Irish government consults refugees on integration for the first time

The Reception & Integration Agency held a forum this week to solicit views from 50 refugees on how the government can help achieve a common goal of integration into Irish society. UNHCR has welcomed the initiative and urged the refugees to participate actively to make integration work.

Fidele Mutwarasibo was one of the forum's participants. The former refugee from Rwanda is now an Irish citizen working for the Immigrant Council of Ireland.   © UNHCR/S.O'Brien

DUBLIN, Ireland, Oct 7 (UNHCR) - A milestone in Ireland's effort to integrate refugees was reached earlier this week when the government's Reception & Integration Agency held direct consultations with 50 refugees for the first time on steps to support their integration.

The Reception & Integration Agency, which operates under the aegis of Ireland's Department of Justice, Equality & Law Reform, launched the initiative to tap into "the direct experiences of refugees, their identification of the issues, their views on emerging integration policy, the barriers which they continue to face and how the Agency can best help to achieve a common goal of integration into Irish society."

Expressing UNHCR's concern over the lack of integration initiatives, the agency's Representative in Ireland, Pia Prütz Phiri, said, "While Ireland's positive integration policy, 'A Two-way Process', launched in 1999, remains essential to what we wish to achieve, it is time to move forward to the next phase, to produce real 'on the ground' opportunities for refugee integration."

Prütz Phiri told refugees at the forum, "You are in the best position to identify your own needs. Integration is important for you as individuals, for Ireland, and for the continued protection of refugees here. You and your communities will bear the heaviest brunt for the failure of integration."

Recalling that in several European countries, steps are being taken to designate ministers solely responsible for the portfolio of integration, Prütz Phiri said, "This demonstrates the level of seriousness integration is being dealt with in the EU, not because integration has been a success, but because it has been a failure in so many countries."

Welcoming Ireland's renewed initiative and expressing UNHCR's hopes for the future shape of integration support in Ireland, she said, "We would like to see a programme that is tailored towards refugees' individual needs and aspirations and that quickly enables access to mainstream services and opportunities with the same ease as Irish nationals."

Among the forum's participants was Fidele Mutwarasibo, who fled Rwanda and sought asylum in Ireland during the 1990s. He commended the Reception & Integration Agency for initiating a process of listening to refugees.

"At long last integration is centre stage. As far back as I can remember, it has never been a real issue. It's better late than never," he said.

Discouraged by the lack of initiative on integration in recent years, Mutwarasibo remarked, "Now I want to see a bit of vibrancy. Refugees do not feel they have been encouraged to participate in Irish society. This consultation is a step in the right direction."

He expressed concern, however, that "sometimes we meet, we talk, and nothing happens. I want to see action. The Reception & Integration Agency engaged us in this process. We are going to follow through with it. We have to keep the momentum up to see results."

He added, "We need each other. The Reception & Integration Agency cannot take it forward alone. If we recognise that, it will make a real difference. Before, it was just them. Maybe now, as part of this consultation, we can begin to say 'we'."

Identifying gaps in the consultation process, Mutwarasibo said, "There is a missing link at the moment. Refugees need to be empowered to argue their case. Others cannot represent them."

Now an Irish citizen, Mutwarasibo noted that many refugees in Ireland have acquired citizenship without the benefit of integration support. He and many former refugees are in a unique position, he feels.

"It's a paradox if a citizen is part of a society but starts from a position of disadvantage. There is a need for a level playing field with other citizen counterparts. For instance, just because I am a citizen doesn't guarantee me a job," he said.

The Reception & Integration Agency is expected to publish a report on the forum, and reconvene a further meeting with refugees to report back on progress in the area of integration in the coming months.