in a lorry. I queued for many days to get an Identity Card. I live on social welfare but I want to work and build a new life here. I am waiting for two years to have my case heard. I am afraid that I may still be deported back home where I believe my life would still be in danger."

In 1995 there was a consensus across Ireland and among many politicians which recognised our obligations to the refugees in particular under the Geneva convention. All felt it was right to meet our obligations in a fair and compassionate way, given our own history.

Yet our attitudes changed quickly when a few thousand refugees arrived in our country. We reacted badly and some increases in racial tensions were seen on the streets of our capital. We suddenly began talking about our own homeless and our own unemployed as if these problems had not been with us for years before the new wave of refugees arrived. We talked about solving these problems by preventing asylum seekers reaching this country. We are not surprised if young Irish go to New York or Holland or Germany for work. Can we be surprised if some young people from Eastern Europe find it attractive to come to the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger to do the same? Instead we keep them waiting for up to two years to have their cases for asylum heard and complain about the cost of keeping them here.

We were proud of our internationally famous president Mary Robinson when she was appointed as High Commissioner for Human Rights last year. We were proud to see her visit countries torn apart with war and genocide like Somalia and Rwanda. We supported her concerns for these peoples. Can we now be compassionate and understanding when a relatively small number of refugees arrive in our country? We find ourselves closing doors, saying we do not want anymore, availing of the 'return to country of entry' clause. Surely we are obliged to examine their cases, to understand the situation that forced them to come here and to put in place the resources to deal with them as quickly as possible.

We need to face our dark side too. Like certain other European nations we would prefer to forget our racist attitude to Jewish refugees during the years 1935 - 1945.

Outsiders have come to Ireland before: the Huguenots from France, the German war orphans of 1946, the Hungarians of 1956, the Chilians of 1970 and the Vietnamese Boat People in the 1970's. Many returned home later to their country of origin. We were the poorer by their return. Those who stayed integrated into Irish society and made valuable contributions to Irish political, industrial and cultural life. The early Bosnian refugees have made great progress in terms of integration and of finding jobs. Our own past history should be the indicator on how we treat the present asylum seeker on our streets. They should be a huge enriching resource of people. They can be part of the modern Ireland and make a contribution to our multi-cultural society . We need to know them to make friends with them.


In 1945 Irish papers were full of stories of the devastation of Europe and especially of Germany. A 'Save the German Children' society was set up to provide homes in Ireland for refugee children and to raise money to support them. By the Spring of 1946 over 500 families were ready to take in German children. The children were allowed to come on condition that when conditions improved in Germany they would be returned. The Irish Red Cross supervised the transport of the children. The first 100 arrived in July of 1946.

One lady, still in Ireland, reports:

"I came to Ireland with many other children. My father and mother had been killed near the end of the war. Most of those who came with me returned home after two or three years. I was adopted by my foster parents, married an Irishman and have had a very happy life here in Ireland. I always wanted, however to find out how the other children got on when they returned home. Luckily I have made contact with some and we visit each other and chat about the events of 50 years ago."

Another war orphan says:

"I was adopted by my foster parents. I joined the Irish army and made a very good life for myself. I still miss Germany and visit as often as possible"


The Irish Refugee Council is a voluntary body supported by many Irish non-governmental organisations and religious groups. The council points out that we as a country need


(Picture 3 to be added soon)

Many parts of the world have remained untouched in the 1990's by the plight of refugees and diplaced persons. We in Europe believe we live in one of the world's most stables areas. Yet we have seen hundreds of thousands of persons in our continent driven by civil conflict to seek work elsewhere.

December 1996

March 1997

December 1997

January 1998

March 1998


The European Union has given support and shelter to many who were forced to leave their homes in former Yugoslavia, Africa or the Middle East. Our television screens have forced us to respond with financial and material help.

We are proud the European Community has strengthened its capacity to deal with the massive migration of uprooted people. The Community has played its part by working in partnership with UN agencies such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Programme, the Red Cross and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Oxfam and Medecins sans Frontieres. In Yugoslavia, peacekeeping by the UN is creating the environment for the European community to broker a political settlement.

The Community is the World's biggest provider of funds to refugee crises. 1995 saw 725 million ECUs allocated from the EC budget to help deal with the refugee crises. This breaks down as 45% Emergency relief, 22% Self-sufficiency, 11% Repatriation, 11% Care and Maintenance, 10% Integration within the host countries and 1% Resettlement.

The Community policy is towards a coherent and holistic approach to refugees and displaced persons. Media coverage has a large influence on public opinion. The Community has responded with immediate aid to save lives. When the media go away to the next area of interest the Community has to concern itself with the problem which still remains for both the victims and the hosts. Some refugees will have no choice but to settle in their new country while others need support to return home and to settle down again.

The Evolution of European Policy began with the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees which defined a refugee as any person who is outside his own country because of a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion and is unable to return home owing to that fear.

The Community policy goes wider to include people who have been forced to flee within their own country and it accepts that it has a responsilility to help and protect such people where possible. It follows naturally from the UN Charter and the protection of human rights which are fundamental elements in the Treaty on European Union which took effect in 1993. As a result the Community has increased budgetary resources to deal with the refugee crisis and the European Commission has set up an internal coordination group, the Permanent Inter-Service Group to ensure a coherent policy for handling refugee aid.

A total of 68 projects have been undertaken with the European Development Fund in Africa under Article 255 of Lome, with the total contributions of 81.6 million ECUs. In 1995 there were nine such actions, in Angola, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Uganda. Schemes run by non-governmental organisations accounted for three quarters of the spending.

Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopa all faced refugee problems as a result of civil strife. An estimated 2 million people were displaced. During 1995 21 million Ecus were provided to support these people. In Mozambique the Community provided 14.4 million ECUs of funding in 1995 alone to help more than a million people to resettle and develop their economies after years of civil war. Similar actions have been taken in Angola, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Mali and Liberia. The Community has continued to provide aid ranging from short term emergency aid to longer term rehabilitation to countries in Asia and Latin America, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.


(Picture 4 to be added soon)


The first High Commissioner for Refugees was appointed more than seventy years ago by the League of Nations. Europe was still reeling from the destruction of the First World War and the effects of the Russian revolution. After the Second World War, the United Nations faced a similar problem of uprooted people in a Europe divided by the Iron Curtain. The response in 1951 was the creation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Most refugees at that time were well received and integrated because they were the victims of totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe.

In the 1960s refugee movements had changed from individual flight to large-scale exodus mainly in the African continent. Public opinion was strongly in support of those who fled the effects of national liberation wars. The refugees who poured out of Algeria, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Zaire, Zambia, and Zimbabwe were welcomed in neighbouring countries. International assistance was provided through UNHCR, to help them to return home when their countries gained independence.

The following two decades saw Cold War rivalries transmitted into a polarized and heavily armed Third World which led to regional and internal conflicts. Refugees poured out of Mozambique, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Angola, Indochina, Central America, and Afghanistan. The refugee population, which was around 8 million at the end of the 1970s, was over 17 million by 1991. Most refugees were fleeing from violence, conflict, and insecurity fueled by political repression, poverty and famine. Millions continued to exist in over-crowded camps in countries which had neither the political will nor the economic capacity to absorb these growing numbers. The international community, because of the Cold War situation could only give humanitarian assistance for basic needs.


When the Cold War ended new problems arose from internal conflicts rooted in nationalistic, ethnic, and religious violence. The confrontation between the Iraqi government and the Kurds saw one of the largest and swiftest refugee movements ever. In Africa vicious tribal warfare as countries tried to install democracy saw more peoples on the move, trying to escape to safety. Over 236,000 Ethiopian and Somali refugees fled to Kenya, where the United Nations faces a major challenge in an area already subject to famine and lack of rain.

In Bangladesh almost 200,000 refugees from Myanmar have sought asylum from ethnic and religious persecution. In Europe and Asia, the rise of nationalism saw countries like Yugoslavia torn apart by bitter ethnic conflict which has led to the displacement of 650,000 persons within the republics of Yugoslavia, in addition to several hundred thousands to other parts of Europe. We could still see more large-scale displacement while the new states formed after the breakdown of the Soviet Union struggle with democracy.

What started as a European issue in the 1920s, then spread globally, has returned to become a European problem once more. Albania with terrible economic conditions, high unemployment, and food shortages has sunk into social discontent, riots, and the exodus of tens of thousands by boat to Italy.


The Hope for the Future lies in increased international cooperation between nations at the United Nations. The UN is politically active in resolving conflicts in Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Western Sahara, Somalia, Iraq, Burma, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Its peacekeeping operations are increasing to guard peace and to help build peace. The UN now seeks to end conflicts to make possible the return of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of refugees in the near future. This gives rise to the major challenge of the protection and support of the returning refugees. The plight of the Kurdish refugees is a case in question caught as they are between Iraq and Turkey. Refugee law, which focuses on the protection of persons after they have crossed their national frontier, needs to be updated to meet the needs of refugees within their own country.

The protection of returnees and the displaced is becoming a major headache for the UN where violations of human rights occur within countries. There is no effective international mechanism to question the necessity of governments to resort to emergency powers, nor any means of preventing human rights violations when the state abuses its powers. Mechanisms for international protection of individuals in their own country inevitably raise the sensitive issue of national sovereignty. The forcibly creating of a "security zone" in northern Iraq leaves many legal questions to be answered. A balance has to be found between sovereign rights and individual needs.


Once a political settlement has led to repatriation economic development must follow to avoid a repeat exodus problem. Is the international will strong enough to continue to support this economic development particularly in the Third World?

In the case of migratory movement a genuine effort has to be made to address the underlying economic and social causes of it. All effective development projects need to be designed with the participation of the people and not imposed by the Multinationals for their ends. Investments which seem large now may be seen as money well spent in the future, and certainly less costly than prolonged instability and conflict.




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