Ireland should be strong voice in migrant crisis
Published 08/08/2015 | 02:30
At a time of global instability, war and mass displacement of populations in the Middle East and Africa, we need wise counsel. Given the tendency of media and politics to focus on sensational aspects of migration such as the numbers arriving in Europe and how to "stem the flows" of migrants, the voices of tolerance are few and far between.
It is always a relief to hear former Attorney General and special UN representative on migration Peter Sutherland. His political, legal and business experience makes him credible in public policy and morality. He has consistently called for a more effective response to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.
The toll of death and displacement is unprecedented in modern times, with flows of desperate migrants taking to the seas in unsafe vessels. This week, our own Le Niamh was involved in the rescue of 367 people from a sinking vessel in the seas off Libya. But despite their best efforts, up to 200 were drowned, adding to over 2,000 who have drowned recently in similar tragedies. But more than 200,000 have been rescued and taken to refugee centres in Italy last year and 127,000 in the first six months of this year.
The term "migrant" is only partially correct and can be used to dissemble. About half of those making the journey are estimated to be refugees under the 1951 Geneva Convention, which affords protection under international law to people fleeing persecution or war. These refugees are emanating from war zones such as Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Afghanistan and Libya, which is now lawless and controlled by local tribes and groups like Isis. Others are economic migrants seeking a better life in Europe, who can legally be returned to where they came from. The distinction is important legally. But European leaders have correctly taken the view, particularly since the drowning of 800 people in May, that whatever their status, the people in the boats must be rescued in the first instance pending the determination of their status.
Malta, Italy Greece and Spain are geographically the frontline in receiving migrants crossing from North African countries in all their diversity. Under the 'Dublin Convention', asylum seekers must apply in the country where they first land. Calls for burden sharing and for a coherent, compassionate and planned strategy by EU countries have met with resistance from some countries, in particular the United Kingdom. That country, already politically convulsed with Euroscepticism and xenophobia, has made it clear they will not participate in the proposed "burden sharing" of 40,000 refugees from Syria and Eritrea.
The scenes at Calais at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel, with groups of migrants running the gauntlet of security to enter the UK with trucks via the tunnel have dominated the British media in a disproportionate and sensational way. A tough security response, and anti-immigrant rhetoric, has emanated from a British government and polity in the grip of xenophobia. Prime Minister Cameron's description of migrants as a "swarm" is instructive. Other British ministers singing from the same reactionary hymn sheet declared that the UK is "no safe haven" for migrants.
Peter Sutherland slammed the exaggerated Calais reports as "calculated to inflame tensions". The truth is, the Calais numbers are modest compared to what confronts other EU countries like Italy and Greece. Germany in particular has been generous, last year taking 174,000 refugees compared to the UK's 24,000 applications for asylum in 2014. Moreover, most refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq and other African war zones go to neighbouring countries like Turkey, the Lebanon, Pakistan and Jordan.
Ireland, after a hesitant start, has been proactive in search and rescue missions sending navy personnel and vessels to the Mediterranean and is cooperating with the agreed EU settlement of refugees from Syria and Eritrea. Having taken 520 this year, an additional 600 refugees will be welcomed to Ireland over the next two years.
These may be housed in direct provision centres, a system which is currently being reviewed on the grounds that it falls short on humanitarian grounds. Originally meant to be temporary when put in place in 2002, it needs radical change. The Labour party, to its credit, has vowed to discontinue direct provision; supporting refugees is not a vote winner.
There is a low-level undercurrent of intolerance of foreigners in Ireland. But thanks to commendable leadership, it has not emerged in any organised political way apart from random outbursts at local level. Much of the resentment focuses on welfare entitlements and housing.
In my time in politics, all the political parties signed up to a common anti-racist charter, pledging not to use the race card in elections. Hopefully, this will continue. Because of our peripheral island location, we do not face the difficulties of other countries. Leadership from politicians is vital to moderate public debate. Ireland, because of our race history of mass economic migration and our track record in humanitarian work and development, should be a strong voice in this important European debate. Ministers Coveney and Fitzgerald have represented that ethos well, maintaining a focus on the humanitarian issues and not pandering to populist resentment.
There are no easy answers. These refugee flows require an emergency programmed EU policy approach. The instability and war fuelling the crisis show no sign of abating. So, safe exodus routes must be facilitated by use of humanitarian visas and family reunification and refuge provided in Europe and/or other African countries. It is an exceptional situation. But it is a predicable outcome of war; not beyond the capacity of the international community. During the Kosovo crisis in the late nineties, thousands of refugees were taken into European countries, including Ireland, as part of a refugee programme coordinated by the United Nations. Most of these returned to their homes after the war and were facilitated in this regard with repatriation grants.
Given an inadequate policy and operational response to date, the Mediterranean refugee crisis should be taken out of the exclusive justice and home affairs departments in European countries. This would allow perspectives from those other than with a security remit to contribute to the policy. This will not be solved by border control measures alone, which eclipses the wider humanitarian and international law issues arising. The EU's commitment to civilised values is being tested. It is notable that Germany is demonstrating those values by a generous and progressive policy response while the United Kingdom retreats into isolationist "little England."