Taoiseach must step up on refugee issue

(25 Oct 2016)

Sr Stanislaus Kennedy: Taoiseach must step up on refugee issue

Resistance to migrants appears to be becoming more pronounced

Our refugee programme is focused on resettling refugees from camps in Greece, Italy and Lebanon and Government has advised Greece of our desire to take unaccompanied children with a commitment from the Greek authorities that Ireland will receive the first group of unaccompanied minors before the end of the year. Officials from Tusla, the child and family agency with statutory responsibility for the care of unaccompanied minors in the State, have recently travelled to Greece to assess first-hand the needs of these minors and to plan for their care and accommodation upon arrival,” said Minister of State for Communities,Catherine Byrne, in the Dáil on October 13th.

As others writing on these pages have referenced, the Government has been obfuscating on refugees. This has been facilitated by an Opposition, for the most part, unprepared to take it to task where there’s no apparent electoral advantage to be gained.

Many NGOs, dependents of government, are effectively left out of the conversation. The media is submerged by a tsunami of stories home and abroad that, except in the case of dead children on Europe’s shores, seem to make better copy.

When politicians are largely silent on something it means the issue is not pressing for the electorate. Ireland has no hard-right or anti-immigrant political movement but there’s resistance to migrants and it appears it’s becoming more pronounced. That should be a concern politically.

Pro-migrant argument

The Oireachtas must challenge any resistance to our being open to, and welcoming of, refugees. Given our history, only a robust pro-migrant argument is responsible politically. Politicians set the tone. They must lead. Leading when an issue is neither complex nor contentious, is not leadership at all.

In general, there’s a need for greater collaboration, communication and shared interest by all stakeholders. One possible step forward would be for leadership to be shown by the Department of the Taoiseach, drawing together civil servants already involved with the issue and some who are new to it. It should be resourced by the department and led by Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

There’s already a multidisciplinary team across Government departments and agencies working on our response but the sense of urgency within the Government, that we all felt last year, appears to have diminished. This isn’t a reflection on any individuals; it’s about a fresh start to create momentum and a recognition that our response to a humanitarian issue of such scale needs to be reinvigorated now.

The Taoiseach must take personal ownership of this and give symbolic leadership by travelling to the camps and ensuring he is informed and in a position to create public understanding and support.

Separately, the Government could ask one of the large global project-management organisations to second a senior person to head the operation. Managing the process is complex so it should rest in the hands of an individual who is used to such a task. To have an experienced project manager from the private sector in charge would offer an immeasurable advantage.

There needs to be a greater and more compassionate national response. Government and the Oireachtas must lead. Equally, as citizens we shouldn’t expect the Government to do everything. Last week, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) addressed the imminent closure of the Calais camp and called, appropriately, for Ireland to take 200 of its unaccompanied refugee children. This reflected a union view that the resolution of domestic challenges shouldn’t be at a cost to our wider responsibilities.

Employers must make their voices heard. In the future they will need the skills and innovation of migrant workers to ensure competitiveness and will benefit from them as they have done before. The involvement of Ibec would help dilute the populist lie about migrants taking jobs from Irish people. Ictu has put its head above the parapet. Employers need to show equal courage. Government can make that demand but only if its own response is robust.

There’s a wealth of knowledge and understanding across the NGOs. TheImmigrant Council, which I founded 15 years ago, has a remit to lead in this arena and has called for a humanitarian and rights-based response to the crisis. Organisations such as the Red Cross and Crosscare have lists of citizens ready to provide accommodation and other support. Smaller agencies like Spirasi and the Jesuit Refugee Service have dynamic on-the-ground programmes, while the Irish Refugee Council works exclusively on the refugee cause in Ireland. A proper national response would have a coalition of NGOs at its disposal.

We have a powerful sense of community. Some of that’s a natural part of who we are but it’s also stimulated and managed by organisations that are dependent on community for survival. The Christian churches, and religious communities, remain an influence and the GAA is without peer as an organisation, with tentacles into every community and the potential to influence how people think and behave.

Outstanding model

Local government, too, has a role to play in the establishment of a coalition of community interests that must promote the value of attracting groups of migrants and making them welcome. For leadership in this area to be effective in opening dialogue with the public and addressing fears and misconceptions, the State, working with civil society, must introduce a programme of public information which would build a credible case for why we should accept our role within an increasingly right-wing Europe, as a place of moderate views and openness to change.

The approach advocated here is similar to that of Canada which is the outstanding model and is being led by a young and, it appears, courageous and inspiring prime minister.

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