We risk repeating our WWII failure in current migrant crisis
Published 01/09/2015 | 02:30
In an impassioned speech about Ireland's shameful failure to do more to help refugees in Europe, former Justice Minister Alan Shatter said the country had lost its "moral compass" because the "doors of the State were firmly closed to families trying to escape from persecution and death".
No, he wasn't talking about the current crisis unfolding across the continent and our pathetic promise to accept just 600 people from hundreds of thousands over two years. He was speaking in 2012 about our abandonment of Jewish refugees during World War II.
Official documents from that period show two reasons were repeatedly cited for Ireland's failure to help Jews. The first should sound familiar, as it's the same excuse being trotted out now. As a poor country, we didn't have the resources to support an influx of refugees - even if they were facing certain death.
The second justification was nakedly racist. The Irish ambassador to Germany, Charles Bewley, said visa requests from Jews should be turned down to protect Ireland from "contamination".
In the end, Ireland agreed to accept just 30 Jewish refugees throughout the entire war, a decision that another former Justice Minister, Michael McDowell, derided as "antipathetic, hostile and unfeeling".
Today, faced with the biggest European refugee crisis since World War II, those stirring words of compassion and empathy have been forgotten and the Government has reverted to type: indifferent, uncaring and contemptible.
Ireland is by no means alone in this attitude or its short memory.
The Hungarians, for example, are building a razor-wire fence along their border with Serbia in an effort to keep refugees out, having clearly forgotten the hundreds of thousands of people from their own country who once fled its brutal Stalinist regime and sought asylum in the West. Aid agencies have called the Hungarian response "inhumane". What makes us any better? Our island perch on the most northwesterly tip of Europe negates the need for us to erect barbed-wire fences, but the response from our own Government has been just as cold and unfeeling.
Somehow, it has decided that helping just 600 people over two years is the best we can do - no matter how many frightened and traumatised refugees manage to make their way across the Mediterranean this year.
Yesterday, on Newstalk, European Affairs Minister Dara Murphy was adamant the Government "couldn't do any more" - not that it wouldn't, but it couldn't. The day before, speaking to RTÉ, he explained that Ireland wasn't doing any more because it hadn't been asked - suggesting the Government is so used to obeying orders in Europe that it has lost the ability to act autonomously.
This shameful inertia from the Government is in marked contrast to the heroism, compassion and humanity being displayed by officers in the Irish Naval Service, who have spent months, quietly and without any fanfare, rescuing thousands of men, women and children at sea. The important work they are doing is gruelling and harrowing and must be made even harder knowing that once the lucky ones they've saved disembark in Sicily, their futures remain so uncertain.
European countries don't want a repeat of the global PR nightmare that occurred when they were just abandoning refugees to die in the Mediterranean, but nobody wants to be responsible for them when they arrive either. To date, the Irish Government has been happy to share this ambivalence, using the bravery of naval officers as a shield to disguise its own unjustifiable indifference. But Ireland has its own voice - and it's time our Government used it to lend its support to countries like Germany and France, who are demanding the European Union acts cohesively to address this crisis.
This is not an Italian crisis, nor a Greek crisis, it is a European crisis and the entire region needs to work together to solve it.
Compare the response of the EU with that of countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which are currently hosting nearly 4 million refugees. In Lebanon, refugees now comprise 25pc of the population, while Jordan's fourth-largest city is a refugee camp set up in 2012.
Meanwhile, in Europe, with a population of 740 million and some of the biggest economies in the world, we can't find room for the 300,000 desperate people who have fled bullets and barrel bombs and arrived on our shores so far this year.
Clearly, in the long term, the refugee crisis can be addressed only by ensuring people's home countries are safe and secure. But a short-term response to alleviate the current emergency is needed in the interim.
We can't just wish these people away or send them back to their deaths. In Ireland, we like to think of ourselves as charitable and generous, but the inconvenient truth is we have opted out of European asylum laws, because they contained minimum standards deemed too onerous to achieve, while we are happy to indefinitely institutionalise asylum seekers in direct provision centres for years.
Ireland can't solve the refugee crisis alone, but it can offer to do its fair share and work with other European countries to alleviate a rapidly escalating humanitarian disaster before it gets any worse. If not, future generations will judge us just as harshly as Mr Shatter and Mr McDowell judged our World War II predecessors.