Today the omnipotent prevalence of social media means we can see the tragedy as it happens on our smart phones, computers and TV’s in an explosion of images, videos and soundbites. It is impossible not to feel emotional when presented with these images of despair and destitution. Half sunken boats with terrified people clinging to anything that floats to stay alive. Horrifically, this image is often surpassed by the tragic scenes of dead children washed up on the beaches of southern European holiday resorts.
European leaders are still struggling to decide how to deal with the refugees much to the consternation of Germany which has pledged to take in an admirable 800,000 people. That is 1% of its entire population. In spite of this offer the Hungarian authorities have sought to prevent those people leaving for Germany, even tricking them into a train journey to Germany that was actually heading to a camp! How did they even think that this was the correct thing to do? As a result, tens of thousands of refugees are walking to the Austrian frontier where they are being welcomed by cheering Austrians ready to offer food and comfort.
The actions of the Hungarian government to protect the Schengen borders are incongruous to the general will of the Hungarian people who are outraged and their government’s response to the crisis. The refugees do not even want to stay in Hungary; they want to go to Germany and beyond. Those outraged Hungarians are doing what they can to help the refugees on there long journey to Germany.
Yesterday Tánaiste Joan Burton has said that there would be no upper limit on the amount of refugees Ireland takes after we reach the 5000 mark that is ‘now in the mix’. Nor will these people be placed in direct provision like many economic migrants have been. As highly educated, middle class, mostly polyglot people, the Syrians will want to work and make a contribution to Irish society. As head of Goal and former Minister Barry Andrews already pointed out, these people will be net contributors to the Irish economy within 12 months. Such an influx of people is bound to generate income for the exchequer, deepen our gene pool and greatly add to our society.
Sadly not all people view this as pragmatically as I do of course and it is nothing short ignorance followed by fear followed by hatred and then racism. Though I should never give them any attention to this type of commentary it is difficult not to succumb to the temptation to challenge such bigotry in the public sphere and point out exactly why they are wrong. The majority of Irish people will welcome these people to Ireland with warm embrace. For those who don’t I challenge them to publicly give one valid reason why these people do not deserve sanctuary and help.
On a trip to Lebanon in 2012 I had the pleasure of meeting some Syrian people. In my experience they are incredibly friendly, warm and educated. They vary in religion from Sunni, Shia, Druze and a host of Christian sects such as Maronite, Eastern Catholic, Assyrian, Chaldean, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Syrian Protestant et al. That aside they are honourable people with a deep sense of humility and a work ethic that would shame many Irish people.
These people are not migrants as the news continues to call them, they are refugees. They are not fleeing Syria to make money, or to scrounge of our welfare system, they are fleeing for their lives, from ISIS, Jabat al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army and the forces of Bashar al Assad. They are fleeing war. This war has raged for four years and has caused the displacement of more than 5 million people. Many of whom have been welcomed in Lebanon and Jordan, whose populations are already swelled with Palestinian refugees who have been arriving since the Nakba of 1948. Many others have died on the perilous journey to Europe attempting to cross the Mediterranean in flimsy boats and rafts.
We have a moral obligation as fellow human beings to welcome these refugees to Ireland, to open our hearts and open our homes, to dig deep and to give these people a peaceful home for the first time in four years. We need to give them something we aat times take for granted, to be able to sleep at night in comfort, not in fear, to wake in the morning and bring our children to school; to work and to live a peaceful, happy life. This is all they are looking for, nothing more and nothing less.
To all those who oppose any refugees coming to Ireland or Europe let me say this to you, during the Irish Great Famine more than 4 million Irish people left Ireland not as emigrants but as refugees. They left our shores in coffin ships, many dying on the way to the USA, UK and beyond. They didn’t leave because of economic reasons; they left because staying in Ireland meant certain death, 2 million deaths are testament to that.
I see on social media xenophobes spreading misinformation, generating hysteria and in general visceral hate filled comments about Syrian refugees. To those of you who believe these people are economic migrants, let me tell you that Irish people leave our shores daily as economic migrants to build the economies of the world’s most powerful nations. We may be welcomed now, but let us not forget those many signs that read – No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs, in the windows of boarding houses in the UK and beyond. Are we to become the type of people who raise those signs? I think not!
As an Irish person I pledge to do whatever I can to help these people when they do arrive in Ireland, not because it is now suddenly fashionable but because it is the right thing to do. I am urging all Irish people and residents of this country to do the same. Ireland is known as the ‘Nation of 100,000 Welcomes’ the people we are going to host will be those with ‘100,000 Sorrows’. We are a generous nation with a large heart and a reputation for our contributions to humanity, let us not be found wanting now.