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Ombudsman asks: Are we discriminating in favour of Ukrainian refugees?

Doesn’t he sort of have a point, here?

Dr Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children, has criticised differences in how the State treats families from Ukraine and families seeking asylum from other countries as “unacceptable”, in correspondence to the Government.

In a December 21st, 2022 letter to Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman, Dr Muldoon said the Citywest centre in Dublin was “simply not fit for purpose”.

Dr Muldoon said it appeared families arriving into the country from Ukraine were moved on from Citywest to alternative accommodation “within 24 hours”.

He said this was not the case for families with children seeking asylum from other countries, who “stay for two to three weeks and sometimes longer” in the transit hub.

It seems to me that the country, perhaps without thinking, has indeed embraced a sort of pro-Ukrainian discrimination when it comes to immigration policy. This discrimination exists because it suits everybody on a political level, right across the spectrum.

In the first instance, it suits Government: As public disquiet about immigration has grown, the Government has been very eager to make Ukrainian refugees the public face of Ireland’s immigration policy: These are people fleeing a genuine, bona fide war, pursued by a genuine, bona fide villain in Vladimir Putin. You need only switch on the telly to see the missiles hitting Ukrainian cities, or the Russian tanks lumbering their way down Ukrainian streets. These are people in genuine need, and that is a fact that is accepted – or at least should be accepted – right across the political spectrum. The existence of the crisis in Ukraine, though, provides a ready made talking point for Government politicians, and opposition politicians, who face difficult questions about immigration writ large: Just pivot to Ukraine and our EU obligations.

It’s much easier, after all, than talking about fellas landing in Dublin with no passports.

Paradoxically, the existence of Ukrainians also benefits those people who are protesting asylum centres in their localities because – and I write this with no judgment – Ukrainians provide an excellent way to make yourself seem more moderate. Ukrainians are the people you have no problem with, being as they are genuine refugees, and not chancers.

All of this has combined to a higher public and political tolerance for treating Ukrainians well, at least as compared to families who have arrived here from other countries. And if that policy is being enacted, the ombudsman is correct: it is discriminatory.

Leaving all views about immigration to one side, it is clearly unfair to prioritise the education and accommodation of a child from Ukraine over a child from, say, Georgia or Moldova. Children, after all, do not arrive in Ireland by themselves, and cannot be held responsible for the decisions of their parents.

A coherent immigration policy would, I’d argue, prioritise the accommodation and education of those seeking refuge based on their objective need, rather than on their nationality: Children and their parents first, adults of working age at a much lower priority. Such a policy would also prioritise children in decisions about who gets permanent right to stay in Ireland, and who does not, on the grounds that children are much easier to integrate in the longer term, and much more vulnerable in cases of deportation. If our current policy prioritises Ukrainian adults over children from other countries, then that policy, I would argue, is deeply wrong.

And yet all of this has arisen precisely because of a lack of public confidence in the asylum and immigration system, and a desire by those in power to make Ukrainians the face of that system because of the higher reserves of public sympathy for their plight. It has also arisen precisely because the state has bitten off more than it can chew: It is discriminating – if it is discriminating – on the basis that it is accepting more arrivals than it has room for. And so, some families are being left to rot in Citywest and other centres.

It is not, I think, compassionate to bring children to Ireland and condemn them to spending months of their young lives in complexes like Citiwest where trouble and discord amongst the residents is commonplace, and where there are no appropriate facilities for them. If those children remain here, then they will not grow up with happy memories of their Irish childhood, and it would be surprising if a deep-seated sense of loyalty to Ireland was inculcated in them.

In all of this, the children’s ombudsman is correct. But the problem here is that it suits everyone to treat the Ukrainians better, no matter who loses out in the process.

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