Conflicting interests on the road to sanctuary

When will Trinity College become a University of Sanctuary, improving the accessibility of third-level education for refugees?

The state exams have come to an end. Teenagers wander as they await results day, the day that will decide how they spend the next three or four years. Regardless of the outcome, for most of them it is one of the most exciting times of their lives. The final step into supposed adulthood. Many have everything already planned: whom they will live with, how they’ll decorate their room, which societies they’ll procrastinate with.

But for the school pupils who live in direct provision centres, results day is no more than a day of harsh defeat. They got the points they need for the courses they’ve applied to. They have received an acceptance letter in the post. They placed it in the drawer and try not to think about it.

They are told they will have to pay non-EU fees, which vary in cost depending on the course and the institution but they are always too expensive for them to afford. Non-EU fees for undergraduate degrees in Trinity for the academic year 2017/18 range from €12,253 to €45,263.

They don’t qualify for the Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) grant as they cannot apply for the required stamp 4 visa as a refugee. Even if they were to receive SUSI, the maintenance grant usually does not cover all the expenses that university involves like travel, books or a laptop.

Dozens of teenagers in Ireland are isolated from their nearest communities due to the placement of these centres.  There are very few facilities available for independent learning and transport is limited to a strict bus schedule which often only goes as far as the nearest small town which may not even have a library or a community centre.

They are left with little other option than to sit about and try to hold out in hope while their application for asylum is processed.

The “City of Sanctuary” campaign believes that this isn’t good enough. A movement that was founded in 2005 to change the treatment of refugees, their overall goal is making cities welcoming to, and inclusive of, those who were seeking refuge. The biggest, and arguably most successful, of their projects is the University of Sanctuary.

The project outlines specific conditions under which a university may receive this designation. They must pledge to secure unrestricted access for refugees to education, support refugees in the surrounding communities through various projects, and create what they call an “inclusive culture”.  This culture presumably involves active and open discussion of refugees’ plight and refugee-led events.

The project has been particularly successful in the United Kingdom, with different universities creating their own initiatives  in addition to scholarships for refugees. The Plymouth Law School had a family reunion project in 2016, where they helped bring together 30 families that had been separated by the system.

Dublin City University was the first in Ireland to be designated as a University of Sanctuary, setting up 15 scholarships and several programmes in 2016. These scholarship are broken into two types: 5 were given to refugees and asylum seekers students at DCU and the other 10 focused on online, distance learning. They also set up the Mosney Book Club, with the university providing books and a monthly discussion group for people living in the Mosney Direct Provision centre.

University of Limerick followed suit, recently giving 17 scholarships to mature students in direct provision, most of whom will begin Limerick’s Mature Student Access Certificate (MSAC) in September 2017 which is similar to the Trinity’s own access programme.

One of the City of Sanctuary suggestions that DCU has agreed to, which given the ease it seems likely Trinity’s SU will do too, is a themed “Refugee Week”. But is another awareness week really what is needed to engage students with the refugee crisis? Isn’t it also the responsibility of dedicated student societies to highlight these issues, and the students themselves?

Allison Harmon, a member of a University of Sanctuary initiative led by graduate students in Trinity, said that unity is needed to achieve any beneficial change.

“While there are many clubs and societies…that engage with migrants and who are affiliated with different migration-focused organisations, we would like to unite the students and community in a collective bid for University of Sanctuary status.”

In a statement to Trinity News, the group outlined the action they plan before and after a status of University of Sanctuary.  They will use traditional methods of educating people on campus about their campaign, such as distributing leaflets and putting up posters. They highlighted the importance of refugee led events, with dinners reminiscent of the successful series by Refugee and Migrant Solidarity Ireland, and language exchanges. If they are successful, they hope to continue, as groups like Fossil Free TCD have done, to maintain the connections made between college and the direct provision centres. They aim to present an initial proposal to the Provost by the end of summer.

As two other universities have achieved the University of Sanctuary status, it seems likely that Trinity will follow suit to maintain its image. However, the interests of college management may prove to be a problem.

As previously reported by Trinity News, college management has invested €344,995 in BAE Systems, the third largest arms manufacturer in the world. It is a British company that designs and manufactures warships and submarines that have been used in some of the major conflicts of the past 50 years, including the Falklands War.

It also has a trade deal with the Saudi Arabian government, a government which plays an active role in the conflicts displacing peoples in Northern Africa and the Near and Middle East. They took part in the US-led coalition air campaign against Daesh, which has destroyed countless homes in Syria,  a country with 5 million of its people seeking asylum in other countries and 6 million others displaced within its own borders.

This raises significant ethical questions. How can Trinity create the requisite “inclusive culture” for refugees when they have shares in a company whose weapons have helped destroy their homes and their communities?  Hypocrisy aside, those involved in the campaign believe that this is a much-needed expression of solidarity with the refugees and migrants living in Ireland.

Stacy Wrenn

Stacy Wrenn is a staff writer and a Senior Sophister Jewish and Islamic Civilisations student.