Dearbhail McDonald: Famine ghosts demand a caring response to the refugee crisis
Published 05/09/2015 | 02:30
My walk to work brings me into Dublin's Docklands, home to two poignant reminders of Ireland's Great Famine.
The Jeanie Johnston tall ship, whose replica is berthed on Custom House Quay, made 16 voyages to North America and, along with other ships, transported thousands across the Atlantic.
Just ahead lies the Famine Memorial, a series of bronze sculptures depicting the emaciated bodies of men, women and children seeking sanctuary from a crisis that saw Ireland's population fall from 8.5 million in 1845 to just 6.7 million six years later.
The statistics of the famine are staggering: almost one million people died and another one million emigrated - no wonder the cultural memory is seared into our national DNA.
The Famine memorials are sobering stuff on any day. But they take on an even deeper poignancy after the images of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who perished at sea along with his brother Galip (5) and mother Rihan (35), were broadcast around the world.
The image of Aylan has, tragically, become the iconic image of the refugee crisis engulfing Europe. And citizens in many countries are rejecting the cynical rhetoric of politicians who believe they will be rewarded at the poll booths for toughness on immigration.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has come under intense criticism for misjudging the most serious refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War.
But is Ireland hiding behind the proverbial skirts of its closest neighbour?
Britain and Ireland both opted out of key parts of the EU's Justice and Home Affairs provisions, including legal migration, ostensibly to protect the much-prized common travel area agreement and our common law legal system which differs from mainland Europe. Fair enough.
But asylum and migration are two separate issues, and under EU rules, someone who claims asylum in Ireland cannot seek it in the UK, thereby diluting claims that Britain will be overrun by migrants from the Irish Sea. But we can't lay all the blame on the Eurosceptic Brits.
Because in phase one of the development of a Common European Asylum System (CEAS), Ireland opted out of the Reception Conditions Directive, which lays down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers. And in phase two of CEAS, we only opted in to enforcement mechanisms.
States are entitled to legitimately police their borders and prevent their systems being open to abuse.
But we are also obliged under the Geneva Convention and the basic laws of humanity to help those fleeing persecution.
Ireland prides itself on punching above its weight on humanitarian affairs. We respond generously to international disasters. The work of our Naval Service rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean is exemplary, but we still leave those we rescue on the shores of Italy who - like Greece - are buckling under the crisis.
Ireland's record on granting status to refugees is dismal compared to our European partners: more than nine out of 10 appeals by asylum seekers are rejected.
Any system must weed out unmeritorious claims, but when you've made the type of arduous journey that Aylan and his family tried to make, can you imagine how hard it might be to prove your case?
We have agreed to relocate perhaps 1,000 or so over the next two years. It's true that we may not be able to take the proportionate number of applicants that Germany is - its 800,000 would translate at more than 40,000 here.
But we could absorb more refugees and replicate the leadership shown by countries such as Germany who want their EU partners to accept a quota of refugees based on a country's relative wealth and population. We can not now be on the wrong side of history - our ancestors would turn in their graves.