Opening our fortress hearts

My first real kiss – the fireworks and fairy-dust kind – was in Cherry Orchard. And, though the setting wasn’t too Chekhovian, the sky was rainbow over Ballyfermot. Planet Earth tilted on its axis as Venus skewed her orbit closer to it… OK, even if nothing cosmic happened, the walls of the former fever hospital heaved. But then, they had ears. Clearly, privacy hadn’t been high on the architect’s agenda. Other occupants of the building knew, no doubt, before the ‘official’ announcement. That I loved a man in a refugee reception centre, in a run-down part of Dublin… During the nineties, it was temporary home to several hundred Bosnians.

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Because this was how European states responded to the war. Their leaders dragged their well-heeled feet. They condemned atrocities while sweet-talking the masterminds of aggression. Humanitarian aid was provided but, overall, Europe’s inaction helped prolong the bloodshed. However, as the conflict in Bosnia worsened, the EU had no choice but to accept victims of ethnic cleansing and treat some injured people. For thousands of Bosnians, including many who’d been badly wounded, crossing borders was the sole alternative to the daily risk of death. So the resettlement programmes established by European countries in the 1990s offered lifelines. These schemes could never absolve international culpability for the loss of over 100, 000 lives and the suffering of countless survivors. Nonetheless, they were a significant aspect of what was, otherwise, a minimal reaction to a crisis on the continent. ‘Fortress Europe’, opened its doors a chink to the desperate at its ramparts. Then it quickly slammed them shut.

The Bosnians who came to Ireland (eventually numbering over 1000) represented a tiny percentage of those who found refuge in the EU. Compared to other states, whose intake was higher, their experience was relatively favourable. They were granted refugee status and were gradually able to rebuild shattered lives. Surely that’s the least a more peaceful and prosperous nation can offer those who’ve faced persecution, genocide? Sadly though, in Ireland, this chance of a new start in a non-hostile environment isn’t available to all arrivals fleeing from such horrors. Over recent weeks, serious injustices in the Irish treatment of asylum seekers have been publicised. People may manage to leave their conflict-stricken region and travel here via treacherous escape routes – the heartbreak of Lampedusa and other drowning tragedies in the Mediterranean have highlighted the peril of their journeys. But, once on Irish soil, they’re likely to be ‘welcomed’ with years of institutionalisation akin, in many ways, to detention.

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The Irish government’s system of ‘direct provision’ for asylum seekers confines them to accommodation centres which, unlike Cherry Orchard in the 1990s, are now mainly outsourced to the private sector. To businesses which, inspections have shown, frequently fail to meet basic health and safety standards. Adults are not permitted to work. They’re denied even the freedom to organise their own meals and forced to subsist on a weekly allowance of €19.10. Families are often crowded into single rooms and children’s rights are compromised. People must remain in this limbo until their cases have been processed. And this can take a considerable length of time – on average three years and eight months, although sometimes it’s much longer. But the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, Alan Shatter, seems satisfied with this arrangement. He argues it’s cost effective and to adopt a more humane approach could create a ‘pull factor’ which would render Ireland too attractive a destination.

In contrast, the Irish figures suggest that we’re not doing our fair share. Presently, around 4,600 people are accommodated through ‘direct provision’. About 1000 asylum seekers came to Ireland in 2012. A marked reduction on the total a decade previous – in 2002, over 11,000 entered the state. Furthermore, the acceptance rate in asylum cases is extremely low (less than 10% result in positive outcomes). Compare this with the Swedish record. Sweden’s ratio of refugees per 1000 population is one of Europe’s highest at 8.81, while Ireland’s is 2.04 (UNHCR 2011). In Sweden, this looks set to increase, following the decision to admit all who arrive from Syria – already, since 2012, over 14,000 people. Yet few EU countries, Sweden and Germany being notable exceptions, have heeded calls from international aid agencies for Europe to accept more Syrians. Especially the most vulnerable – the young, the ill and the injured – who’ve borne the brunt of the anguish in what the UN has declared ‘the twenty-first century’s worst refugee crisis.’

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Neighbouring states can no longer deal with an influx of over 2 million refugees who’ve fled Syria since the war began in 2011. The majority of them are stuck in sprawling, under-equipped camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. For the 5 million people who are internally displaced inside Syria, conditions are even more horrific. Not only have children been killed and wounded in the fighting, they’re now starving in besieged towns, dying due to lack of medical supplies. In October, the WHO confirmed an outbreak of polio. The disease has re-emerged after years of eradication in Syria and is impacting most viciously on infants. Sexualised torture is also widespread, with rape being used as a weapon of war. UN resolutions on sexual violence in conflict, which deem such abuses war-crimes, are flagrantly scorned. But, in our age of information overload, we barely listen to this news. Similar headlines about Bosnia once breezed through our consciousness and, likewise, went ignored.

Hearing these stories from a Syrian activist, who’s been striving to bring the plight of her country to the world’s attention, makes them harder to forget. The words of Rafif Jouejati – director of FREE-Syria (the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria) – in her talk in Dublin on 30 October, are still prodding my conscience. Rafif spoke about The Jasmine Tent project which seeks to support women who’ve experienced trauma and to empower them with long-term skills that may prove vital in post-conflict Syria. Hopefully, Irish people will be able to contribute as much as they can to this grassroots initiative. Whether it’s by way of money or time – donations, campaigning or organising events – there’s a lot that we can do (please check out the link to Irish Friends of The Jasmine Tent). At this meeting and in her subsequent radio and TV interviews, Rafif also gave a thorough analysis of the complexities of the Syrian war (accessible through the RTE website, see below). The ‘onus’ she said is now on the international community to address what has become ‘a humanitarian disaster of almost unprecedented proportion’. Global indifference and the flip-flopping of power-brokers have allowed the death-toll to rise to over 115 000.

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Huge quantities of aid are urgently required. In this respect, it appears that Ireland is delivering. On 16 October, after returning from a visit to the Middle East, the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Joe Costello, told a meeting of the Irish Parliament’s Joint Foreign Affairs Committee that Ireland has provided €14 million in humanitarian assistance for Syria. He said this means the Irish are ‘one of the world’s most generous donors to the Syrian problem on a per capita basis’. While this news is encouraging, it’s crucial to ensure that aid reaches the people in greatest need – particularly civilians trapped in towns and suburbs under siege. Also, it’s time Ireland accepts a substantial number of Syrian refugees. Organisations such as Amnesty International emphasise this as an EU-wide imperative. However, thus far, Irish efforts have been feeble. In September, Minister Shatter had nothing to boast about when he acknowledged that Ireland has taken ‘approximately fifty’ Syrians since the start of the war. Given the severity of the situation, a scheme of equivalent scale to that devised for Bosnians in the 1990s seems appropriate. But there’s little definite commitment. Beyond Minister Costello’s comment to the committee that next year’s cohort of ‘programme refugees’ – an annual (generally small) quota agreed with the UNHCR – will come entirely from Syria. The minister estimated this would comprise between 92 and 100 people. It sounds much less impressive than what he praised as the ‘outstanding job’ Sweden is doing in this regard.

Giving people a chance – perhaps of survival – is a point that’s easily missed or buried beneath an avalanche of statistics. As Rafif stressed in Dublin, figures can be overwhelming – too colossal to contemplate, too sterile to be human. The personal struggles of Ireland’s few thousand asylum seekers are erased in numerical arguments, which can be biased to construe them as a ‘threat’. Syria’s scattered millions blur into a faceless mass, so vast it’s unimaginable. But how do we, as individuals, reconvert these strings of inanimate zeros to people? To realise each one of them could be my lover, sister, brother, parent, child… They could be my friends or colleagues, or passers-by on the street – in other circumstances. Does life’s roulette mean that we, who’ve been spared the ordeal of war, can simply forget?

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We too belong to the ‘international community’, even if we don’t rank among its powerful members. So the ‘onus’ to take action isn’t just on our leaders. We must break the chain of apathy around our mighty hearts. This could be through getting involved with projects like The Jasmine Tent. Or appealing to politicians to reconsider the rules that control the gates of our gilded states… To see the man seeking asylum in Ireland, the woman deeply traumatised in Syria. And, here, I’m thinking of how I can respond. Knowing I’ve got no right to look away. Because the beginnings of my family trace back to meeting a Bosnian who lived, for a while, in a place called Cherry Orchard.

Useful links:

Syria and The Jasmine Tent:

http://www.free-syria-foundation.org/the-jasmine-tent.html also check out the FREE-Syria homepage for news of other projects

https://www.facebook.com/irishfriendsofthejasminetent how to help from Ireland

http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/10218424/ (1.04–1.08: until end November) RTE Morning Edition (TV 3/11/13)

http://www.rte.ie/news/morningireland/player.html?20131031,20463987,20463987,flash,232 RTE Morning Ireland (Radio 31/10/13)

Asylum seekers and immigrants in Ireland:

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/in-opposition-shatter-was-fiercely-critical-of-direct-provision-for-asylum-seekers-1.1587414

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/state-fears-reform-of-system-will-attract-asylum-seekers-1.1575210 and see other articles relating to asylum seekers in Ireland throughout October 2013 – series in the Irish Times

http://www.newstalk.ie/A-Migrant-State-of-Mind (link to podcast)

http://m.mixcloud.com/AthloneCommunityRadio/trauma-tears-hope-part-1/ (link to podcast) two excellent radio documentaries highlighting the challenges faced by asylum seekers and immigrants in Ireland

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