THE migrant crisis might start to look very different if only we were able to connect the people willing to help with those in desperate need of it.
There are many, many ordinary people who want to do something to ease a humanitarian crisis that, in 2015, forced 24 people to flee every minute.
The hundreds who gathered outside the Dáil on Wednesday to urge the Government to take in 200 children from Calais was one example of that. But there are many more. For instance, 9,000 Irish people signed an online petition this week calling for the same thing and, last year, a further 6,000 pledged a bed to a refugee, but those beds are still waiting to be filled.
That system is working well in other countries, so why can’t those pledges be fulfilled more quickly here? Where is the blockage and what can we do to fix it?
The need to do that could not be more urgent. At the end of last year, one in every 113 people in the world was either a refugee, an asylum seeker or internally displaced, putting them at a level of risk for which the UN High Commissioner for Refugees knows no precedent.
The full horror of those risks was hammered home this week as the French authorities dismantled the so-called Jungle migrant camp at Calais.
Some of the 1,500 unaccompanied children slept in the charred remains of the camp but the French government later put them up in heated freight containers furnished with bunk beds. French President Francois Hollande seemed pleased with that.
“They have all been sheltered, whereas they were still in the mud and cold a week ago,” he told the Voix du Nord newspaper.
Here, you might wonder why there was any need to debate the question of offering sanctuary for just 200 of them. But then that is 200 times more than the number we have already housed in the country, which comes to a grand total of one.
Dr Fergus O’Farrell, lay leader of the Methodist Church in Ireland, brought the truth of that shocking figure into stark relief at the Dáil protest on Wednesday.
He said: “The most shameful day of my life was when they — [several other churches at the European Commission] — put up the chart showing countries [that had] received unaccompanied children from Calais and Ireland had received one.”
Sr Stansilaus Kennedy was there too. “We are not asking 200 children come today or tomorrow, we are asking for the commitment to be made,” she said.
But why can’t they come today or tomorrow? Judging by the response from ordinary people, we are more than ready to receive.
Child and Family Agency Tusla has sounded a note of caution. It has warned against taking in children in one fell swoop, as some of them have serious issues and would need specialist help.
While true, that can’t be used as a delaying tactic as the slow, grinding process of officialdom has already left a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the members of the public genuinely willing to help and the growing number of refugees.
Add to that the layers of red tape and bureaucracy inherent in the government response to the crisis and you begin to understand why just one child has made it to Ireland.
Here is one example of the gobbledygook that comes from the Department of Justice in response to an online petition calling on it to let the children in. “The relocation of asylum seekers is a complex and sensitive process, involving various aspects of European and domestic law… In addition to the logistical challenges, human rights and security considerations must be taken into account.”
Where is the urgency in that?
If a person is drowning in the Mediterranean or a parentless child is sleeping in the charred remains of a burnt-out camp in Calais, you don’t tell them that the “relocation of asylum-seekers is a complex and sensitive process”. You do what the LÉ James Joyce and all the wonderful Irish naval vessels have done — you save 10,000 lives first and then you refine the details of the longer-term solution.
Minister for Equality, Immigration and Integration David Stanton made a very good point when he said he welcomed the Dáil debate but said the matter should not be politicised too much.
He said the Government’s doors were open for constructive ideas of support.
One constructive idea might be to look to Canada. To date, that country has received a total of 33,239 Syrian refugees, and has well-thought-out plans to welcome more. Those refugees are government-supported and privately sponsored in a system that harnesses the public goodwill to help.
You can log on to the government of Canada website and read, in detail, how to make a difference with clearly outlined steps of how anybody can get involved. Their government initially pledged to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees but was forced to extend the programme when private sponsors — ie, ordinary citizens — responded with more offers of help.
All over the country, people have come together to raise funds for accommodation and they have organised a range of measures designed to help Syrian refugees feel at home — English classes, training, driving classes and, most touching of all, friendship.
But then, Canada has a very long tradition of welcoming displaced people to its shores. During the Famine, the population of Toronto was some 20,000, yet they did not baulk at the challenge when nearly twice that number, 38,000 Irish people, arrived on coffin ships.
It must have seemed like the apocalypse, but they set up feeding stations and fever hospitals and dealt with the crisis.
There was no debate — just a response from the heart to what was unfolding in front of them.
Looking at how the Canadians manage a refugee crisis — then and now — might provide David Stanton with lots of constructive ideas on how to kickstart the Irish effort and involve the many who want to help.