Friday 20 September 2019

Closing the borders is not the answer, but we have a right to know who's entering EU

Refugees arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos last month, after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. The majority of those coming to the EU from Syria are fleeing Isil, but a tiny minority may have other motives. Photo: AFP
Refugees arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos last month, after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. The majority of those coming to the EU from Syria are fleeing Isil, but a tiny minority may have other motives. Photo: AFP

Shane Coleman

'Paris changes everything".

The comment attributed to an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the weekend demonstrates the inevitable impact the Isil attacks will have on Europe's approach to refugees from Syria and other countries.

The revelation that a passport of a Syrian refugee was found close to the dead body of one of the suicide bombers inevitably rang alarm bells. Germany, and Ms Merkel in particular, was a passionate advocate of a de facto open-door policy and were lauded internationally for doing so. But within hours of the atrocities in the French capital, one senior Bavarian minister was quoted as saying: "the days of uncontrolled immigration and illegal entry can't continue just like that."

Perhaps more predictably, it also emerged the new Polish Government was also signalling its intention to back out of an agreement to take several thousand Syrians, citing security concerns. Various advocates of refugee rights have strongly warned of the dangers of conflating what happened in Paris with the huge exodus of people fleeing the war in Syria.

But, inevitably, that is what some people will do.

There are very genuine reasons to be sceptical about the Syrian passport story. It does seem a little too convenient. Why would a suicide bomber with a hatred of the west and its system of government be carrying a passport on such a mission? Did he actually want it to be found?

It's possible. Isil, we can be sure, hates the notion of people fleeing the 'Caliphate' to a Europe they despise. They would presumably be quite happy to see public opinion turn against the refugees which in turn would only reinforce their narrative of conflict between the Christians and Muslims. It's also possible the passport belonged to somebody else other than the bomber, or was stolen - apparently, Syrian passports have become a hugely valuable commodity.

However, it's too simplistic to dismiss concerns - as many on social media are doing - by pointing out 'Isil are the very people that the refugees are trying to flee from'. For the vast majority of those coming to Europe, that is undoubtedly the case. But that doesn't rule out the possibility of the refugee trail being used by those with less noble or humanitarian motives.

This is too complex an issue for simple soundbites. Even if it is confirmed that the passport story stands up, it still doesn't change the reality that the majority of those involved in organising and carrying out the attacks are not recent refugees, but French and EU citizens, born in this part of the world.

Equally, though, that doesn't necessarily allay the concerns of those who believe that Europe may be storing up problems in the future with the immigration of large numbers of people from a very different background.

Advocates for refugees absolutely reject the notion of two cultures that are totally separate and may struggle to integrate and live together. They point out, correctly, that the vast majority of France's Muslim population are model citizens of the republic with a passion for their country. That is also the case in this country.

Yet, despite this, the concerns - real or imagined - that many will have after Friday's attack must be addressed. Within reason. Knee-jerk calls to close borders are not remotely realistic. And there is a very genuine ongoing humanitarian need that cannot be ignored. But the current system where people are entering the EU, via the Greek islands, and then travelling, unrestricted, across borders without effective background checks is hardly desirable or sustainable. We have a right to know that all the people being welcomed to our countries are genuine refugees and are not connected to militant groups such as Isil.

Despite the hand-wringing about our collective failures in this area, Europe has actually been remarkably welcoming and open to the idea of large-scale immigration from war-torn areas. How Isil must hate that. But that shouldn't be taken for granted by governments and other agencies. Just as it's vitally important that there isn't scaremongering in the wake of the Paris attacks, the genuine concerns of decent people who worry about the cultural, religious and lifestyle differences between Europe's population and the new arrivals should not be casually dismissed.

If Europe, including Ireland, is to shoulder responsibility for the refugee crisis - as surely it must - there should be proactive measures and policies in place to avoid the kind of mistakes that France has made over the past 50 years. Those mistakes have helped foster a small, but lethal, group, utterly alienated from the country of their birth.

A calm and measured response is needed. The 'close down the borders' brigade can be discounted. But there must also be questioning and probing of those on the other side of the argument, however genuine their motivations undoubtedly are. We need to think this through, rather than engaging in the 'knee-jerk, something/anything needs to be done' approach of recent months.

Shane Coleman presents the 'Sunday Show' on at 10am

Irish Independent

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