Photos: Holly Shortall sent us these snaps of people sorting donations for Calais and working to build a shelter for a pregnant woman in the camp.
Jamie Goldrick tries to suss out the reason for Ireland’s pitiful response to the most recent refugee crisis and discovers a state that has been stuck in a cycle of perpetual hypocrisy since its formation.
This country is no stranger to emigration, at its highest point only three fifths of those born here stayed. The others left without skills and mostly from the poorest parts of the country. For every 100 migrants that left, only six returned. Millions of Irish have left these shores in search of a better life and it’s still happening, there are over 200,000 less twenty-somethings in Ireland today compared to six years ago, one in six Irish born people live abroad.
Currently on the foot of the largest forced migration of people since World War Two, the Irish government has agreed to take in 4000 refugees (plus additional scope for family reunification) with Irish officials headed over to Italy at the end of October to “pick” the first wave of refugees, how very decent of them.
There are many parallels between both waves of emigration, the feeling of being forced to leave your home, to be ripped from your social context, possibly from your family and community is timeless, it has no borders. The desperation of people travelling under duress has, and always will be open to unscrupulous racketeers willing to make a quick profit.
The notorious currency scams that many an American-bound Irish emigrant in Liverpool fell for of the mid-1800’s can be compared to the scams that many refugees dealing with traffickers face on their arduous route into Europe.
Activist Caoimhe Butterly laid down some home truths about conditions on the ground facing refugees passing through today’s Europe:
“Parents carry small children in their arms, toddlers on hips, and on their backs rucksacks containing possessions salvaged from lives interrupted. Narin, a teacher from Mosul, hesitates as she and her group of survivors, Iraqi Yazidis and Kurds, approach the lone border police car stationed at the point where a corn field in Serbia becomes, a few metres onwards, a corn field in Croatia. ‘Every step away from Iraq, from the massacres of our people and those we left behind, has been so difficult”.
The similarities in the resolve and determination of both eras are plain to see, yet how they are represented could not be more different. The image of Aylan Kurdi, dead, face down in the sand may be the defining image of this wave of emigration. Contrast this with that of Annie Moore, the first passenger to pass through Ellis Island Immigration Center, in both statues of her in Cobh and New York she stands tall and proud with with her two young brothers in hand, a symbol of optimism and hope. This image is part of the Irish story, the other a European problem.
In keeping with the legacy of emigration from Ireland, and the stark human similarities of the displacement of large scale populations, is there any particular reason that there has been no solid political movement on the issue?
Sitting Kerry T.D. Michael Healy Rae, from a region no stranger to emigration, once described the majority of asylums seekers as “blackguards, hoodlums and delinquents”; this hypocrisy is endemic and not just confined to vote-rigging reality TV stars. Former Fine Gael Mayor of Naas Darren Scully famously refused to represent “immigrants coming from African countries” and the great leader Enda Kenny even asked Barack Obama for an amnesty on the undocumented Irish in the States whilst seemingly content to keep asylum seekers here in the degrading conditions of direct provision.
You couldn’t make it up.
All of this is before we even attempt to analyse our role in facilitating the mass exodus from the Middle East through allowing troops and weapons to stop at Shannon.
I spoke to retired Trinity College Professor Ronit Lentin on the conflicting and hypocritical position that the Irish State has had.
“In the best tradition of Irish exceptionalism, according to which the Irish regard themselves as victims rather than perpetrators of racism, the underlying reason for Ireland’s less than generous response to admitting refugees must be understood against the less than illustrious history of Ireland’s refugee policy record”.
Ronit argues that Irish society has always imagined itself as monocultural, but this is simply not true.
”Ireland has always experienced waves of immigration, from Vikings, Normans, Saxons and Scots to British settler-colonials and more recently Chinese, Italian and Jewish migrants, rendering Ireland truly multi-ethnic”.
This, however, had not led to an open door policy towards, say, Jewish refugees during the Nazi era, when, between 1933 and 1946, neutral Ireland admitted only 60 Jewish people”.
Stripping asylum seekers of their dignity is not a new phenomenon. This trend which today is embodied by Direct Provision can even be traced to events over 50 years ago as Ronit continues: “In 1956, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, a small group of Hungarian refugees were housed in a disused army barracks in County Limerick, but after just a year, during which they staged a hunger strike in protest against their conditions, only a handful remained in the state”.
Now today Ronit outlines how “private for-profit companies run the direct provision centres at huge expense to the Irish taxpayer, while asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are forced to exist on bed and board and a paltry ‘comfort allowance’ of €19.10 per adult per week, not increased since 2001”.
That is not to say that the stance of the Irish government is representative of that of the Irish people, there has been massive reaction to the plight of the refugees and numerous shows of solidarity from greater Irish society ranging from the aerial photographs proclaiming “Refugees welcome” on Sandymount Beach to numerous fundraisers that are happening all over the country and organised collections headed over to Europe.
Bags of sorted donations filled the whole space from floor to ceiling at Jigsaw, one of the collection points for Dublin Calais Refugee Solidarity. Holly Shortall talks of its formation:
“The group was set up due to the many like-minded people in Dublin who just wanted to find some way of helping. As reports of the conditions in Calais started to circulate in the media, more and more people were looking for a way to get involved. We meet up weekly and we also have members who are still in the donation warehouses every weekend, working toward getting this aid to those across Europe who desperately need it”.
She describes the reaction to the donation drive: “In terms of both monetary and clothing donations, the response was overwhelming. Our convoy drove over to Calais with several four-tonne trucks full of clothes, medical supplies, tents, sleeping bags. The list is endless. Ireland has really shown its compassion in the last few months and continues to do so”.
With Winter looming, the government purposefully sits on it’s hand as up to 10,000 refugees a day cross into Europe, Ireland has pledged to take just 4000 of these, a pitiful third of a day’s traffic. One might reason that this State should be the first to step up to the plate but as Ronit Lentin explains “the legacy of Ireland’s migratory past clearly holds no moral sway even though none of us can ignore the waves of desperate and determined humans whose right to move across borders Ireland must uphold”.
This doesn’t look like it will change anytime soon as Holly adds “the government seem content to do whatever it takes to take them through the next general election, with little or no regard to what’s going on in Calais, Lesvos and beyond. Any help that has come from Ireland has been solely undertaken by the people”.