Fáilte, refugees, welcome!

Déjà vu. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict and persecution. Like refugees from the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. But the scale of this movement is far greater. This is Europe, 2015.

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Most EU states have been reluctant to deal with this crisis. Countries of arrival and transit have been struggling to cope. Some leaders have used language tantamount to hate-speech. At the same time, across Europe, people are showing solidarity with our sisters and brothers who’ve made perilous journeys from even more dangerous places. Offering hands-on assistance and appealing to our governments to accept refugees.

Sadly, it took the death of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, almost two weeks ago, to finally awaken our collective conscience. The photograph of this Syrian boy, lying tiny and lifeless on a tourist beach in Turkey, has sparked a huge reaction. Yet, over recent months and years, many children have drowned in the Mediterranean as families – in the hope of escaping conflict – make risky crossings on routes run by traffickers. Just this weekend, another boat capsized near the Greek islands. Fifteen victims of this latest tragedy were babies or young girls or boys. Meanwhile, thousands of children have been killed in Syria and other war-ravaged regions. Without any public outcry.

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Now, prompted by both sympathy and shame, support for refugees among ordinary Europeans has galvanised. In Ireland, we’ve been signing petitions, pledging beds in our homes, getting involved in the aid effort, writing to the media and to politicians. We’ve attended protests in Dublin – at the Famine Memorial on 5th September and at the Spire last Saturday (12th). People have gathered demonstrations and events throughout the country, calling on the Irish government to do more. On Sunday, 13th September, hundreds of us stood on Sandymount Strand to form the message ‘refugees welcome’ for an aerial photo organised by a coalition of prominent NGOs.

Given its grim history of emigration, Ireland should have a particular affinity with those who are forced to flee. The country still has many recession-related problems, but these can’t be used as an excuse. Accepting refugees is a moral obligation for any state which claims to respect human rights. Indeed, a humane response to this issue could be a significant step in Ireland’s social recovery. It requires a shift in policy – to focus on people, not simply on figures. This approach could benefit the nation as a whole. Especially at a time when, though economic indicators appear positive, levels of disadvantage have grown.

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On 5th September, evidence of this need for overall change could be found not far away from the Famine Memorial. To conclude the protest, the crowd spread out around the bridge over the Liffey for a minute’s silence in memory of all who have lost their lives in desperate attempts to reach Europe. We followed the other participants to the opposite bank of the river. There, a group of homeless people were sitting on a bench. They were understandably upset about this sudden concern for refugees while they remain deprived of the right to shelter. Their objections were largely ignored. But, as chance would have it, we ended up in conversation. Together – Irish citizens who this country has badly failed, Bosnians who’d come here as refugees in nineties and their families – we agreed that we were ‘on the same side’. Because everyone deserves a safe place they can call home. Whether they’ve been displaced by war or dictatorial regimes, or whether they’ve been dispossessed by inequality in Western ‘democracies’.

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Public pressure can influence political proposals, so we hope the current momentum can be sustained. On 10th September, the Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, announced that Ireland will accept ‘up to 4000 persons’ over the next two years. This is an improvement on the government’s previous commitment to admit a mere 600 of those presently seeking refuge in Europe and a further 520 Syrians from outside the EU. However, it’s vital to ensure that all of these people are accommodated in hospitable environments. They will also require access to services, particularly in relation to health and education. Appropriate English language support must be provided and counselling should be made available. Communities must unite to welcome these new arrivals who have come from such appalling situations.

The implementation of these programmes cannot mirror the degrading system of ‘direct provision’. This has left people who seek asylum in Ireland trapped in debilitating and restrictive conditions – often for years on end – while they await decisions on their status. As numerous human rights organisations demand, this system must be immediately abolished. Survivors of trauma should be treated with dignity, not subjected to institutional abuse.

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Ultimately, the causes of Europe’s refugee crisis have to be addressed. Stopping the war in Syria, which has now uprooted over half the country’s population and claimed at least a quarter of a million lives, must be a priority. To date, there has been very little political or public engagement in Ireland in this regard. The Irish Syria Solidarity Movement will hold a protest outside the Dáil on Wednesday 23rd September to raise awareness as to why Syrians are refugees. It’s important that, although their plight seems almost forgotten, we think of those who are still under attack inside Syria.

All of these issues – tackling homelessness, welcoming refugees, respecting everybody who seeks asylum here, considering Ireland’s role as an ally of people affected by conflict – could be part of a new agenda for this country. They call on us, as individuals, to take whatever action we possibly can. For history will judge us on our humanity. In July, along with other members and friends of the Bosnian community in Ireland, we commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. As well as remembering this atrocity, we pointed out that we’re witnessing similar horrors in Syria today. We can’t just turn away – we must do something (please see links below). And forgive me if I sound shrill, but this stuff is personal. Because, reader, I married a refugee.

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Some useful links:

What you can do – via Migrant Rights Centre Ireland – including links to organisations bringing to humanitarian aid to refugees across Europe:

http://www.mrci.ie/our-work/international-work/news-international-work/refugeeswelcome-what-you-can-do/

‘Refugees welcome’ aerial photo – via Irish Refugee Council:

http://www.irishrefugeecouncil.ie/news/irish-people-spell-out-their-welcome-to-refugees-ahead-of-crucial-eu-meeting/4143

Reflections of a medical evacuee from Bosnia who came to Ireland in 1994 on the experience of Bosnian refugees – RTE Drivetime 7/9/15:

https://vodhls.rasset.ie/manifest/audio/2015/0907/20150907_rteradio1-drivetime-irelandspl_c20842389_20842392_261_.m3u8

Also see RTE Player – Six-One News 7/9/15 and The Week in Politics 13/9/15:

http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/

Letter to the Irish Times published on 1/9/11: 

http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/seeking-refuge-in-europe-1.2335262

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Austerity – tearing the spirit

‘It’s the death of hope that gets you,’ she said. ‘You try to keep on going. But in the end… there’s nothing.’

Her words are clipped, her tone self-critical. She’s to blame. Because, this time, she can’t come up with a solution. It started with the finances. Now it’s swallowed her whole… eroding her integrity, her family. Reducing her to bills and bank statements she’s afraid to open. Figures misrepresent the full story.

A1 - euro

Months waste into years. Stable employment? No chance. Only short-term projects that demand intense attention, then fizzle to zero. The contemporary curse of ‘casualisation’… Build up your portfolio – take on as much you can, for the least remuneration. A lot of her work is unpaid. To retain her ‘professional profile’ – whatever that is. She’s burning out in the process. But, of course, the worker has always been expendable. Today’s business ethos shows little change from that which underpinned the Dublin Lockout of 1913. Connolly and Larkin must turn in their Commie graves at its centenary celebrations. Or maybe they’ll have the last laugh… at market forces devouring the neoliberal masses.

A2 - lockout

She’s tried recruitment agencies. They’ve told her she’s over-qualified. True, she’s rife with certificates – up to the fourth level. Studies completed while having kids, thinking it’d be best for them. Not in this environment. Ironic… she once lived in a ‘knowledge economy’. Based on the commodification of learning, skills, experience. Such a fallacy. She should’ve done something lucrative, though… sold her soul to technology. Stupidly, she wanted to ‘contribute to society’. But where are the opportunities? Even voluntary organisations have evolved into streamlined outfits. Hiring interns because, she supposes, it takes a few names off the live register. Makes the statistics look better. Paving her demise, she channels Dostoevsky: ‘deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence’. Robbed of meaning, ‘they go stark, raving mad.’

Emigration has been recommended as an alternative to insanity. By a careers advisor… by her doctor, when she finally admitted that stress was taking its toll. Headaches, muscle pain, stomach in constant knots and sleep murdered. Those were her symptoms a while back. Niggling, but they’re becoming drug-resistant. Ibuprofen doesn’t help. Nor do her pointless overseas applications. Never mind the rejections for the few posts she’s seen advertised at home. She tries not to view the latter as a reflection on her competence. They could’ve been decided in-house or snapped up by those with that vital attribute – a track record in ‘obtaining funding’. Otherwise, apart from rare cases of essential staff replacement, her area of expertise falls within a sector crippled by a moratorium.

A5 - aer lingus

She’d love to leave. Were it not for the practical obstacles, she’d have gone two years ago. Though the fear of uprooting her children… And her husband, at least, has a job here. It feels like they’re marooned. Could they even return to city? That might be her salvation – a release from the hinterland in which she was ensnared by the boom. The buzzword then was ‘location’. But the fringe of the commuter belt was as far as their family budget ever extended – a three to four hour round-trip to ‘civilisation’. Her spouse makes the daily journey. He’s off in the morning before the kids are awake, gets back late. Reaps sympathy for endurance… ‘God help him, all that travelling’. It’s OK for a father, but for a mother it’s well-nigh criminal neglect. Plus childcare, in her locality, won’t cover those sort of hours. To an employer in the metropolis, her availability is questionable. The disadvantage of distance… and no options lie within her geographical radius. It’s an annihilating circle – a woman-trap.

Nonetheless, she has her family. She has responsibilities. So, as she’s been told, she ought to be content. Society seems better attuned to a man’s loss of identity. If he’s unemployed, or can only find scraps of work, there’s a modicum of understanding. Analysis of the crisis tends to highlight its impact on the guys. Leads to public concern at, for example, the rising rate of male suicide. Women, on the other hand, just bear it. Their screams are suffocated. Perhaps it’s the anti-depressants? That chemical asylum, its walls made of blister packs, not bricks. But it’s as incarcerating as the straight-jacketed institutions of the past. She guesses that its clients are predominantly female. It’s tempting – a couple of tablets to numb raw-edged emotions. She might be a bit more docile then, if somewhat zombified. No, she won’t be seduced by pills. Or therapy, or yoga… Rightly or wrongly, she’s chosen her mantra: ‘these problems are due to external forces, not to any imbalance of the brain’. She can’t let them corrupt her mind. Though she senses she’s running out of time.

A7 - Anglo Irish

Her gapless CV is worthless. It won’t get the mortgage vultures off her back. She wishes she could throw the keys at them… except that they’re the keys of her children’s home. Arrears mount. They’re in massive negative equity. The house has depreciated to half-price in eight years. Debt. That’s all they’d carry away. And her rage. At those bankers who joked, in taped phone-calls, about ‘moula’ in the billions… and the smarmy politicians who still appear on their side. The authorities – so slow to prosecute when those in cahoots with them claim there’s no ‘smoking gun’. Those property profiteers who sold young couples a fierce breed of pup that’s now mauling its ‘owners’… She loathes herself for being fooled into buying. Because it was cheaper than renting and any form of accommodation was increasingly expensive, before the bubble burst. But who expected things to get so much worse?

No-one could’ve foreseen it. That’s what those in power say, as they instruct the average citizen to cough up and ‘share the pain’… when they’re immune to it. She hates the pettiness of complaining, adding her wails to the ‘squeezed middle’ whinge. It’s not like she’s on the breadline or in straits as dire as families on welfare. She’s aware – as UNICEF reminds – that, each year, over six million children die before their fifth birthday, mostly of preventable diseases. In comparison, Ireland’s difficulties are minor and her predicament is trivial. She isn’t in war-ravaged Syria, although she’s no stranger to conflict and that makes her feel more ashamed of her present weakness. Pathetic… D.H. Lawrence was right, ‘how beastly the bourgeois is’. And the female of the species is as abhorrent and hypocritical as the male. She tries to deny that she’s one of them. But when she signed for that house she joined their club… albeit in a très petit kind of way.

A8 - ghost estate

She prefers to see herself as déclassé – a Gallic euphemism for abject failure. Dissolving into insolvency… She’s invisible, a ghost in her estate. Withdrawing from her marriage, building a barbed-wire fence between her and the man she loves. Resenting him because, despite drops in his salary, he’s still got his dignity. He has a social slot. While she’s accepting bail-outs from her parents, when – at their stage of life – it should be vice versa. She isn’t even grateful for their charity. And now it’s an effort to smile at her own children. That might be what’s affecting them. They’re acting out, more than ever. It’s her fault – she’s their mother. No longer coping… far too tired. She switches off the lights. Her hoard of worry spills into the night. Into that dark stream of hopelessness which seems, like Joyce’s snow, to be ‘general all over Ireland’. If she, and the sleepless others, only knew that they’re as numerous as the stars above the neon fug and damp, mist-smothered fields.

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After five years of austerity, this isn’t much of a tear-jerker. It’s just another chapter in what’s become an Irish legend… a grim sequel to the ‘fairy-tale’ of the Celtic Tiger. You can castigate the character, tell her to ‘catch herself on’ and be stronger for her kids. Diagnose her depression. Order her to ring a help-line or seek medical assistance. ‘Talk to someone’ as advocated by the state-sponsored campaign for mental health protection. You won’t hear it acknowledge that the recession (which, officially, has ended) has caused epidemic levels of stress-related illness. There’ll be no admission that untrammelled development and the harassment of beleaguered borrowers has already proven fatal.

A11- troika 3

No, with pulsar-grade spin you’ll be told that things are improving. Ergo, if you’re not thriving, you’re a loser. The consequent self-torture is as effective in gagging dissent as the psy-ops of a totalitarian regime. This is the virtual gulag which the financiers and their cronies have created. We are among its growing number of inmates.

(Some of the pronouns may have been changed.)