EUROPE’S policy — our policy — on asylum seekers is a moral and political failure. It may, in time, become the catalyst for terrible social division. In time it will certainly be ranked among the great inhumanities the rich and secure inflicted on the destitute and powerless.
In an Irish context this has been confirmed by the Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions which yesterday reported that our direct provision system for asylum seekers is not fit for purpose and must be replaced.
In a wider European context the escalating death toll amongst refugees trying to escape tyranny by crossing the Mediterranean by any means confirms this breakdown of ethics. Thousands have already lost their lives trying to do no more than strive for even a sliver of the security and comfort we all demand and take for granted.
Ireland’s direct provision process was established 15 years ago and was intended as a short-term solution to the difficulties presented by a wave of asylum seekers. However, the Oireachtas committee found that one-in-five direct provision clients has been in the system for seven or more years. One person has been so detained for 11 years.
There are 4,360 people held in the system; one-third are children. They are not allowed to work and are given an allowance of €19.10 a week. For all practical purposes they are interned and impoverished. In effect our shameful — and tacitly racist — policy has been to ignore the problem and hope that it will just go away but a report from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) yesterday shows that policy is not just immoral but stupid as well.
The NRC found that each day of 2014 saw around 30,000 men, women and children forced to flee their homes because of conflict. Last year the number of displaced people rose by 11m to an astonishing and record 38m.
Six out of every 10 people displaced last year came from one of five countries: Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Nigeria. Syria is “the number one displacement country of this generation”, with 7.6m internally displaced and 4m refugees in other countries.
The prospect of mass, uncontrolled migration is a huge and sometimes a frightening challenge but it must be confronted because closing borders and cutting supports to rescue operations will not resolve the issue; negative responses will not turn the great tide of humanity determined to seek out a better life for themselves and their children.
The greatest human tragedy that has befallen this country — the Great Famine — has long faded from living memory but the wounds still ache. The fate endured by those driven onto coffin ships or transported to distant countries still cuts deeply.
It is too simple and disproportionate to say that those drowning in the Mediterranean are suffering the same hardships but the parallels are obvious. So too is at least part of the solution and at a moment when so many Irish moralists of different hues fight to command the high ground it seems more than hypocritical that Europe — and Ireland — seems unable to generate the moral outrage needed to confront this crisis.
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