Today is World Refugee Day. That may not mean much to most people living in Ireland but, in common with other
global crises like climate change, it should.
The number of people fleeing war, persecution and conflict has topped 70m for the first time ever. That is equivalent to everyone in Britain and Ireland being forced from their homes.
The figure is contained in the Global Trends 2018 annual report by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) which reveals that in Syria alone a staggering 13m people have been forcibly displaced by the ongoing crisis gripping their homeland.
Refugees are disproportionately hosted by poor and middle-income countries next to their own, leaving wealthier countries relatively untouched by the crisis that is overwhelming those poorer nations. That is clearly unsustainable if there is to be any hope of stemming the refugee crisis.
Prejudice, ignorance and fear are the prevailing attitudes expressed towards refugees by people in wealthier countries, Ireland included. The notion that most people fleeing their homeland are “economic refugees” in search of a better life is seriously challenged by the UNHCR finding that every second refugee is a child, with many of them entirely alone.
As High Commissioner Filippo Grandi puts it:”You hear a lot about refugees seeking better opportunities ... children don’t flee to seek better opportunities. Children flee because there is a risk and a danger.”
Our own younger people, mostly students, took to the streets last month to protest against adult inaction on climate change. They were among millions worldwide demanding action, not rhetoric. School students, led by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, have taken their concerns about the climate crisis to a new level, with a series of one-day strikes.
The response has been dramatic: In a very short space of time, young people have awakened the sleeping giant of public apathy and galvanised millions of ordinary people into bringing pressure on their politicians and public representatives to take climate change seriously. Only this week, the Irish Government unveiled an ambitious programme to tackle the crisis at a national level.
Those same young people could do the same for the refugee crisis, using their unique ability to empathise with people their own age, more than 30m of them who have become displaced while fleeing war, famine and persecution.
Closer to home, Irish students might care to look at the 2,000 children in our direct provision system, introduced as an emergency measure in 1999 but sharply criticised by human rights groups. Those staying in the system were only recently granted the right to work while waiting for refugee status. A report by the Irish Refugee Council on children in direct provision reveals that some spend as long as seven years living in confined and often unhygienic living areas.
The students’ strikes on climate change were a striking example to adults of how peaceful protest can effect change. But it should not be up to students to solve the refugee crisis any more than it is for them alone to save the planet.