Cork schoolgirl explains why we must help refugees fleeing to Europe

Fifth-year student at Bishopstown Community School, Cork, Anna Mustata. Picture: Dan LInehan

Bishopstown Community School student, Anna Mustata, is 16 years old. An aspiring novelist and gifted mathematician, she won silver in the Mathematics Olympiad in Minsk in 2015, won a trip to Brussels after her BCS team won the Lord Mayor’s debate last month, and won a national essay competition hosted by the Law Faculty of UCC. Here, in an extract from her winning essay, Anna explains why, despite the increasing number of terrorist attacks, the EU principle of free movement must remain

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

These are the words of Martin Luther King, immortalised in the collective human consciousness. Today, I feel, they are more true and more pressing than ever before. While the western world enjoys greater prosperity than ever before, people in other parts of the world face a living hell on a daily basis due to war and civil strife.

These people have nowhere to turn to for help but us, yet we would turn them away simply because we perceive them as a threat to our peace. I am speaking, of course, of the millions of Syrian refugees who are finding it increasingly difficult to find safety and shelter because a rapidly increasing number of European countries want to close their borders. Does this action not spit in the face of the wise and humanitarian words quoted before? How can we aspire to create an atmosphere of peace and justice in our own nations if we are willing to ignore the horrors that happen elsewhere? Will we really protect our own safety and prosperity by keeping the rest of the world at bay?

It should be clear that we can do no such thing. The very fact that we live in the Age of Information makes it impossible to claim ignorance towards the suffering of the rest of the world. On September 2, 2015, the entire world was shocked by photographs of the three-year-old child, Aylan Kurdi, who drowned while his family tried to flee Syria and was found washed up and dead on a beach.

Thanks to photography and the internet, the entire world can now bear witness to human suffering as though it were happening right next door to us. It is indisputable that we are closer to each other today than at any other time in history. The modern world owes its prosperity to this interconnectivity — we must, therefore, shoulder the burdens of it as well. The four founding principles of the European Union are the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital. These principles have helped many European countries thrive and raise themselves out of poverty — Ireland amongst them. But the world is far wider than just the European Union. How is it that we are willing to share all these things amongst ourselves, but are unwilling to offer basic comfort and safety to a three-year-old child who has been forced to leave his country and has nowhere else to go?

Europe today relies on many other countries for vital resources. In particular, our society is fuelled primarily by oil — 30% of which comes from Middle Eastern countries. In exchange for this, what have we given back? Russia has launched a bombing campaign against Syria since September 2015. As for the rest of the world, we cannot forget the ‘coalition of the willing’ that George W Bush led into Iraq on false allegations of possession of weapons of mass destruction. Currently, rebel groups in Syria are funded by western nations and by Turkey. Our interference has done far more harm than good — as is to be expected when we attempt to meddle in an already delicate situation with subtleties most of us have no idea about. For years, we have taken from the Middle East every resource they offered while pouring back in money, arms and soldiers. Now, when they need our aid, we speak of self-preservation and protecting our own interests. How is this fair? How is it just?

We have an undeniable responsibility towards the countries of the Middle East. The Iraq war we started was illegal by UN standards. Do we not owe them some recompense for all the bloodshed we have caused there? Is it not our duty now to do something to alleviate the suffering in nations we have had a hand in tearing apart?

What have we ever done to repay the damage we have caused? If Russia and the United States will not assume their responsibilities in this matter, then it falls to the European Union to set an example, and hope that other nations follow it. It is clear to me that we owe it to the nations of the Middle East to accept their refugees.

A Syrian girl in Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. She is one of almost 5million refugees who have fled the war-torn country.
A Syrian girl in Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. She is one of almost 5million refugees who have fled the war-torn country.

When America invaded Iraq with our help, they justified it as an act to spread and defend democracy. This strikes me as the height of hypocrisy. Contrast our self-righteous air of moral superiority then to our attitude now. We were willing to bomb other nations and send troops to occupy them in the name of democracy, but we are unwilling now to risk terrorist attacks in order to help those who have been devastated by war in Syria.

If we wish to defend and enforce something, perhaps we should turn to the Geneva Convention. The fourth convention, designed to protect civilians in time of war, states in Article 35 that “all protected persons who may desire to leave the territory at the outset of, or during a conflict, shall be entitled to do so.”

Somehow, we are far less determined to defend this right than we were to defend another nation’s right to democracy. It would seem to me that we are far more eager to take a stand when the cost in human lives is to be paid on foreign soil than when we may have to put ourselves at risk.

The Schengen Agreement, which guarantees the free movement of persons throughout the European Union, has a specific purpose; through unrestricted movement and the mixing of cultures, it hopes to avoid another catastrophic war such as the two that shattered Europe in the last century. By mixing cultures, it hopes to promote understanding between them and dissolve underlying tensions. It this way, we can come to see each other not as compatriots or enemies, but as fellow human beings whose lives hold equal value.

Unfortunately, the new wave of Islamophobia that has gripped us today is proof that this poisonous ‘us against them’ mentality is far from being eradicated. When we see a Muslim, far too many of us instinctively view them as an enemy, a potential terrorist, even though statistically there is a far greater likelihood of them being a victim of circumstance. This mentality is so ingrained in us, I can only wonder how many more tragedies the world must see before we can finally overcome it.

There is no denying that what we are seeing today will one day be enumerated among the great tragedies of history. As of 2016, 400,000 people have been killed in the civil war in Syria. Human rights are being ignored and trampled on constantly. The war crimes that are proven to have occurred in Syria include murder, torture, rape and blocking access to food, water and health services. The chemical weapons used in Syria include the nerve agent Sarin and chlorine gas — both of which cause excruciating death.

The Geneva Convention outlaws civilian targets in war, but in spite of this, schools, hospitals and towns such as Aleppo have been bombed. There can be no disputing the cruelty of this — my only question is, where does the European Union want to be remembered as having stood in reference to this tragedy? Do we want to be remembered as having done all we could to help those affected by it… or as having closed our borders and turned away?

In the West, we fear terrorism — and for good reason. It is one of the greatest threats to our peace in the modern era. But compare our fear and suffering to that of a Syrian refugee, and it pales drastically.

In 2015, 175 people died in Western Europe because of terrorism. Every one of those deaths was a tragedy — but in Syria, 79,585 civilians have been killed since the beginning of the conflict.

All of Europe stood in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, but who stood in solidarity with the children who died on October 12, 2016 when a primary school was bombed in the Syrian town of Darra? You may be anxious every time you board a plane, but families have used their entire life savings for a dangerous and uncertain boat journey to Europe. In the end, the price they have paid is already so much greater than the price we would pay if we accepted them.

I hope that by this point you will agree that even if there are terrorists among the refugees requesting asylum, we should still accept them. However, one question still remains: how many of them are really terrorists? According to the UN refugee agency, the answer is only 1%. Most terrorist attacks are caused by radicalised EU citizens. The attacks on Charlie Hebdo are an example of this. It takes eighteen month on average for a refugee to be granted permission to enter America, even longer if they are from the Middle East. It would be far easier for a terrorist to enter on a tourist visa. So not only would closing our borders mean turning away millions of people who need our help — it may not even have any significant impact on terrorism.

Perhaps if we close our borders, we would make ourselves marginally safer. But can we justify the human cost of this? Will we ignore tragedy and injustice elsewhere in the world in hope that it does not reach us?

The Geneva Convention demands that we do something, the Schengen Agreement that the European Union is founded upon demands that we do something, and our own conscience should demand that we do something.

How, then, can we simply do nothing?

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