Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

6 August 1998 Edition

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Fear in a strange country

Living as refugees in Ireland

By Roisín de Rossa

On Friday an Angolan woman, with her six year old son, was dragged from a phone box in Dublin's Dorset Street. She was punched, headbutted and abused by two youths. The lady, who is pregnant, was left cut and bruised.

The attack is one of several - in fact most refugees have suffered some kind of abuse, if not physical assault - they are sometimes too vulnerable to dare to report it. No attack was more flagrant than the widely reported case of Belmondo Wantete from the Congo.

The Gardai, some armed, in plainclothes, burst into Belmondo's house at 3am one winter morning. The man the Gardai sought was a Nigerian. The address was incorrect. Nevertheless with great brutality the gardai dragged Belmondo from his bed, and threw him into the car - naked. After some time in custody the gardai offered to release him. Belmondo refused. He has since been charged with 12 offences including, incredibly, indecent exposure.

Another refugee who has often received abuse is Gbenga, as also has his wife, Funke. She was walking with her friend and her child in a pram. A stone thrown from flats above hit the covering on the pram. Gbenga says, ``Abuse, it is only ignorance. I can take it. But if he puts a finger on me, I will hit him.

``It is part of our culture. Look at the struggle for freedom in the African countries. You saw what happened in South Africa. We want to live in a just society. Because I am in another man's land it does not mean I should lose my dignity. We should try and learn and understand other peoples' culture. Such racism is the fault of the government. A government must educate the people into a multicultural society. They must nip racism in the bud.''

``I was shopping the other day,'' Funke says, ``a lady came up to me, asked me where I was from. `Ah. Nigeria. I was there. People welcomed me so well. I hope they take care of you very, very, well here', she said to me. It meant so much to me. In my country we can accommodate foreigners. We have taken many refugees, especially from Liberia. We gave them land to live on and supported them with arts and crafts.

``Nobody, but nobody, becomes an exile, leaves their country and everything they have, to go to a foreign land, unless it is for fear of persecution, of torture.''

Minister of Justice and Equality, John O'Donoghue, disagrees. He has given his opinion that only 5-10% of refugees are `genuine' and will be allowed to stay. Dr O'Connell, of James Street, who deals with many refugees as they come through the registration process in the refugee unit in James Hospital, on the basis of a survey of 100 patients, says that he considered 42% of these had suffered torture.

Such results appear quite consistent with the research carried out in America and EU countries, where a great deal of work has been done to help the victims overcome their torture. Ireland, to its shame, has none of these facilities.

It is only in the last few weeks that an initial programme (£60,000) has been announced by the EHB, which will be up and running shortly in St. Brendan's Hospital.

Gbenga is one of these many victims. ``To ask me to talk about it is like asking a woman who has been raped to repeat her story. I cannot do it,'' he said.

``When I came to this country I asked the doctor to give me HIV testing on account of what they did to me in the interrogations. I have still not heard the results.''

Gbenga and Funke, both highly educated, both with good jobs in their own country had to leave. Gbenga was arrested and held over months of torture and interrogation. His wife left one of her children behind with a sister and decided to come to Ireland with her other baby. Why Ireland? ``Because we have English, but England is so closely tied to the present military government in Nigeria I thought we might be safer in Ireland.''

When Gbenga was released he did not go home. He heard his wife had gone to Ireland. He collected his other child and escaped to the bush. He shows the scars on her arms and legs from the insect bites and disease of such a hard journey. ``She knows nothing. She is too young. Perhaps it is better.''

Gbenga arrived in Ireland, confused and cold, looking for skyscrapers that weren't there. He went to apply for asylum at the Department.

``Please, tell me, where is my wife?'' ``It is not our business,'' they replied. But the EHB had a record of his wife and baby. They rang the place where she was living. ``Do you want to talk to your husband?'' ``No joy like that - to be together,'' Gbenga said.

Deportations have started. This week the story came back to Dublin that an asylum seeker living in Ennis had lost his appeal for status here. The Gardai dropped up to his house and asked him to come down to collect his passport. At the barracks he was arrested, handcuffed and put on a plane to Moscow.

But the flag of convenience for deporting asylum seekers is the Dublin Convention which says that a refugee's case for asylum should be heard in the first point of entry to the EU. ``To me the Dublin Convention is a gimmick. It's a way for Ireland to refuse to acknowledge the UN Human Rights Charter - to shy away from its obligations. If Ireland did not intend to uphold the charter, then why sign it? Very few refugees will have Ireland as their first stop in the EU,'' Gbenga says.

``The Irish Government seems to want to copy the English government in so many things. Why don't they copy them in ways which are helpful to refugees like the amnesty for refugees which Jack Straw announced this week. Why doesn't the government let us work and study? I cannot understand this. The stupidity. When I am in government in Nigeria, I will not favour Irish trade. Here I am an ambassador for my country, for Nigeria.

``There are five Nigerians in England who have enough personal fortune to pay off Nigeria's foreign debt. Where did they get so much money? Not from their salaries. It is money stolen from the Nigerian people. If you welcome such people, you are an accomplice, yet why will you not welcome those who they stole from?

``In my country I went to a Catholic school. When I came here I thought good, their government will implement Catholic teaching. `What did you do for my friend when he sought for shelter, for food? Did you give him a stone?''


(The names in this story have been changed. The refugees live in fear of detection and fear of deportation)

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1