“People panicked when water filled the boat and it sank, we had life vests. I was holding my wife’s hands. My children slipped from my hands. We tried to hold on to the boat but it deflated rapidly. Everyone was screaming. I could not hear the voices of my children and my wife. I tried to swim to the beach by following the lights. I looked for my wife and children on the beach but couldn’t find them.”
The above account is that of Abdullah Kurdi, the father of the 3 year old boy Aylan, who washed up on the shore of Bodrum, Turkey on Wednesday morning of last week. The picture of Aylan’s body, face down on the beach which emerged last Wednesday evening has had a sobering effect on all those who have seen it. Aylan drowned fleeing across the Mediterranean along with his brother Galip and mother Rehan leaving his father alone in the world and in a foreign country. Abdullah has since been interviewed and has said he no longer wishes to go on to Europe and would prefer to return to Syria. He has decided to return his wife and children’s bodies to Kobani in Syria;
“I just want to see my children for the last time and stay forever with them.”
The EU estimated death toll for Syrian people fleeing their homeland this summer alone has now reached 2,500 but it was the image of one boy that brought this issue home to us, everyone who viewed this picture saw a child just like any Irish child, race-less, genderless and innocent. Perhaps this is the way we need to view all Syrian refugees, they are innocent ordinary people and one death in the Mediterranean is the same as a drowning or sudden death in Ireland. It is the loss of a life that could been saved.
The Government response thus far to this humanitarian crisis has been to send Naval ships to the Mediterranean on search and rescue missions. The crews of these ships have done amazing work thus far saving lives under immediate threat. It should be noted that Ireland; along with Denmark and the UK, secured an opt-out in certain matters related to Justice and Home Affairs at the last Lisbon Treaty and therefore, the Government’s decision to waive this clause and accept an as yet undecided number of refugees resulting from the current crisis should be commended. However as a nation we are not truly addressing the future of these people. The Government have offered refuge to a mere 600 people at time of writing when thousands are in need of homes. In contrast to their Government, as usual the Irish people have proven themselves enterprising, charitable and conscientious. As of last Friday 6,000 people had offered beds in their own homes to refugees. One Clare man, Aiden O’Neill, has even offered to adopt or to foster a child while their parents get back on their feet. He has taken it upon himself to set up a Facebook page call the ‘Aylan Kurdi shelter’ and told George Hook on ‘The Right Hook’ that he hopes to find other like-minded families who will do the same;
“I would love – and I’m putting this out as an appeal, George – there’s a meeting in two weeks’ time, in Brussels, an emergency meeting, and I would love to furnish Enda Kenny with a list of 600-odd families who would be willing to do the same… that would make me the happiest man in the world”.
This entire situation brings to mind the emergency evacuation of children to the safe countryside from cities like London during World War II. Globally we are fortunate to live in the safe and idyllic countryside of the world in the midst of the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II.
Instead of proactively volunteering to take in a specific number of refugees however the Government of the Irish Republic is now waiting to be told how many they should take in by the E.U. I think we can all answer that and the Irish people have. As many as possible. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny has instead decided to remain vague and noncommittal on this issue. He has reportedly asked the Justice minister Frances Fitzgerald to have a “flexible mind” at the upcoming European Commission meeting on the 14th of September. A more sceptical person might say Fine Gael and Labour would prefer to spend the current surplus tax take of 1.4 billion Euro on vote winning than housing refugees. Leadership can hide their head in the sand but the fact is this situation is escalating, not going away. The death toll in the whole of 2014 was an estimated 3,500 and this summer alone has been 2,500.
The global response to this crisis has been varied with the greatest effort coming from Germany pledging to take 800,000 people (1% of its population). Elaine Byrne of the Sunday Business post has pointed out that proportionately this would mean Ireland should take in approximately 50,000 refugees, not 600 which is .01% of Ireland’s population. The Department of Justice seemed to be hoping nobody would bother to do these calculations when they announced “Ireland will not be found wanting and as before will do the right and generous thing commensurate with our size and our capacity”.
This response by the German government mirrors the sentiments shown by football supporters in recent months. Banners stating ‘Refugees Welcome’ have been seen at the home football grounds of Hamburg FC, St. Pauli, Borussia Dortmund and Dresden. Bayern Munich have pledged €1m to projects to help refugees and Schälke 04 released a video expressing solidarity with the hashtag #standupifyourehuman. Closer to home Celtic FC also promised to donate a percentage of the proceeds of last weekend’s Jock Stein 30th Anniversary game.
It is clear this crisis has moved ordinary people all over the world so why isn’t every Government and every person acting accordingly? Like most humanitarian crises it ignites the best in most but also gives the few the opportunity to spout their xenophobic and racist opinions. For example the reaction on Twitter by former UKIP candidate, Peter Bucklitsch to seeing the picture of Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach;
“The little Syrian boy was well clothed and well fed, he died because his parents were greedy for the good life in Europe. Queuing costs.”
Although I’m loath to even repeat the above opinion it demonstrates some extreme and damaging attitudes that do still exist today. Although Bucklitsch’s remarks are despicable they are easily dismissed by many as the rantings of an imbecile. Perhaps less easily ignored however are the murmured opinions amongst the Irish public as to why we cannot commit to giving refuge to higher numbers. Examples of these are the homelessness crisis, the recession, religious panic and inadequate direct provision. It is undoubtedly true that there is a homelessness crisis in Ireland today but this is not and should not be comparable to the current situation in the Mediterranean. There is a vast difference between lives being in immediate and certain danger and people being homeless and living in temporary accommodation. I do not say this to belittle the homeless crisis but to portray the enormity of the situation in the Mediterranean. Homeless charities around Ireland have even asked that homelessness not be used as an excuse not to help Syrian refugees. Although people may also say that “charity starts at home” the crisis in Syria does not call for charity but for instinctual human decency as argued by UCC’s Professor of Law Siobhán Mullally in The Irish Times;
“Offering protection to people fleeing systemic human rights violations is not an act of charity. It is a Human Rights imperative, a matter of legal and moral obligation.”
It is true that in Ireland’s history of providing refuge to asylum seekers the Government has been left wanting in the accommodation and living standards they provide. Some have been living in the “Direct Provision” programme for years and living on 19 euro a week. They are not given permission to work or study so they are effectively stranded and cannot integrate properly into Irish society. Although these conditions are nowhere near ideal, our previous poor performance cannot be used as an excuse to do nothing in the future and last Friday Minister Fitzgerald announced plans to reform the system as soon as the Dáil reconvenes. This will hopefully see both existing and future applications from refugees processed much more quickly and prevent applicants from languishing in a judicial limbo indefinitely.
While the picture of Aylan’s body is headline news this week we should not delude ourselves into thinking this is a new problem. This crisis has been ongoing since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War 4 years ago and governments have been ignoring the crisis. The death toll has now become impossible to disregard as the public become roused by the images from Bodrum. Even if this were a new issue the response thus far is simply not enough. If we look at this “human catastrophe”, as the Taoiseach described it, from an Irish viewpoint the only comparable event in our past to the current mass exodus of Syria is the Great Famine between 1845 and 1852. The plight of Afghani, Syrian, Somalian and Eritrean refugees today should sound a stark echo in our collective unconscious when we recall the “coffin ships” that carried Irish immigrants escaping oppression, starvation and illness to North America at the gravest time in our history.
What we can do to help:
Donate if you can, no matter how small
Money donated no matter how small to non-governmental groups working in the affected areas is perhaps the most impactful difference a person at home can make. Below are some charities working in the area that can be donated to online;
- Concern Syria Programme Ireland Calais Refugee Solidarity is raising money
- Irish group Disaster Tech Lab are sending a team to the islands between Greece and Turkey. Their goal is to establish working internet and communications at the sites.
- The UNHCR
- Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who have three ships operating in the Mediterranean at present.
- The UN’s childrens’ fund UNICEF
- Red Cross Europe
Many goods that aren’t readily available and can’t be bought easily over the internet would be especially helpful if you can spare them:
- Electric Picnic –donate unwanted tents and other belongings to the Cork / Dublin Calais Refugee Solidarity group
- Books – the Jungle Library have set up a makeshift library at the Calais camp
- Cars – Refugee Action are accepting old cars as donations
- Instruments – Music Against Borders are taking donations of old or unwanted instruments for the migrants at Calais
Sign a petition
- Uplift have a petition calling for increased numbers of migrants to be allowed into Ireland which has already garnered almost 18,000 signatures. It can be signed on their website Uplift.ie