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There are few recent policy statements as chilling or as objectionable as last month’s declaration from the British Foreign Office that the UK will no longer support search-and-rescue operations to prevent impoverished African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean.
The we-wash-our-hands declaration was made because it has been suggested that those basic, humanitarian operations encourage more people to attempt the dangerous, often fatal, sea crossing. Apart at all from the callousness involved, the hypocrisy, from a country more or less built on immigration and colonialism, is astounding.
That so many of those trying to build a new life in Europe need to do so because of the legacy, among many other tragedies, of British imperialism just adds to the sinister cynicism of the announcement. That it was made by a Conservative government trying to protect its right flank from the even more shameless UKIP does not justify the contemporary to-hell-or-Connacht condemnation either.
In just one week this year, more than 700 people fleeing Africa or the Middle East were feared drowned in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, bringing the death toll this year to something round 3,000, the International Organisation for Migration has said. In the worst incident, as many as 500 migrants are believed to have died after people traffickers rammed their ship off Malta.
The scale of the problem was recognised recently when UN special representative for migration Peter Sutherland called on the newly installed European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to create a commission portfolio dedicated to the pressing issue of migration.
That Mr Juncker did not take that advice seems a missed opportunity as the growing gap between the rich and poor of Africa or the dispossessed of the Middle East — those who really do endure real, life-defining austerity — guarantees that the flow of determined people, people with little or no option but to move, from poor countries towards rich countries will accelerate no matter what David Cameron’s government suggests.
The urgency of the issue has also been recognised by US president Barack Obama who wants to change how America deals with immigrants, legal or otherwise. That he is prepared to jeopardise his relationship with the Republican-controlled senate to do so shows how unavoidable the issue is. Mr Obama is expected to order an end to the deportation of the parents of US-born citizens or legal residents and to issue them with work permits.
Up to 5m of the 11.4m illegal immigrants in the US are expected to benefit. However, that figure pales into something approaching insignificance when set against the widely accepted 230m-plus worldwide figure for immigration.
It is unfortunate though that we are not as blameless as we should be. Tens of thousands of migrants have been successfully integrated in Ireland but our treatment of asylum seekers is not as it should be. Like everyone else we need to do much more to prepare for an escalation in inward migration.
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