Treat all our refugees as cherished guests

DESPITE a welcome shift in attitude on the refugee crisis at political level across Europe and in this country, it is demonstrably clear that Ireland is ill-prepared to cope with an influx of refugees from Middle East war zones and Africa seeking asylum here. Were it not for the compassion shown by German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has convinced Germany to take in as many as 800,000 Syrian refugees this year, it is doubtful other EU leaders would have budged.

Clearly, the Fine Gael/Labour coalition has been embarrassed by Ms Merkel and also by public opinion, which as usual is way ahead of political strategy, into accepting what Taoiseach Enda Kenny said “may be more” than the 1,800 figure mentioned yesterday by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. The burning questions are where will they be accommodated and how will they be treated by officialdom?

Already, according to the Irish Refugee Council, there are around 6,000 asylum seekers in this country, some 2,000 of them children, living under the so-called Direct Provision system described by Equality Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin as “broken” and “not fit for purpose”. They live in overcrowded and often unhygienic conditions, sharing basic facilities with other families, sometimes with an entire family sharing one room. Some have been waiting for years for a decision on their case, barely existing on a pittance of a weekly allowance of €19.10, not allowed to work, crammed into a confined living space. According to the Refugee Council, such conditions militate against a natural family environment.

Yet, from the perspective of refugees who broke out of a Hungarian border camp and walked westward, or those who survived the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea, Ireland may seem like paradise. Clearly, however, all is not rosy here. While there may not be refugee camps in this country at present, there is every likelihood they will now be established at army barracks.

This promises to be a long-term crisis and one that will not be easily resolved. It is vital for the Government to begin planning immediately to receive more refugees. It is also imperative that applications for asylum be processed as a matter urgency. Meanwhile, it is a damning comment on Ireland that the administration had avoided responsibility by opting out of the quota system and must now rejoin it.

President Higgins has appealed to the public to respond positively to this grave humanitarian crisis. People, he said, should not be afraid of an influx of refugees fleeing persecution. As if anticipating that call, more than 2,000 people have already pledged to open their homes and provide more than 6,000 beds for refugees as a temporary solution to their plight.

When all is said and done, it is important to remember that refugees are real people who have overcome impossible obstacles to find a safe haven in Ireland. They should be welcomed as cherished guests because, as the father of the three-year-old toddler who drowned on a Turkish beach succinctly put it, this unprecedented wave of refugees had not come to Europe for sanctuary before the outbreak of war, bloodshed and persecution in their own country.

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