Thursday 27 October 2016

It's time to abandon Fortress Europe and recognise the desperate plight of migrants

Published 13/08/2015 | 02:30

A Sudanese migrant in Calais, France. Pic: Mark Condren
A Sudanese migrant in Calais, France. Pic: Mark Condren

Plan A: build an electric fence around Europe's perimeters, with lethal voltages running through it, and hire disposal staff to deal with the dead bodies of the multitudes who tried to scale the barricade.

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Plan B: devise a humane strategy. One that doesn't play to lowest-common-denominator scaremongering, such as 'Europe is on the brink of being overrun and soon there'll be no Europeans left'.

While you're considering which plan to proceed with, we might try assigning the correct names to situations. Because public opinion is being shaped in ugly ways designed to fan prejudice during the current discourse.

Most of those arriving in Europe by rubber dinghy and dangerously overladen boat are not migrants. They are asylum seekers fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. They are human beings entitled to hope for a better way of life.

Nor are they arriving with the express intention of milking the welfare system, but to escape from conflict and its aftermath. Homes aren't being left behind because they have itchy feet. It's done because they are desperate.

In the case of Syrian refugees, the Assad government is dropping bombs on them, while Islamic State militants are encroaching and massacring civilians.

The European response to this crisis has been lacking, even as Greece, Turkey and Italy take the brunt. Meanwhile, suggestions range from towing back boats to the ports from which they originated, to repatriation. In the latter case it would be a return to war and persecution. It's akin to murder.

Ireland has volunteered to take 600 refugees from Syria and Eritrea over the next two years, as our contribution towards 60,000 people shared round throughout Europe. The idea is to do this as a short-term solution while the application processing system is reformed.

Not all European countries have agreed - it's non-mandatory in a number of cases, including ours. Still, we've accepted some, although I think we can do much better than 600. As a nation, we have a history of emigration and know how painful it is.

Britain has declined to take any of this group, and some east European countries are also refusing. Germany will take most. Settling 60,000 people across the EU is quite a modest goal, a way of trying to handle the people already here. Dealing with those still in their home countries, but anxious to leave, will require diplomatic intervention and aid - with governance conditions attached.

Why is there a Fortress Europe mentality, despite the fact that what's happening on its shores is widely accepted as an emergency? Some 2,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean already this year trying to access Europe. That tells its own story. Yet there is talk of something called 'humane deterrence' to stop passengers landing, even though 'humane' and 'deterrence' don't belong in the same sentence in this context.

Do people really fear a loss of living standards, as has been suggested in British political circles? Britain's foreign secretary Philip Hammond poured oil on the flames with a reference to African migrants "marauding" round the Channel Tunnel area.

President Higgins last week described displacement as the "greatest human rights issue facing the world at this time". Speaking at an Amnesty International council meeting in Dublin, the President praised the Irish Naval Service for rescuing 367 people from drowning in the Mediterranean. But he said: "However, we must acknowledge that the European response as a whole has been grossly inadequate, with Italy, Spain, Malta and Greece left struggling to cope with large influxes of refugees and migrants."

The cost of processing applications made by these human beings should certainly come out of European rather than national funds.

Syria has some 23 million people, and has been at war for four and a half years. Some believe the conflict may be entering endgame, but there are no guarantees.

Meanwhile, people are fleeing. There were skirmishes on the holiday island of Kos on Tuesday, with Greek police using truncheons and fire extinguishers as 1,500 refugees gathered at a stadium for registration. It was pitiful to watch.

In Calais, an estimated 5,000 people have gathered this summer, with hundreds trying to reach Britain by being smuggled onto lorries or shuttle trains.

Bishop of Cloyne William Crean has compared the loss of life in the Mediterranean to the Irish emigrant experience during the Great Famine: "It has echoes of our own personal history of people who fled these lands in what were known as coffin ships," he said.

The EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini says the "business model" of the people smugglers must be cracked. But trafficking networks wouldn't operate on the present scale if there weren't wars in their customers' homelands.

Rescuing those in danger of drowning at sea isn't really a solution, any more than is processing them efficiently at detention centres. A coordinated approach which deals with the root of the problem, originating in Syria and other war zones, is the way forward.

Meanwhile, human cargo arrives in Europe on rickety boats, paying extortionate sums of money in the hopes of a better life. Even if these people have no legal right to be in Europe, don't they have a moral claim towards protection? Isn't fellow humanity entitlement enough?

Seventy years ago, after World War II ended, countries had to ask themselves whether they did enough to prevent the Holocaust - and some nations were obliged to hang their heads in shame.

Now it's time to pose the same question.

Irish Independent

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