Sending aid is not enough any more
The savagery faced by the people of Africa calls for a radical change in our traditional response, writes Willie Kealy
Published 16/08/2015 | 02:30
IF your neighbour's house burns down you have a number of options. You can turn away and ignore it; you can buy a ticket for the fund-raiser, or you can invite them into your home till they get back on their feet.
As a people, we tend to fall into the middle category. We are not heartless, and if there is famine or war in Darfur or Biafra or Ethiopia or Somalia or Sudan, we will give generously to Concern or Goal or Trocaire so their volunteers can help the starving men, women and children, in our name. And the Government will usually chip in a couple of million to help out too. If there is conflict, we usually show some leadership by being first in the queue to make up a United Nations peace-keeping force.
We do not turn away. We do not ignore the plight of our fellow man and woman whose only difference to us is that they were unlucky enough to be born as part of the two-thirds of the world population that lives in poverty while we have the luck of the Irish and all other Europeans, North Americans and Australians and some others, not to be.
For a long time the approach of sending money to help the less fortunate citizens of the world worked well. If there was famine, people died in their tens of thousands, but they stayed where they were. They stuck it out, waiting for the storm to pass even as they lost loved ones to starvation and disease. They had the same love of home as the rest of us, and they had hope that this too would pass. Plus, natural disasters could be understood. They made some kind of cruel sense.
But today in Africa there is no sense to what is happening. Ordinary people are not just starving, their children are being enslaved or forced into prostitution in "wars" where rape is a legitimate weapon, and a difference of religion or opinion means automatic execution. It is pure senseless savagery. It is a storm that the people cannot see passing anytime soon, so they cannot sit it out and hope for better times. They can see no way out except by getting out.
One Syrian man leaping from a small boat into the Italian shallows, put it simply. He had come "to be free, to be a human being again." So they risk their lives, and the lives of their children, to make it to safety. And for every group that makes it, hundreds die at the bottom of the sea. But we - all of us in what used to be called "The West" - already live in that place of safety and our response so far has been the ultimate in nimbyism.
The problem is huge. Worldwide, there are 60m people displaced by conflict - more than half are children. In some places, whole generations have been born into refugee status. Some have lived their whole lives in that state.
In Ireland, we welcome Americans and Germans and French and British tourists if they come here for a short time to spend money, but we are pretty rigorous about screening anyone who comes here looking for sanctuary from the hell-hole that their home has become.
We always say we have no problem with genuine asylum seekers - though we leave them effectively imprisoned in direct provision centres for years. Frances Fitzgerald, our Minister for Justice, counters this by saying: "In many other EU countries, special areas are being designated for accommodation. There are tented villages springing up. We have a system of direct provision that provides accommodation and meal requirements for families. The children go to local schools. It is not ideal and it needs improvement but it is not feasible to say there is alternative accommodation in the short term for the thousands of people who are in direct provision." And of course she is right. It's probably fair to say a refugee in an Irish direct provision centre is better off than, say, in a Jordanian refugee camp. But that's not the point. These people are not asking to be moved to better accommodation. What's important is that the process of granting asylum status is speeded up so that they can quickly assimilate into normal life here.
And of course we have to be wary of criminals and terrorists slipping through. We know that foreign criminals do get in; and we have terrorists here too. It would be extraordinary if 100pc of all those seeking asylum turned out to be saints, any more than they would in the general population.
We used to joke that the Irish were never racists - because there were no people of colour living here. Well, now there are and it is probably fair to say that we are still not racist as a people, though there will always be a small number who hate all outsiders either through ignorance or fear for their jobs in the lower paid sector.
But there is now a grave danger that the whole of the EU could be seen as institutionally racist because of its response to the current exodus from north Africa. We cannot be naive and ignore how dangerous the world has become. Young people may never again be able to roam the world freely the way they could in previous decades. Some of the most beautiful and most interesting places in the world are now, tragically, some of the most dangerous. But freedom of movement to the greatest practical extent is always preferable to each country developing a bunker mentality.
Right now, Italy is taking the brunt of the African exodus, but many other fleeing unfortunates have ended up in Spain, Malta, Lebanon, Turkey and Pakistan; and last month 50,000 migrants landed on the Greek islands, which has now led to violent clashes with the local authorities. Those who have crossed one of the most treacherous seas in the world for a new life must wonder how this can be. The EU has reacted by sending large amounts of cash to the Greeks.
I spoke recently to a young Irish mother who had just returned from a Mediterranean holiday. She said: "I was swimming in the Mediterranean with my just five-months-old, beautiful baby boy in Juan les Pins. He was a bundle of sun cream and nappy and full-length sun protecting swim suit. He paddled furiously, having a ball. The older French men and women smiled in our direction enjoying the fun he was having. It was a lovely moment but I couldn't help thinking of the parents who had stepped onto rickety old boats out of desperation, clinging to their little bundles and the fear they felt in the final moments. The Mediterranean is a giant graveyard that we frolic in."
Brings it home to you, doesn't it?
As the migrants move across Europe, Calais has become a pressure point, and David Cameron responds by concentrating on increasing the number of police and the miles of fencing to keep out the miserable people who will cling to the axles of moving trucks or try to walk the 31 kilometres of the Channel Tunnel as high-speed trains whiz by just inches away.
Britain's Foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, gave a clue to his Prime Minister's rationale when he said last week: "It is not a sustainable situation, because Europe can't protect itself and preserve its standard of living and social structure if it has to absorb millions of migrants from Africa." Put that against a time when Britain and other western countries plundered Africa without a thought for the ill-effects that might have on the standard of living or social structure of the natives.
On the other hand Germany has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees without much fuss, but they are beginning to bridle. Sigmar Gabriel, the deputy chancellor, said last week: "It is a disgrace for Europe if we are not able to secure a better distribution of refugees. We need a fair balance, otherwise Europe risks losing its humanity." And in a sharp rebuke to those countries which have been less than welcoming to the wave of refugees, he added: "Some EU states apparently see Europe as a kind of gain community, participating only when there is money and disembarking again when we're dealing with responsibility. Whoever continues this will destroy Europe."
We should ask ourselves, how do we stand against that charge? If it helps, Ireland is down in 20th place for accepting refugees in real and relative terms.
As a union, the EU response to what President Michael D Higgins called "the greatest human rights issue facing the world at this time," has been to send naval vessels to fire-fight, and do little else. The work being done by an international team of naval personnel, including our own Irish heroes who have saved 5,000 souls to date, cannot be praised too highly. But the fact that it is effectively the sole response of the EU, is, again as President Higgins said, "grossly inadequate" and "shameful."
We have faced this kind of crisis before - in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Then we largely turned away, claiming afterwards we didn't really know the scale of Hitler's genocide against the Jews. Then we said "never again." Maybe we meant never again for white people. Today we do not have the excuse of professing ignorance. So turning away and ignoring the problem is not an option.
Sending aid to the oppressed people of Libya and Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan is not an option either. Which leaves just one solution: Take down the barriers and welcome them to our shores whatever the cost. As Damien McSorley, the CEO of Concern Worldwide, said: "If we don't act soon, decisively and daringly on securing sustainable solutions, we are not going to be able to escape blame the next time a migrant ship sinks, taking countless human lives and dreams with it."
There is no longer any other option. And no, it's not just because of the welcome we were glad to get elsewhere when we needed it. It's because it's the right thing to do.