Ireland: Lessons of Afghan asylum seekers’ hunger strike

Intolerable conditions lead to desperate actions

During May, 41 Afghan asylum seekers occupied St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and went on hunger and thirst strike. The protest ended after police stormed the Cathedral and removed the men.

Kevin McLoughlin looks at the issues surrounding the hunger strike.

Lessons of Afghan asylum seekers’ hunger strike

Every person has the right to live in decent conditions with a sense of security. Problems like poverty wages and lack of money, poor services, and lack of homes and fear of abuse or violence blight the lives of many Irish people. Recently, such problems, suffered over years and with intensity, provoked over 40 people to stage a hunger strike to demand their rights. That was how the protest of the Afghani men and students started on Sunday 14 May.

The hostility towards the hunger strike from the political establishment and the media, some of whom portrayed the Afghani protesters as manipulative ‘spivs’, terrorists and abusers in unsubstantiated reports, was a disgrace.

The Afghani protesters were at different stages in the asylum process but the majority had their initial cases rejected. Cut off from society in hostels, for up to five years in some cases, not allowed to work, and not knowing what the future holds – all this is a recipe for isolation and desperation. Ireland, Denmark and Britain are countries in the EU that have maintained a ban on asylum seekers working.

Despite contrary claims by government minister responsible for refugees, Michael McDowell, Afghanistan is a war-torn, poverty-ridden country, the bulk of which is in the hands of vicious warlords, including the Taliban, to which it is not safe for the refugees to return.

Even by international standards, very few people in Ireland are granted asylum (less than 10%), very few appeals are granted, and very few others are given "leave to remain". The Refugee Appeals Tribunal is the only such body in English-speaking countries that is not obliged to publish the basis for its decisions. Two people resigned from the Tribunal in opposition to its bias.

Local protests

During the May hunger strikes a few residents the area around St Patrick’s Cathedral, where the protest took place, abused the asylum seekers. This does reflect a certain sentiment that exists in society but the media overstated the significance of this group. Many other locals came down to show their support for the protesters. Polls indicated that a majority of people were not sympathetic to the Afghanis but that situation could have been different. The hunger strike and the occupation of the Cathedral was not understood or seen as justified by many people given that the refugees were not under immediate threat of deportation. The State and the media portrayed the refugees as taking provocative action to justify their intransigent position.

Last year, in the case of Kunle, a school student from Nigeria living in Ireland, there was a lot of public support because the government was seen to have acted in a disgraceful way when it tried to deport Kunle. This was partly due to the quick protest action by Kunle’s schoolmates and the positive effect this show of solidarity had on people’s attitudes.

The preparedness of the Afghanis to make a militant stance for their rights is to be applauded. However, it is clear is that, if possible, there needs to be activity and preparation in advance of such struggles, to win public support, which is essential to defeat the anti-refugee and the racist authorities.

This article appears in the June edition of ‘The Socialist’, paper of the Socialist Party (CWI) in Ireland

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