Opinion

Friday 22 November 2019

No longer can we ignore the plight of refugees

A boy carries two children as he evacuates them from a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's al-Fardous district April 2, 2015. REUTERS/Rami Zayat
A boy carries two children as he evacuates them from a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's al-Fardous district April 2, 2015. REUTERS/Rami Zayat
A boy carries two children as he evacuates them from a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's al-Fardous district (REUTERS/Rami Zayat)
A boy carries his belongings at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's al-Fardous district on Thursday (REUTERS/Rami Zayat)
A woman carrying a child reacts at a damaged site after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar al-Assad on a mosque in Idlib city, after rebels took control of the area on Friday (REUTERS/Ammar Abdallah)

Liz O'Donnell

Nearly five years into the Syrian civil war there seems a capacity for the world to look the other way. This despite it being described as the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.

The scale of fatalities - upwards of 230,000, mostly civilians - appears to elicit a response which is one of paralysed despair. Why is this?

How come the crisis - which began in 2011 with anti-government protests and escalated into a full-scale civil war, causing the biggest refugee crisis in modern history - is finding it difficult to stay in the headlines of our newspapers?

Is it because it is just one part of a generalised fracturing of the entire region complicated by the additional phenomenon of Islamic State (Isil)?

As time passes the conflict in Syria grows more complex. No longer a battle between those loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, it has become sectarian - involving the Sunni majority against the Shia Alawite and drawing in the jihadis groups including Isil. There is evidence - verified by a UN commission of inquiry - of war crimes and massacres perpetrated by both sides, including "indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas".

It is further alleged that chemical weapons were used by Government forces in 2013, causing hundreds of deaths.

Under threat of US intervention, Syria agreed to complete removal of its chemical weapons arsenal. But there have been claims of further chemical attacks since then.

Meanwhile, Isil continues to wreak havoc in the north and east of the country in its own unique fashion - beheadings, amputations, public executions and killing hostages. The latter atrocities grab the world's attention briefly before it lapses back into inaction and exasperation.

There is no more visible an indicator of what is going on in Syria than the mass movement of refugees fleeing war and terror. Over four million people have managed to get out of the country, mostly to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Such an influx of refugees into neighbouring countries has placed enormous stress on those countries, particularly Lebanon. This small country is now hosting 1.5 million Syrians.

Another seven-and-a-half million are internally displaced, with millions - including 5.6 million children - in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

Peter Sutherland, the UN special representative on migration, has been loud in his criticism of the EU for its collective inadequacy of response to refugees seeking asylum. Last year, alone 3,419 refugees drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean in unseaworthy vessels.

Pope Francis, too, has expressed his dismay at this unconscionable loss of life in the seas off the island of Lampedusa in southern Italy. Some countries are taking more responsibility than others. Sweden and Germany have taken two-thirds of all Syrian refugees, with Sweden processing 80,000 asylum applications in 2014 alone. Mr Sutherland rightly calls for a common policy to burden share in this regard.

In a recent speech in Dublin, Mr Sutherland pointed out that an estimated 25,000 refugees had drowned in the Mediterranean since 2000.

He points out that last year 90pc of the 600,000 applications made in the EU were placed in only 10 member states.

To be fair, Ireland has been generous. Last year, it contributed €14m to the UN humanitarian appeal for the Syrian refugee crisis, and pledged an additional €12m for 2015 at the donor's conference this week in Kuwait.

The earlier UN appeal only raised half what was needed. According to Oxfam, 343 Syrian refugees have been given refuge here since 2011 and 100 more will be admitted this year.

Unfortunately, there appears to be no political appetite in most European countries to be proactive in providing asylum to these unfortunate people.

Here in Ireland we have been heavily criticised for our direct provision system, with asylum seekers languishing for years in inhumane conditions and not allowed to work pending the determination of their status.

The Labour Party should assert itself towards influencing Ireland's overall policy, not just on our existing refugees, and the 30,000 undocumented people living here who need to be regularised, but also on Ireland's input to the European asylum policy, which is regressive and lacks coherence.

There are no votes in refugees' protection in any country.

But it is morally the right thing to do and consistent with Ireland's history and humanitarian values.

Irish Independent

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