Barry Andrews: Given our history, we must play our part to tackle migrant crisis
Published 19/12/2015 | 02:30
Nour is six and she has a cleft palette. Her three younger siblings and their parents were living in Aleppo up until recently. They travelled to Turkey so Nour could be operated on. The operation was not a success so the family decided to head to Germany for treatment. When I spoke to them near the train station in Izmir they had just arrived in town and were beginning to have discussions with the many smugglers that can be found in the back streets of Turkey's third-biggest city.
As we chatted, the children suddenly looked up at the sound of a jet passing overhead. In Aleppo, planes spell danger.
Are they refugees? Not really. Surprisingly, they intend to return to Aleppo once the treatment is complete. Perhaps you could say they are medical migrants. Looking at it from their point of view, they would not seek asylum in Germany if there was a temporary protection they could avail of to obtain medical care for a sick child.
We spoke to Ahmed, whose family had fled from an area near Tartous in Syria and had made a number of attempts to cross to Greece. One attempt had resulted in them capsizing on exposed rock and spending the night there before being returned to Izmir by the Turkish coast guard.
Again they were heading for Germany and it is their intention to go back to Syria as soon as possible.
Abu Mohammed, also from Aleppo, has settled his family in Germany and is in Izmir working with refugees for the Turkish Red Crescent. He was arrested and tortured by the Assad regime, having been part of the early peaceful protests. Abu Mohammed has no intention of moving back to Aleppo now. He and his family have obtained refugee status in Germany, though he has a job and safety in Turkey. His wife arrived in Germany with false papers through a smuggling route.
Finally, I went to a place an hour's drive outside Izmir used by smugglers to launch their dinghies.
The road ran out so we parked up and made our way across some scrubland towards, where we thought the beach might be. In the distance, people started to emerge from the bushes. Maybe 500 people were coming from the beach to be fed by a local Turkish voluntary group. These were all Iranians and Afghanis. Too poor to stay in hostels in town, they were sleeping out in the open, waiting for their turn to embark on the short journey to Greece which could be seen just 7 km away. Some had been there for weeks. We continued on to the beach.
People ask me if the things I see working for GOAL are sometimes harrowing. Sometimes it's the things you don't see that stay with you.
The beach was empty but was strewn with the personal effects of the families that had begun their journey to Europe from here. Kids' shoes and clothes, backpacks and torn life-jackets were thrown everywhere. The smugglers order the passengers to ditch all unnecessary items to lighten the load.
It was here that six Afghan children had drowned the previous weekend.
Afghanis have a much better chance of obtaining refugee status than Iranians. Yet they all mixed together here - all leaving behind grinding poverty and risking everything for a brighter future.
Not being refugees, these Iranians must, according to standard definitions, be migrants. There is no internationally accepted definition of a migrant but the term is quaintly understood to cover cases where the decision to leave is taken for reasons of "personal convenience" and "without intervention of an external compelling factor".
The grinding poverty they had left behind apparently doesn't count.
It is these grey areas between refugee status and migration that the international system is not geared towards. There are two key agencies in this area. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) deals with those fleeing conflict while the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) deals with migrants. It is clear that the majority of populations on the move do not fit neatly into these two categories.
The UN system needs to be more flexible to account for this complexity.
A gobal summit is required to address these institutional issues and the issues of categorisation. A summit is required to contextualise the issue of solidarity. Only a global, multilateral approach based on the principle of solidarity has any hope of succeeding.
GOAL has argued for two years for a protected humanitarian safe zone in Syria. The failure to provide such relief has been a major contributor to the current crisis. This is an example of the kind of approach a global summit could address.
However, lumping migrants and refugees together is not recommended - instead, we need to recognise that each journey has many and complex motivations.
There are climate migrants, medical migrants, conflict migrants and many others on the move. There are the residents of Za'atari camp in Lebanon, who are not likely to go anywhere for a very long time. They and so many others like them are neither one thing nor the other.
Ireland, of course, can play a role. Our history must inform a robust ethical approach as far as large movements of population are concerned, without having to ignore considerations of security, the integrity of sovereign borders and integration. Ireland's multi-lateralism has been under intense scrutiny lately both at the COP21 climate change conference and in the context of our corporate tax regime. The Government sought a permission slip at COP21 to resile from the principle of global solidarity in favour of narrow self-interest.
A strong position on migration might conceivably serve as a counter-balance.
Barry Andrews, GOAL'S chief executive, has just returned from Izmir. GOAL is working extensively in Syria