Breda O’Brien: Could Ireland become the fairest little country for migrants?

Images from ‘Children of Men’ are eerily similar to current television news broadcasts, down to the cages and the barbed wire

In Alfonso Cuarón's film Children of Men, set in a dystopian 2027, women can, for some mysterious reason, no longer can have babies, and societies around the world have begun to break down.

“Only Britain soldiers on,” as the government’s propaganda puts it. Britain has become a police state, corralling in massive camps the illegal immigrants who have fled from chaos elsewhere and occasionally casually bombing them.

They are known as ’fugees, and they are everywhere, including in cages at train stations, but yet, somehow are invisible to the depressed Britons who struggle to maintain a facsimile of normal life.

The film’s images are eerily similar to current television news broadcasts, down to the cages and the barbed wire.

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Hungary is building fences, and this week bodies were found in an abandoned container lorry in Austria.

In Ireland we have highly conflicted attitudes to migration. We applaud the courage of the crews of LÉ Eithne and LÉ Niamh, but imagine if instead of just picking people up they were bringing them home to Ireland?

You can only imagine the protests. We are very happy to contribute to charities that will help with the problem somewhere out there, but we baulk at the idea of having the problem nearer to home.

So, for example, aside from activists in secular and faith-based NGOs, there has been little protest about the conditions in which asylum seekers have been living in Ireland. So-called direct provision amounts to little more than institutionalised, humiliating dependency.

Speaking to Fr Josep Buades, a Spanish Jesuit who works in Valencia for CeiMigra, a research and assistance centre which focuses on the integration of migrants, I learned that in Spain it is extremely difficult to obtain refugee status.

The system is also considered slow, because it can take three or four years. (In Ireland, as of February 16th, 2015, there were 7,937 people in the system, of whom 55 per cent had been there for five years or more.) But the key difference is that, after six months, asylum seekers in Spain can work and live normal lives.

Naturally, the recession has affected job prospects, but there is no question of people being confined in reception centres, without the right even to cook for their families, much less the right to work.

Working group

In Ireland, a working group met for seven months to prepare a report on how to improve Ireland’s protection system. The resulting proposals include a single application process to replace the labyrinthine system we now have.

It recommends increasing the pittance that asylum seekers receive. A subcommittee led by Eugene Quinn of the Jesuit Refugee Service also produced a thorough costing of improvements to the system.

But there is no will to implement the proposals. While there has been some progress regarding those who have received permission to remain but cannot leave the reception centres, other key changes appear to have been put on the long finger.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Minister of State with responsibility for new communities, who was trumpeting that he was going to make vast changes, has gone very quiet recently.

There are no votes in fair treatment for asylum seekers. It may even lose votes. It still remains the right thing to do to implement the working group’s sane and moderate changes.

The international asylum- seeking system emerged during the Cold War, and was never designed to deal with today’s mass refugee outflows and migratory movements.

There are problems with the 1951 Geneva convention, including that exile is seen as a solution to the problems of refugees. What about the right not to be forced to migrate? Or the right to a dignified existence in your own country?

Also, today it is no longer possible to draw a bright line between political refugees and economic migrants, with the latter being seen as undeserving abusers of the system.

How utterly bland the phrase "economic migrant" is. It can encompass an Irish person seeking work in Australia, and a mother of five working her way up through Africa for perhaps years, and finally arriving at the Mediterranean.

She is desperate enough to secure passage for herself and her children on a leaky tub, knowing death by drowning is a real possibility. If that is not grounds for refuge, what is?

There needs to be an expansion of legal means of immigration for people in situations such as hers, even if she were only allowed to enter a country for a number of years. And while it needs to happen on an international level, why could Ireland not lead the way?

Of course there are people who will attempt to abuse the system, including radical Islamists, drug dealers and rapists. That is why we need a robust system with speedy decisions and speedy repatriation. We also need more generosity. Would it not be wonderful if Ireland aspired to be the best little country in the world for fairness to those who are forced to flee?