Europe is facing its worst humanitarian crisis since World War II; the refugee crisis is worsening, claiming more lives and ruining more families, every single day. And what have we done about it? As a society, extremely little. We have stood back and watched as one of the greatest human tragedies in history has played out across our sister nations in Europe, and barely raised a finger. We have watched babies drown, families torn asunder, men and women cast from their homes and their lives by forces outside their control.
We have watched children fleeing to Europe via the Mediterranean, having lost their families to a bomb, a bullet or a boat, hoping for a blanket to be spread across their shoulders and to be taken in. What have they received from Ireland? Nothing. We have housed just one unaccompanied minor refugee in the last year.. There are 1,022 children without a family in Calais refugee camp, with thousands more in camps from Greece to Dunkirk. This is our national shame.
Some sections of Irish society claim that we have simply don’t have the resources to help. We have a homelessness crisis, disgraceful hospital waiting lists, schools are filling up too fast. How can we possibly afford to add thousands more people, in need of acute care and support, on top of that?
Comparison of national and international issues
“This is not a question of budget – we will not be taking from the HSE to give to refugees. It is simply a question of examining our attitudes.”
I would never argue that the issues Irish people face every day are not valid or important. Hospital waiting lists cost lives. Homelessness is unacceptable. These issues pale in comparison, though, to the ordeals endured by Syrian refugees. These people have fled from bombs, travelled overseas in boats not fit for back garden fishing, been beaten, rejected and cast out by European society upon arrival. These people deserve all the help we can give.
Furthermore, this is not a question of budget – we will not be taking from the HSE to give to refugees. It is simply a question of examining our attitudes. In the short term, a refugee crisis response could cost us money, but in Germany the intake of refugees has been proven to have bolstered the economy. Syrian refugees are not merely hungry mouths looking for food. Before bombs began to fall, Syria was a country of bankers, builders and business people. It will take time, but these people want to work, to contribute and become self supporting.
Is it even Europe’s problem?
There is a growing refrain that this isn’t Europe’s problem at all; or at least, that it shouldn’t be. “Why doesn’t Saudi Arabia or her neighbours take in refugees?” is being asked more frequently. People point to the vast resources in Saudi Arabia and ask, why don’t we expect a neighbouring country of Syria to do more? Since the end of the Second World War, the European Project has stood as a paragon of inclusivity, welcoming and fairness across the world.
Europe has stood for open borders, for free exchange of ideas, cultures and languages. The same cannot be said of Saudi Arabia. In the last week, the UN has condemned Saudi Arabian human rights abuses, including the continued practice of stoning and the institutionalised subjugation of women and girls. This is not a country by which Europe should measure its efforts.
Suspension of human rights
“No democracy has ever been made safer or more secure when human rights are “suspended” in response to a pressing crisis.”
Europe should be leading the way, showing the world what it is to be welcoming and humane in the face of terror. This has simply not been the case. Until recently, some EU member states had been seen to be generous and welcoming. In 2015, Germany accepted and resettled over one million refugees. However, on March 18 of this year, the EU ensured that history would not look kindly on its response to the crisis. On that day, the 28 EU heads of State, including Enda Kenny, signed the EU-Turkey deal.
At its core, the agreement aims to address the overwhelming flow of smuggled migrants and asylum seekers traveling across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands by allowing Greece to return to Turkey “all new irregular migrants” arriving after March 20. In exchange, EU Member States will increase resettlement of Syrian refugees residing in Turkey, accelerate visa liberalisation for Turkish nationals, and boost existing financial support for Turkey’s refugee population.
The deal, in my opinion, is not only illegal but also a shockingly dangerous precedent to set. The EU has been proud to stand over its human rights record for the past 40 years; it has been a world leader in protecting and regulating human rights. This deal jeopardises all of that progress.
No democracy has ever been made safer or more secure when human rights are “suspended” in response to a pressing crisis. It is universally the first step of a dictatorship, to undermine and ultimately do away with the fundamental human rights we all enjoy. That process begins with the suspension of one right in response to an emergency and in this case that emergency is the refugee crisis. A lack of respect for human rights is an extremely slippery slope. Without a supreme respect for human rights, such as that of the refugees to safe harbour and an appeal against forced expulsion, our justice system crumbles and decays.
Lack of empathy
“… after a couple of days, the photos slip down the timeline, the news cycle moves on and we forget. This episodic outrage is what we need to combat.”
Although there is no doubt that we are all worried, our collective attention span has become shockingly short. Never has that been clearer than in our response to this crisis. We see heart-wrenching images of children and adults, covered in the dust and the destruction of a war they have nothing to do with, splashed across our Facebook timelines and our newspapers. We see these images, and read the stories of children like Aylan Kurdi, and are outraged. We share the posts, we like the photos, some of us even take to the comments section to fight against the xenophobia and racism that so often can be found there.
Yet after a couple of days, the photos slip down the timeline, the news cycle moves on and we forget. This episodic outrage is what we need to combat. It cannot be enough that our sympathies are played on for a couple of days at a time, to be forgotten shortly thereafter. Real change happens when we do not simply communicate our disgust and dismay at this crisis via our like and share buttons. It happens when we go to events, when we educate ourselves and those around us, and when we loudly demand change from our representatives.
For change to happen, the EU needs a shift in priorities. National governments, including our own, need to be consistently lobbied and pressured to step back from retrogressive and inhumane deals such as the deal with Turkey. In order for that to happen, Trinity needs to become a national hub of education and activism, and needs to spread the message campus and nationwide. Trinity has a proud tradition of social justice activism; it is time to tap into that activist spirit once more. Individuals, societies and the SU are doing their bit, but unfortunately their efforts too often fly under the radar.
“Every day that we remain inactive, every day that we choose to stay silent, rather than add our voice to calls for change, is a day that thousands are at risk. We need your help.”
Next week, the 8×8 film festival will arrive at Trinity. 8×8 is a week of activism awareness, overseen by Suas Trinity, and focuses on a different issue of global importance each year. The festival’s focus this year is on the refugee crisis, and the reality that no two stories are the same. No one in the world can say they have the same set of conditions and circumstances as the person standing next to them – a reality easily lost in the madness of this crisis.
There is no more time to waste. For the past four years, people have been dying on the shores of Europe in vast numbers, and that tragedy has not abated. Every day that we remain inactive, every day that we choose to stay silent, rather than add our voice to calls for change, is a day that thousands are at risk. We need your help. You do not need to be an expert, or have any of the answers. All you need is compassion and interest. If you do nothing else this year, I am begging each and every one of you to lend a hand. Get involved with Suas, or any of the other groups on campus that are working to combat the crisis. In 40 years, your children will ask what you did to help the Syrian refugees. Help make change happen, and be on the right side of history.