Irish Examiner View: Refugee crisis will change our world

Irish Examiner View: Refugee crisis will change our world
Members of the Irish Navy vessel Le Niamh as they rescue refugees in the Mediterranean in 2015. Photo: Irish Defence Forces/PA Wire

Should the weather gods celebrate today’s summer solstice, the longest day of the year, by bestowing the gift of clear, blue skies and a few hours of restorative sunshine, many of us will flee to the outdoors, the uplands or the coast. 

Some of us will venerate Vulcan with a weekend barbecue. We will, if we can at all, make the very best of the circumstances forces far beyond our control provide. 

Some of us may pause for a moment to acknowledge that, despite all, the great majority of people on this island are among the most secure and privileged alive. In historical terms, this is a good time to be a European. Random fate has indeed been kind.

That today is also World Refugee Day offers comparisons and context that make that claim undeniable and challenging. 

One statistic from the UN Human Rights Commission seems enough, though the agency can provide many that question human nature. The agency records that, every minute, 20 people leave everything they own to try to escape war, persecution, or terror. 

That means that in the time it takes a charcoal barbecue to reach cooking sizzle, hundreds of people have made the flee-or-die choice; by the time a decent hill or beach walk is finished, that figure is in the thousands.

The UNHCR record that at least 79.5m people have fled their homes. Among them are nearly 26m refugees, around half are under 18. 

There are millions of stateless people too. They, because random fate was cruel to them, have been denied a nationality or access to basic rights such as education, health care, employment, or freedom of movement. Around 1% of the world’s population have been forced to abandon their homes to avoid conflict or persecution.

This general crisis is described under several headings; refugees, immigrants or asylum seekers are the primary ones, though the stories of those described as internally displaced persons can be particularly harrowing. 

A mixture of those categories meant that 2.4m immigrants entered the EU 27 from non-EU 27 countries in 2018. On January 1, 2019, 21.8m people (4.9%) of the 446.8m people living in the EU-27 were non-EU-27 citizens. In that context, the Irish Refugee Protection Programme (IRPP), which envisages welcoming up to 2,900 refugees to Ireland before 2023, seems underwhelming. 

The current phase of IRPP will see some 700 refugees settle here next year, 750 in 2022 and 800 in 2023. Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said it is “only right and proper” to play our part and help those “less fortunate than ourselves”. 

The direct provision scandal has been recognised in the proposed coalition deal. A non-profit replacement has been promised. Time will tell.

Climate change is one of the forces turning farmers into refugees. Just as some remain disdainful about climate collapse, some imagine — usually the same people — this great movement of populations can be waved away. That is a dangerous delusion. 

The only choice we have is how well we manage this inevitable change. Early indications are not reassuring and suggest cultural and administrative change are needed to ensure a smooth transition to tomorrow’s world. 

The only real choice we have is how we do that.

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