LOUISE O'NEILL: No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land

There can be no denying the fact that we are living in frightening times. 

The Brexit campaign in the UK was largely won on a promise of more control around immigration and has seemingly unleashed a wave of attacks motivated by racism and xenophobia.

Reports say that the victory has been referenced during these attacks with comments such as “we voted you out, now leave” hurled at any person who appears to look or sound as if they are ‘foreign’. 

It’s easy to be smug and to dismiss Leave voters as uneducated bigots rather than looking at a political and socioeconomic structure that is further widening the gap between rich and poor, resulting in an entire section of society feeling powerless and disenfranchised.

The right-wing media has played its part in fuelling the anger around immigration, drip-feeding its readers a steady diet of hatred and fear with headlines such as “Migrants cost Britain £17billion a year”, “You Pay For Roma Gypsy Palaces”, “Kick Out Foreign Crooks” and “Migrants Spark Housing Crisis”. 

There is something deeply ironic about newspapers owned and controlled by the richest men in the world shifting attention away from their own wealth as they attempt to persuade people that it is, in fact, the least privileged people in the EU that are causing the greatest harm on a fiscal level.

As Iain Banks said, “...your society’s broken, so who should we blame? Should we blame the rich, powerful people who caused it? No, let’s blame the people with no power and no money and these immigrants who don’t even have the vote, yeah it must be their f**king fault.”

But it’s not just in Britain. 

I hear the same lazy arguments about immigration and attempts to reject the ever more critical refugee crisis here in Ireland as well. 

This usually boils down to three main points.

1. Complaints that ‘those people’ refuse to integrate properly.

From the wearing of burqas and hijabs to the celebration of Ramadan, many people seem genuinely affronted by the failure of immigrants and refugees to reject their own culture and religion once they set foot on Irish soil. 

It’s almost amusing considering the first move Irish emigrants have traditionally made in a new country is to create Little Irelands with Irish pubs and Guinness and diddly-eye music and to talk wistfully about how much they miss the Old Country.

2. Fear of terrorism.

Fear of Terrorism usually equates to a fear of Muslims. 

This conflation of Muslims (or anyone with brown skin) as terrorists and the rise of Islamphobia within Western culture is not only disturbing but it also incredibly dangerous as it is further isolating innocent Muslim people.

In doing so, we are politicising people who would have had no interest in extremist views before, recruiting more apprentices for ISIS than they could ever do by themselves. 

Furthermore, the figures would suggest that there are other issues that are worthy of our concern. 

From 2001-2013 404,496 lives in the US were claimed by gun violence.

In contrast, 3,380 deaths were by terrorism - including deaths within the states and overseas attacks targeting Americans.

3. We should look after our own first.

There are many people struggling in Ireland and of course I believe that we need to take care of the most vulnerable in our society. 

This is a relatively wealthy country. 

Coupled with the fact Ireland is not exactly vastly populated, it would seem that there should be no excuse for homelessness and the lack of social housing. 

However, I have noticed that many people who are vehemently against immigration saying ‘we need to look after our own’ are all too often the same people who decry those within the social welfare system as ‘parasites’ who are ‘bleeding the system dry’.

Most of the immigrants I know living in Ireland are hard workers, diligent, and are contributing a great deal to our society. They are not the problem. 

Nor are the refugees who are fleeing their own countries because of war, famine, genocide, the constant threat of rape; with just the clothes on their backs and despair in their hearts, asking us for protection. 

Post-Brexit, comparisons to Hitler and the rise of Fascism in 1930s Europe have been made (not unjustly in my opinion, Hitler was also democratically elected) and Eva Schloss, the stepsister of Anne Frank and a survivor of Auschwitz has been vocal about her fears around the refugee crisis. 

“More people than ever are being bystanders,” she has said. 

“We haven’t really learned anything. I’m depressed by the current situation.

“The experience of Syrian refugees is similar to what we went through.... I am very upset that today again so many countries are closing their borders. 

"Fewer people would have died in the Holocaust if the world had accepted more Jewish refugees.” 

The rhetoric in Nazi Germany was that the Jewish people were sub-human, they were ‘vermin’, thus inculcating in the German people a sense that Jewish lives were somehow less valuable than their own. 

How is this any different to a notorious and very popular newspaper columnist comparing refugees to ‘cockroaches’? 

That is, as the English musician Akala has commented, ‘a mandate for murder... The moment human beings become non-human, that is a mandate for murder’.

I can’t believe I have to say this but yes, refugees are human. They are not ‘other’, they are no different to us. 

They feel the same as we do, they grieve as much as we do. They have their dreams and hopes, the same as we do. 

Can you imagine if that was you? If you and your family were being bombed and tortured on a daily basis, looking at the world around you, wondering why no one would help. 

I keep thinking of that photo of the Syrian child, Alan Kurdi, lying drowned on a beach and the words of a Warsan Shire poem repeat in my head.

“...you have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land....”

Louise O’ Neill is from Clonakilty. Her latest novel, Asking For It, was named the overall book of the year at the Irish Book Awards



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