Ireland: Best little country for plucking refugees out of the sea

We are slow to take in refugees but dispatch rescue ships with great gusto

All at sea: the price tag of a ship like the recently launched LE Samuel Beckett is €48 million, which is also the estimated cost to Ireland of making good on its promise to accept 4,000 Syrian refugees by September 2017.

All at sea: the price tag of a ship like the recently launched LE Samuel Beckett is €48 million, which is also the estimated cost to Ireland of making good on its promise to accept 4,000 Syrian refugees by September 2017.

 

The Taoiseach says we need a hospital ship. Or to be more exact a “a multipurpose vessel equipped with a fully functioning hospital”. The new ship will allow the Naval Service “help in war and conflict situations”, according to Kenny who threw his weight behind the project – which is included in the White Paper on defence – on a visit to Galway this week.

His enthusiasm is understandable. He was in Galway to commission the LÉ William Butler Yeats, the newest Naval Service vessel. Her sister ship, the LÉ James Joyce, returned from a mission to the Mediterranean Sea a few weeks ago having rescued 2,500 migrants adrift on various boats and rafts during her three-month deployment.

The LÉ James Joyce was the fifth Naval Service vessel to be sent to the Mediterranean since the migrant crisis erupted and, all told, some 12,410 souls have been plucked from the sea by the Irish ships. The LÉ Samuel Beckett is currently on station.

It has been a humanitarian action of which we can all be proud. It has also been a godsend for our political masters who are twisting the wind over how to respond to the migrant crisis that has engulfed Europe.

Politicians of every hue turn up on the quayside to welcome the Naval Service ships home. These occasions are the political equivalent of catnip. What politician would not want to be associated with the feel-good vibe of a small country doing its bit – punching above its weight on the world stage. These self-congratulatory jamborees lend themselves to that particular strain of Irish hubris; the best small country in the world for . . . picking people out of the sea.

Vessels vs refugees

And the best bit of all about these quayside welcome homes? There is not a troublesome refugee in sight.

The deployment of Irish vessels has become some sort of smokescreen for the fact we seem to have completely dropped the ball on the other side of the equation: looking after migrants once they have been rescued and sought asylum in Europe.

This week, Kenny said it was “his wish” the new ship would be built to serve in humanitarian crises. It was in “keeping with our rich tradition of charity and volunteering” and the ships were bringing “not just hope and comfort, but life itself to the migrant men, women and children pulled from the sea”.

You can’t help but notice the absurdity of a Taoiseach who has refused to show any personal leadership on the issue of resettling refugees wanting to buy a new ship so that we can make our selves feel good by rescuing more of them – just to then dump them in Italy and Greece.

In one of those happy coincidences that columnists love, the price tag of a ship such as the recently launched LÉ Samuel Beckett is €48 million, which is also the estimated cost to Ireland of making good on its promise to accept 4,000 Syrian refugees by September 2017.

Sympathy vs action

This coincidence rather neatly addresses any argument to the effect that Ireland has too many problems of its own and can’t afford to take in any refugees. But, in truth, nobody you might take seriously has ever really tried to make that argument.

In fact the interesting thing is that nobody of any consequence ever made any argument at all for not accepting refugees. According to the International Rescue Committee, we are the most welcoming country in Europe for Syrian refugees. Some nine out of 10 people surveyed in Ireland last August expressed some degree of sympathy towards refugees from Syria.

But as of the end of September, Ireland had accepted only 439 refugees under the various schemes operated by the EU since October 2015, according to the European Commission. At the current rate, there is no prospect of hitting the 2017 target.

The official explanation for the delay is operational issues in Greece and Italy and also the migrants themselves who are reluctant to co-operate with the registration process. Delegations have been dispatched to Greece but nothing seems to happen.

The lack of any meaningful public pressure has without a doubt contributed to the general lack of urgency on the behalf of our politicians. The political upside is clearly limited and the risks of some sort of negative reaction once refugees are here in significant numbers is real enough.

It seems that it is not so much a case that we don’t want to take them. It is more that we just can’t be bothered.

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