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

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