Making the hazardous and treacherous journey across land and sea to preserve your life and that of your loved ones is something most of us will never have to experience. The people who make these journeys are talented, resourceful and creative and should be applauded, not feared.
The bravery it takes to leave family, friends and everything you have known and set out into a hostile world with no guarantees of safety or indeed survival is extraordinary. Emotional, psychological and physical health and wellbeing is at risk, and many pay with their lives.
Little is being said in the way of empathy for and recognition of this courageous group of people, and much less in the way of compassion. Spreading distrust and hostility, our political leaders play a dangerous game with other people’s lives. The constant scaremongering and political distancing from people fleeing war and poverty and seeking our help is profoundly worrying, and creates a climate of irrational fear. The politics of fear are well known to us. The denigration of a group of people is well known to us. We only have to look back at internment during the Troubles in Northern Ireland to know that this approach inevitably targets innocent people and places a whole group under suspicion.
Our political leaders have choices to make: piling more money into building higher walls, strengthening border controls, providing sniffer dogs, and fighting over who will accept fewer people shows a terrible lack of courage - a courage that is so clearly visible in the people seeking a safehaven in Europe. This is lazy politics, devoid of the values that make us human, devoid of the values that connect us to each other, devoid of leadership.
The rise of racism, xenophobia and islamophobia will not be combatted in this leadership vacuum. It will only fester and grow, and the most vulnerable and visibly different will pay the price. This political void adds to social unrest and places all people of an immigrant background at risk. The rise of right-wing politics across the EU needs to be addressed head on; this is a pivotal moment to do just that.
It is easy to see that this is a crisis, but not one of immigration: it is a crisis of leadership, a crisis of solidarity, a crisis of humanity. As posturing political leaders vie to be seen as toughest on immigration, more and more human beings – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children – take desperate measures to cross borders to reach safety, and the death toll mounts. The human cost is unfathomable.
Greece, Italy and Malta are struggling to respond, and calls for solidarity go largely ignored except by Germany and Sweden. The reactions from the English and French governments to the small numbers of people living in makeshift camps in Calais are heavy handed, disproportionate and almost beyond comprehension.
While Ireland responded positively through its deployment of the Navy to rescue people at sea, taking just 600 people out of the 60 million people displaced worldwide can only be described as a paltry effort. The money at an EU level is available, so this is not an economic question. Ireland can easily take more people; it is unclear why we are not doing more. The only conclusion to be drawn is that our rejection of those in desperate need is purely political.
The reality is that we live in a globalised world and embrace globalisation when it suits us – the free movement of finance and capital. When the human face of globalisation – those suffering under the legacy of colonialism, the impact of climate change, and horror of poverty and war – reaches us, our political leaders are nowhere to be found.
There is an inescapable fact: over the next few decades, as Irish and European populations age, we will need more migration. Some of the brightest and the best are knocking at our doors and we call it a crisis. We should see this as an opportunity to receive new skills and talents, to respond to need, to show leadership and to at least pretend we are a civilised Europe which upholds human rights principles and responds to cries for help.
This is a complex situation requiring a range of responses, but sticking our heads in the sand is not one of them. Future generations will judge Europe and Ireland for our actions in this crisis; our political leaders need to act with wisdom, vision, compassion and humanity. In this defining moment we need political leadership, before it’s too late.
Edel McGinley is the director of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) and a member of the board of PICUM, the Platform for International Co-operation on Undocumented Migrants.