We must embrace desperate people as Europe fails those fleeing war
When it comes to the horror of war as revealed to us on a daily basis from Syria, have we reached a stage of mute helplessness? As retiring UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said this week in his farewell speech to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York: "Just when you think it cannot get any worse, the bar of depravity sinks lower."
He was referring to the air strike on the UN/SARC humanitarian aid trucks at the village of Urum al-Kubra, west of Aleppo, when at least 20 people were killed. The convoy was delivering essential aid to the civilian population when it was attacked and caused the suspension of all aid conveys into Syria amid diplomatic fury over the breach of the Russia/UN-negotiated truce.
It would be difficult to disagree with the statement of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that this was an "attack on humanity", while there is dispute about who is to blame. But set against the scale of human misery and suffering in war-torn Syria, language loses all meaning. A clearly exasperated US Secretary of State, John Kerry, was scathing of Russian bad faith and called for a ban on all Syrian and Russian flights in the key areas to restore some credibility to the shaky truce so that aid can be distributed.
It's difficult to square the fragile peace efforts with the now routine TV images of men women and children being pulled out from under the rubble of buildings demolished by cluster bombs, and white-helmeted volunteers clawing with bare hands to save lives. We gape as frantic medics operate in makeshift facilities, treating the wounded, mostly civilians bombed in their own homes and hospitals.
Millions of Syrians are living in this hellish environment, cut off from supplies, caught in the crossfire of parties to an unwinnable proxy war. At the other end of the appalling spectrum, we see refugees in overcrowded camps or scrambling off unseaworthy boats trying to escape the grotesque reality of staying put in Syria. These unfortunate people are caught between staying and being bombed or leaving and risking their lives on the treacherous journey. Both options are horrific, with uncertain endings.
Millions have fled the country, mostly to neighbouring countries like Jordan and Turkey. Millions have gone further, seeking refuge in Europe; thousands drowned making the crossing in flimsy boats. Those who make land face more hardship, bureaucracy and mixed welcomes. Many end up blocked at barbed-wire borders or detained in crowded camps. This is a total denial of refugee rights under international law. What dispute can there possibly be about the status of civilians fleeing the six-year-long Syrian war? There is no dispute. What there is, regrettably, is an abject failure of political leadership in Europe to share the burden of those seeking refuge under international law.
The surge of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other conflict zones like Eritrea has paralysed and divided the European body politic like never before. Some countries will take none; others, like Germany and Sweden, have been hospitable and generous to their own detriment. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is paying the electoral price for her open welcome of over a million refugees last year.
Implementing a coherent EU share-out of the refugees has proven impossible. A scheme agreed in September 2015 to ease pressure on Italy and Greece, where most refugees first land, has been a spectacular flop. Under that scheme, the Irish Government agreed to accept 2,600. To date, a total of just 69 people - all of them Syrian - have come to Ireland from Greece but none have come from Italy. A further 15 out of 32 participating states have received no migrants from Italy. So a scheme which was to relocate a modest 160,000 in the EU has only resulted in approximately 5,000 being accepted, with France receiving most at 1,656. Austria, Poland and Hungary received none.
The scale of displacement of people into Europe is the worst since World War II. Undoubtedly, the ongoing security threat in Europe following terrorist attacks is complicating the relocation of refugees from Syria. There is a conflict here between two imperatives. One is the duty to give protection to refugees and the other is the security of individual member states. But some states are using the security argument to deny their international obligations. Anti-migrant sentiment was central to the Brexit vote in the UK and has fuelled the growth of ultra-nationalist parties right across Europe.
Other more longstanding refugee schemes run by the UNHCR have worked better. Ireland has taken 377 refugees under this programme and indeed most of the 1,000 Syrians in Ireland have come under this programme since the war started in 2011. But we could do a lot more and it was a relief to hear the Tánaiste recommitting Ireland to accept 4,000 refugees under the EU scheme. She regretted that, for reasons outside Ireland's control, only 870 refugees will have been resettled here by the end of 2016. The admission of such a low intake was embarrassing for the Government while Ireland was co-chairing the first UN summit on refugees and migrants in New York.
Ironically, while sentiment here at home is very supportive of receiving Syrians fleeing the war, there has been little or no political pressure on the Government to step up to the plate. But the Government should recognise that the right thing to do is not always popular and can be challenging politically.
US President Barack Obama, speaking on the refugee crisis, urged world leaders to avoid isolationism. Since the start of the war, the US has taken 53,804 Syrians. In a veiled reference to presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose anti-migrant views are well known, Obama said "a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself".
Ireland should play its fair part in the refugee crisis in line with our longstanding humanitarian values. Moreover, our race memory of mass migration and forced displacement predisposes us to be generous.
Refugees coming from Syria should and will be fast-tracked and given asylum without bureaucratic delays, as is their entitlement. Ending the Syrian war must be the priority for the international community but in the meantime, Irish arms should embrace desperate people.