FERGUS FINLAY: Merkel is right — we’re not doing enough to help ease refugee crisis

Boy, didn’t we get huffy last week when Angela Merkel told us we weren’t doing enough to help in the refugee crisis, writes Fergus Finlay. 

Angela Merkel, of all people. Who does she think she is? Doesn’t she know we’ve sent brave and resourceful members of the Defence Forces to the Mediterranean to rescue all those migrants and refugees?

Doesn’t she know we have all sorts of crises here at home – and that she and her austerity policies helped to cause them in the first place? Doesn’t she know that we can’t possibly do more? And why should we anyway?

The cheek of her. And you know what the worst thing of all is? She’s absolutely right.

The response of the European Union to one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of modern times has been shameful. The sight of European countries – countries that have been huge beneficiaries of EU aid - erecting barbed wire fences on their boarder to keep refuges out is terrible to watch. The thought of police being alerted to dozens of dead people in the back of a truck in Austria (alerted because body fluids were leaking out from the back of the truck) is horrible. The sight of dead children floating in the Mediterranean is unbearable.

Amid all this, Angela Merkel is a beacon of light. Any leader who is prepared to share her country’s wealth with utterly dispossessed people is to be admired. But she has gone further. According to Reuters, last week she faced down dozens of protesters who waved placards with the slogan “traitor” when she visited an eastern German town where anti-refugee protests erupted into violence at the weekend.

“There is no tolerance for those people who question the dignity of others, no tolerance for those who are not willing to help where legal and human help is required,” she told them. And she promised, “the more people who make that clear ... the stronger we will be.”

Germany has agreed to take up to 800,000 refugees, and has gone about the business of making them safe. The country has relaxed its laws for Syrian refugees, and has made it clear that they are prepared to give them a new life.

Syrian migrants trying to escape by boat

Throughout Europe, countries that have massive problems of their own, like Italy and Greece, are doing their best to cope. Others, like Britain, are effectively saying no. We won’t be a soft touch, seems to be the Cameron government’s response in the face of an overwhelming tide of human suffering.

And us? We’re sitting on our hands, hoping the problem will go away. We have too many problems, too much homelessness, too much social deprivation already. We will, if we’re pushed, take in a couple of hundred refugees over the next year or so. But we couldn’t possibly be expected to do more. I’ve heard it said on radio during last week that if we relax our guard for a moment, we would be faced with a “swarm”. Loaded language like that makes me shiver. Locusts swarm. It’s really hard for people who have lost everything – including their families – to swarm.

Apart from hoping the problem will go away, we have sent a ship or two. Members of the Defence Forces have done us proud by rescuing refugees from death – but then they have no choice but to drop them off in ports that are struggling to deal with the huge numbers involved.

We need to follow Germany’s lead, in the interests of basic humanity. And there is no reason why we couldn’t cope.

800,000 is the number of refugees Germany is preparing to accommodate. It seems an enormous number, and it is. But at the same time, it’s roughly one refugee for every thousand Germans. Germany has a population of more than 80 million, after all.

If we were to decide that we were willing to do exactly the same as Germany, we would be committing ourselves to accepting 40,000 dispossessed people, and helping them in whatever way we could to be safe in the first instance. Then we’d commit ourselves to helping them to be warm, secure and fed. Finally we’d set about giving them the chance to start a new life.

Is that really too much? One new refugee for every hundred of us?

I know it’s dangerous to play with averages, but accommodating that number of refugees, spread out around the country, could mean asking a town like Tullow in County Carlow to take four people in. The Booterstown area of Dublin could be asked to take three refugees. Glenageary, where I live, could be asked to support two more. Monastrevin, four, Thomastown, two, Enniscorthy, three; Cobh, six – and so on.

That’s a simplistic way of putting it, I know. But here’s the point. If we decided to do it, we could do it.

Yes, I know we have all sorts of other issues, and especially the competing issue of homelessness. I’ve written here before about the kind of investment that needs to be made in that area – and that’s do-able too, if we weren’t so insistent on minor league tax breaks. But the immediate measures that need to be taken in terms of asylum are different to the longer-term approach that’s needed in the housing crisis.

It is in the end about community. We’re good at that – especially in rural Ireland. I watched an afternoon of fun and games in Carnew yesterday, designed to bring the community together and also to raise a few bob for local GAA facilities. It was, as usual with everything organised by the GAA, brilliant. Again and again, they show us how to do it – how to build and maintain solidarity, how to innovate, how to channel local and community pride into dramatic outcomes.

The EU has now announced a so-called “emergency meeting” – in a fortnight’s time. While that might not seem much of a response to a humanitarian crisis, at least it gives us a chance to consider what our response needs to be. And it gives us a chance to plan.

The first decision to be made is one of principle. We should be willing to commit ourselves to rescuing one refugee for every hundred of us – exactly as Germany has done. Then we need to figure out how to manage that number.

Now is the time for the Government to begin to mobilise. First of all its own resources in terms of manpower and vacant property – unused army barracks, for instance. Then it needs to galvanise the best voluntary resources we have – and in my view organisations like the GAA have a huge amount to offer. Communities all over the country need to be asked what they are willing and able to do – if the Government were to call all the local authority managers together and ask for their help to organise a national response. It could unleash a huge amount of creativity.

A longer-term response will take time to develop. But Ireland can and must play its part in confronting the biggest humanitarian emergency in years. One in a hundred is not a lot to ask us to do. It’s the least we should be prepared to offer.

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