Tuesday 25 October 2016

Our leaders defend a monochrome culture

Timid politicians resist helping in this great humanitarian crisis because they think we're racist, writes Willie Kealy

Published 06/09/2015 | 02:30

Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia
Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia

They are terrified. They think we don't care about the plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees whose lives are so blighted by the savagery of war that they will risk their children in dangerous seas in the hope of a life away from the awful chaos. Worse, they think that many of us are actively hostile to these human casualties, seeing them as a swarm of spongers or even potential terrorists.

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And it is you, the people that the politicians are terrified of. If they are on the right or the centre right, they think you want them to preserve the status quo of our monochrome culture. And even the left who normally shout loudest about the most vulnerable, are afraid to open their mouths in the belief that their working-class voters are nakedly racist.

It is the malaise of the politicians that they almost always insult the people by underestimating them. Throughout Europe, Sweden and Germany have tried to show good example. Nevertheless, Angela Merkel is not without significant local opposition to her open door policy.

Even Turkey, which we kept out of the EU because we suspect its record on human rights, has been an accepting host, along with Lebanon and Jordan, to four million refugees.

But the majority response among the 28 member countries of the EU is typified by the likes of David Cameron, petrified by the right in his own party telling us the crisis won't be solved simply by taking more and more refugees.

Of course it won't. Not if he means the crisis of civil war in Syria and Libya and the genocidal savagery practiced by the self-styled Islamic State throughout the region, or the crisis of poverty and lawlessness in essentially failed states like Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it will if you are focussing on the lives of those 340,000 tragic unfortunates this year alone who survived crossing the Mediterranean to Greece and Italy and are now fighting official barriers - literal as well as metaphorical - to get across Europe. They are met with fences and police lines and corralled into camps, some of which are then attacked and even burned down.

So basically our European leaders, by and large, will cry crocodile tears and swear they will do everything they can and have been doing everything they can, short of offering the one bit of immediate practical help that is needed. They will hold meetings and make speeches and call for a summit. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, said last week: "We do not need another extraordinary summit of heads of state and government. We have had many summits."

What they will not do is voluntarily agree to take in the necessary numbers of refugees that would have a real impact. Some will not even agree to the very limited quotas requested by the EU Commission last May which were based on population but also, importantly, took into account the relative wealth and unemployment in each state. This was a miserly 20,000 Syrians from a region that has been in conflict for the past four-and-a-half years.

Essentially the entity known as the EU, with its open borders framework, is retreating into a collection of nation states, each defending its borders and sharing nothing but the land mass they occupy. As Angela Merkel said: "If Europe fails on the question of refugees, if this close link with universal rights is broken, then it won't be the Europe we wished for."

In Ireland we like to think we have always been a welcoming sort of people. And indeed the efforts of our naval services in the Mediterranean have been magnificent, and we are never found wanting when the aid agencies come collecting. But as anyone who heard Philip Boucher-Hayes on radio last week knows, when it comes to taking in refugees, we have always had a xenophobic aversion.

In 1999 when there were 850,000 Kosovan/Albanian refugees, we took in 1,000. Earlier in the same decade, when 1.2 million Bosnians were seeking refuge, we took 160 a year for eight years. Remember the boat people from Vietnam. Two hundred thousand of them took to the seas - we let in 500.

So, I can hear some people ask, how come we have so many bleedin' foreigners here. Well, most of those are perfectly legitimate economic migrants who came here from other European countries -Poland for example - during the boom, and very welcome they were too. Then with the bust, some of them went home again or went somewhere else. But in this area at least, we don't discriminate. They're all just foreigners.

If we were to try to emulate the Germans and take in a number that corresponded to about one per cent of our population, we would be accepting maybe 40,000 refugees. That's not likely to happen. But how about a modest 4,000 immediately - 3,000 is pledged by Finland, a country equal to Ireland in population. More than 6,000 of you have already offered a place in your homes.

We'd be getting off lightly - the EU Commission would ultimately like Spain to take 10,000 and Poland 16,000, for example. It would be more than we ever took before and it would make our miserly offer of 600 or maybe a 1,100 or 1,800 spread out over two to two-and-a-half years including time served, look a little less mean. Throughout the rest of Europe, the situation is worse with commitments from Portugal (23), Spain (130), Poland (100), Italy (350) and Denmark (390).

Why can we not immediately commit to something generous without talking the problem to death, while people are dying? Do we need another EU plan or even a UN plan in the hope we can parlay this into a world problem - there are 20 million refugees around the globe - so that maybe the US and Canada could take a load of them and in the end we might have to do bugger all, so why rush?

We're told that despite people dying in great numbers, we have to be careful and responsible. Archbishop Diarmaid Martin hit the nail on the head last week when he said in relation to this crisis: "I'm always worried about people who talk in the future tense."

Our timid politicians walk behind the herd like drovers nervously trying to figure out which way the herd might go so they can follow. It never seems to occur to them that they should be at the front, that that's what leadership means.

They don't seem to appreciate that we might actually like to see them taking an initiative and displaying some leadership qualities. And they might be pleasantly surprised that they have a good-hearted and open-minded electorate who have felt since the beginning of this crisis that we cannot in conscience sit on the fence and wring our hands.

Harrowing stories from the front line have a traumatic effect, but they must be accompanied by hard-nosed decisions to save lives. The public was horrified by the sight of a little boy, drowned in the sea and washed up on the beach of a European holiday resort, his hair gently brushed back and forth by the lapping waves.

If that doesn't inspire some radical thinking, what will? The fact is the governments of Europe are largely wrong about everything to do with the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II. We need to find a way to tell them that - now.

Sunday Independent

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