'Foreigners of this Kind': Chilean Refugees in Ireland,

By Claire Healy

Patio 29, a mass grave in Santiago de Chile's main cemetery (2006). Forensic examiners in the 1990s found 126 bodies buried in Patio 29's unnamed plots
(AP Photo/Santiago Llanquin)

In the midst of 1970s Ireland, a country considered homogenous and mono-cultural, a small group of South Americans made their home, under a United Nations-sponsored programme of resettlement. Long before the era of mass migration to the country, beginning in the 1990s, but long after the first migrants sought refuge in Ireland in the seventeenth century, Chileans fleeing the aftermath of the Pinochet coup travelled to the island. This article examines the background to the settlement, the circumstances of their arrival, and the consequences of the move.

The first significant group of refugees to seek asylum in Ireland were the French Huguenots. Over 200,000 Huguenots left France in the late seventeenth century in the wake of widespread persecution and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had granted them religious liberty. About 10,000 settled in Ireland, while 50,000 settled in England, and these French Protestants are said to have coined the term 'refugee' in the English language. These forced migrants gradually settled in the country, learned the language and intermarried with the Irish population. 

Just two decades later, in 1709, the Irish House of Commons authorised the settlement of Protestant Palatines in Ireland. The Palatines were fleeing the conflict with the French in their homeland in the Palatinate (Pfalz) in present-day Germany. Over 3,000 Palatines moved to Ireland in that year, the majority of whom settled on the estate of Lord Thomas Southwell in Rathkeale, County Limerick. Similarly to the group of Chilean refugees who settled in Ireland over 250 years later, over half of the Palatine refugees were dissatisfied with the refuge provided in Ireland and re-emigrated to North America.

Few migrants sought refuge in Ireland during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Irish government was reluctant to accept European refugees. The Department of Justice particularly opposed the resettlement of Jewish refugees in the state. [1] In 1956, Ireland acceded to the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which had been ratified by the United Nations in 1951. The policy of accepting programme refugees in Ireland, despite its initial limited scope, was conceived of as an international response to crisis situations. The Convention defined a refugee as any person who, 

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. [2]

Residents Against Racism (RAR) protest
in Dublin, 2005

Under the terms of the 1951 Convention, this was to apply only to European people who were refugees because of events that had taken place prior to 1951. 

The same year that Ireland signed up to the Convention, a group of 530 Hungarian refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion of Hungary were accepted into the country and accommodated in an army camp in Knockalisheen, County Clare. Many more Hungarian refugees received asylum in other European countries, and, curiously, also in Chile. [3] The Irish government made scant provision for their resettlement, beyond providing accommodation, food and 'pocket money,' [4] and considered their residence in Ireland to be temporary. Like the Palatines before them, the vast majority of the Hungarians in Ireland ultimately resettled in the USA and Canada. In 1966, the Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees extended the right to seek asylum to all nationalities, without geographical or chronological limitations. [5] However, there was no significant refugee migration to Ireland until the 1970s.

On the eve of Salvador Allende's ascent to power in Chile in 1970, the country was beset by chronic economic difficulties such as inflation and unequal income distribution. During his time in power, Allende implemented a policy known as 'la vía chilena al socialismo' involving the nationalisation of certain industries, reform of the healthcare system, agrarian reform and the redistribution of farms, and a programme of free milk for children. A visit by Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to Chile in late 1971 and rampant inflation in 1972 elicited domestic and international criticism for Allende's administration. This was compounded by a series of industrial strikes and a fall in exports. In June 1973, a tank regiment led by Colonel Roberto Souper led a violent but unsuccessful coup attempt. In August of the same year, the Chilean Chamber of Deputies accused the Allende administration of unconstitutional acts and encouraged the military leadership to reinstate the constitutional order. 

On 11 September 1973, the Chilean military led by Commander-in-Chief Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende's socialist government. Allende made his final radio speech to the people at eleven o'clock that morning, concluding with the words:

¡¡Viva Chile!! ¡¡Viva el pueblo!! ¡¡Vivan los trabajadores!! Estas son mis últimas palabras y tengo la certeza de que mi sacrificio no será en vano. Tengo la certeza de que por lo menos será una lección moral que castigará la felonía, la cobardía y la traición. [6]

A short time later, Allende died in the presidential palace, 'La Moneda,' which was bombed and burnt to the ground. [7] The Congress was dissolved and the National Stadium converted into a concentration camp for thousands of prisoners. All political activity was declared 'in recess.' [8] The coup initiated a spate of kidnapping, detention, torture and killing of Chileans by the state. Because of the secrecy surrounding such activities, and the fact that the locations of bodies were frequently concealed from their families, victims of this state terror became known as 'detenidos-desaparecidos (detained-disappeared).' [9]

Cuban postage stamp commemorating Allende's death

As news of the coup in Chile reached the Republic of Ireland, a group of Irish people formed to lobby for the acceptance of a quota of refugees from the South American country. The group had the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who was then encouraging governments all over the world to accept those seeking refuge from the fallout of Pinochet's coup. Ireland and Luxembourg were the only remaining members of the European Union that had not accepted Chilean refugees. Local support was also provided by Amnesty International and the Irish Order of the Franciscans. The Irish government of the time agreed to admit just twelve families under a special programme for refugees. The requests of Chileans for refuge were to be granted on the basis that they would otherwise have been imprisoned or suffered human rights violations because of their political beliefs. [10] Unlike the Hungarians in 1956, the Chileans were to be considered permanent settlers rather than temporary refugees. [11] 

Unfortunately, relatively little is known about this group, as some of the files relating to the incident have been mislaid in government archives. [12] The one file that does remain originated in the Department of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and was released to the public in 2005. It is entitled 'Resettlement in Ireland of refugees from Chile' and is dated February to April 1974. Although a government memorandum indicated support for the project from all departments, the Fine Gael T.D. (member of parliament) and Minister for Justice Patrick Cooney voiced his reservations in relation to the settlement of the Chileans, stating that Ireland was not as 'cosmopolitan' as other Western European countries and that 'the absorption of even a limited number of foreigners of this kind could prove extremely difficult.' [13] Cooney substantiated his views by referring to the previous resettlement of Hungarian refugees in Ireland, claiming that they had 'failed to settle down' and had eventually re-emigrated to other countries. [14]


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2006

Online published: 1 October 2006
Edited: 07 May 2009

Healy, Claire,  '"
Foreigners of this Kind": Chilean Refugees in Ireland, 1973-1990' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 4:4 (October 2006). Available online (, accessed .


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