We must rediscover our humanitarian attitude

(03 May 2016)

Irish Examiner - Tuesday, May 03, 2016

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We must rediscover our humanitarian attitude

Sr Stanislaus Kennedy wants Ireland to assume a more responsible role when it comes to dealing with the thousands of refugees who have flooded into Europe in the past few years.

Refugees walk towards the border with Serbia from the transit center for refugees near northern Macedonian village of Tabanovce earlier this year.

As the country grapples with its own political instability, the plight of men, women, and children risking everything to reach the safety of our shores has faded from the headlines and national debate.

Yet the need is as great today as it was when the tragic scenes from the Mediterranean last summer caused a public outcry forcing ministers to make strong commitments at a hastily arranged news conference on the steps of Government Buildings.

Like many others the Immigrant Council of Ireland welcomed the fact that the Government had moved away from its position of offering to take in 600 refugees to accepting 4,000 with follow-up efforts to reunite families torn apart by war and terror.

Seven months later and it is depressing to report that the political promises, like so many others, have not been followed up by any substantial action.

Despite headline-grabbing meetings of taskforces the reality is that up until this week only a single family of 10 people have been brought to the safety of our shores.

Responding to recent Dáil questions, ministers outlined various refugee programmes, however a simple totting up of the figures shows that in the five years of the crisis fewer than 500 people have arrived in our communities.

The chaos which exists at the so-called ‘hotspots’ in Greece and Italy is often put forward for the delay in bringing people to safety and there is no doubt that at the border fences and the ports of the Italian coast there is huge confusion.

However, it is equally true that the absolute failure of the EU Governments to honour promises last September to provide safety to 166,000 people have added greatly to the chaos.

Europe’s excuses also do not ring true when we see that other countries have been able to overcome these issues. Canada already has 10,000 refugees on its soil with 15,000 more on the way and Brazil which is far from being a frontline nation has accepted 2,600.

The European Commission itself last month was embarrassed into saying that it is the lack of political commitment by its own governments which is leading to the failure of relocation and resettlement.

While promises to those in danger were broken, the EU did embark on an attempt to sell a deal with Turkey as a possible solution. The huge concerns over the human rights aspects of this agreement have been voiced by the UNHCR, Amnesty International and others.

What is equally important to note is that this deal was never going to have any impact on the far longer and more dangerous route from Libya to Italy where over 1,200 lives have been lost since the start of the year.

What is most depressing that is our leaders have lost all sight of humanity and the urgent needs of people in immediate danger.

The Immigrant Council of Ireland has recently returned from two visits to camps in France where we are scoping out what legal supports can be provided to people stranded there.

Talking to Chief Executive Brian Killoran and the team upon their return the one thing that stands out is that hundreds of children, some as young as six, are living alone in the camps.

Irish and UK volunteers and aid workers on the ground trying to run makeshift schools and other services report that children are in huge danger.

They can be crushed if they join adults on the back or under trucks heading for the UK, Rosslare, Cork, or Dublin, are open to abuse by criminal gangs involved in sex trafficking and police brutality during the many efforts by riot officers to close the camps.

What stuck in my mind was hearing how girls in the camp schools are disappearing and no one knows where. One girl, a diligent student who turned up for classes for months, on one Monday morning was simply gone and no one knows where.

Europol says within Europe’s borders 10,000 children are missing.

Having a caretaker Government does not absolve us of our responsibilities. The cabinet decisions and the news conference all happened in September. It is unacceptable and wrong that we are not honouring our commitments — in fact it is the very least we should be doing.

Ireland also needs to speak out internationally.

There must be safe channels established for people to reach safety without having to risk everything, we must push for special safeguards and programmes for children travelling alone and we must reach out to those in the camps in the French ports and see if they are eligible to come here.

The one highlight of course in our response to the crisis has been the inspiring life-saving work of the men and women of the Irish navy and let’s recall that thousands of people are alive today as a direct result of their actions. However, we can and must do more.

As a small country we have a proud tradition of speaking up against injustice.

We did it to fight apartheid, to stand in solidarity with Palestinians and to bring famine and war in Somalia to world attention.

It is time our politicians rediscovered that humanitarian voice and use it to speak up again.


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