A test of humanity that we are failing badly
Published 09/01/2016 | 02:30
All politics is local and undoubtedly this Government will be judged on its performance primarily on national issues which mostly concern the electorate. That reckoning is imminent as an election draws ever closer. With all the domestic demands of unprecedented floods and storm damage, angry nurses and inter-party rivalry, inevitably the political and media focus has drifted away from foreign affairs.
But this week we were jolted back from domestic preoccupations by a compelling photograph taken on a shoreline near the western city of Izmir, Turkey.
The image bore an uncanny similarity to the photo which shocked the world last year. Again, it showed the drowned body of a red-coated young child who perished along with 33 migrants trying to reach the safety of Europe from Turkey.
Seaweed was strewn across the child's face and hair; red gloves matched the coat.
The flimsy boat collapsed in freezing choppy waters. Seven were children. Last year, 3,700 mostly Syrian refugees drowned trying to make this journey, making 2015 the deadliest year so far for migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
The highest death toll occurred in April, when 1,250 people died.
Despite the harsh winter and increased policing in Turkey, there is no sign of any decline in the flow of desperate people risking all to find safety in Europe.
According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) each day this week, 2,500 people have travelled by sea from Turkey to Greece.
This is despite a November deal agreed by the EU with Turkey to stem the flow in return for cash, visas and revisiting Turkey's bid to join the EU.
The latter idea raised some eyebrows but it is probably more of a diplomatic flutter than a proposal with any traction.
The prospect of enlarging the EU any further to embrace Turkey, with all its problems, is enough to scatter the china in most European capitals. But financial aid to support Turkey's burden of caring for 2.2 million Syrian refugees is deserved and makes absolute sense.
There remains, however, a disturbing paralysis of policy initiatives from the frequent meetings of foreign ministers in Brussels. For all German Chancellor Angela Merkel's admirable and heroic leadership on the migrant crisis this year, she has few followers.
The migrant numbers are such that many European leaders are hanging back in agreeing a fair quota.
And the figures are indeed awesome. Over one million migrants arrived in Europe last year, mostly refugees fleeing war in Syria, Libya and other war-torn African states. Such mass movement of people has not been witnessed since World War II, so the scale is challenging for Europe's politicians. However, just because the numbers are beyond expectations does not mean that the task is unmanageable.
As Barry Andrews of Goal commented this week, one million represents just 0.2pc of the population of Europe.
If shared fairly among the EU states, Australia, Canada and the US - the rich north in other words - it would be wholly manageable. However, what has been demonstrated so far ranges from outright resistance and rejection of refugees to hand-wringing and procrastination.
Europe has failed the test of adherence to universal values of human rights protection, as set out in the Geneva Convention.
Indeed there are suggestions this week from Denmark that we tinker with the Convention itself and to scale back Europe's obligation to provide refugees with sanctuary, riding coach and horses through 50 years of human rights precedent.
Ireland, which has played a principled hand so far in this game of shifting responsibilities, needs to step up.
Last September, Ireland agreed to accept more refugees than it was obliged to - 4,000 under the Refugee Protection Programme - and this was welcomed by the Irish public at the time as in keeping with our humanitarian values and our race's memory of migration and destitution.
But months later, there seems to be delays in actually taking the numbers pledged. Only a tiny number of Syrians have actually arrived here.
According to the Immigrant Council of Ireland, the EU has only resettled 0.17pc of the refugees it committed to in September (only 272 refugees have been moved from frontline states).
Moreover, the mood music has also changed since then.
Since the attacks in Paris, one senses a backsliding or lack of immediacy in responding to refugees languishing in camps and awaiting safe acceptance here.
Sweden, which has taken more refugees per capita than any other country, has had to introduce border controls with Denmark, which in turn is publicly distancing itself from what it perceives as Germany's misplaced generosity.
The xenophobic and border-obsessed responses of Poland and Hungary have been alarming, exposing a deep divide in European values between the newer EU entrants and the original members. Anti-immigrant sentiment is in full flow in the UK and France, in particular. Any cohesion on the issue is now unlikely.
Such a failure of leadership is unconscionable, given the dire consequences for the refugees who will continue to risk death to escape barrel bombs, nerve gas, rape and starvation in Syria and elsewhere.
Political paralysis over Isil and the scale and complexity of conflict in the region is eclipsing the union's capacity to act with integrity in relation to the humanitarian needs and rights of refugees.
There is no doubt about their legal status as refugees. Where the doubt exists is in relation to moral choices being made by weak EU leaders, spooked by a fearful and resistant public.
Merkel is right - this is the true test of the EU's capacity to act together and we are failing it spectacularly.
As an Irish citizen, my hopes are that Ireland does not join the club of the weak; that Ireland should not pander to negative tendencies emanating from the UK and elsewhere and not allow security concerns to cloud our humanitarian obligations.
They are separate issues. One should not be conditional on the other.
I would like to see all the political parties, particularly the parties likely to be in government after the General Election, set out clearly their strategy and intentions relating to the migrant/refugee crisis now.
Hiding out in European Councils, which produce non-papers and opaque resolutions, is not good enough.
Our wonderful Navy personnel have done admirable work in plucking refugees from the deadly seas.
But we need to continue this in 2016 and match this operational achievement at sea by receiving refugees and looking after them here in Ireland.
Big talk is all very well but is no substitute for embracing real people, thousands of whom are languishing in camps, hoping to catch someone's eye. What's the delay?