We have been watching in anguish as the latest horrifying chapter in Afghanistan’s history is played out before our eyes: children, women and men running in terror as military forces come swarming into their cities, their streets, their homes; people so desperate to get out of the country that they cling to departing aircraft.
Our hearts are in our mouths when we think of our own citizens who may be trapped in a country whose future is so uncertain, whose people are terrified. The safe arrival of each home-coming Irish citizen from Afghanistan is an enormous relief not only to their family and friends but to the whole nation. Our hearts go out to Afghanis living in Ireland, who are desperately hoping that their relatives back home are safe.
We have an opportunity now, as we start to emerge, battered, from the pandemic, to reinvent ourselves as a people committed to international as well as national solidarity
Irish people have not always been as welcoming to outsiders as we like to think we are. We can be suspicious of refugees, of people of different culture, creed, sexuality, colour, people speaking different languages, honouring different traditions from our own. But even though we often fall short, we do, as a people, value community, and we hold family ties very dear.
We have an opportunity now, as we start to emerge, battered, from the pandemic, to reinvent ourselves as a people committed to international as well as national solidarity. If ever we needed solidarity and compassion for people beyond our own immediate communities, we need those values now, because they form the bedrock, the sure ground from which we can develop plans and swing into action to meet this crisis.
As we watch events in Afghanistan on the news, we are moved to want to play our part, in whatever way we can, in alleviating the suffering we see. The danger is that we become overwhelmed and feel helpless in the face of such human misery.
But we are not helpless. Individually, we can keep ourselves informed; we can put pressure on Government; we can support international humanitarian organisations in their response to this crisis. We may be a small nation, but we are a nation, for all our faults, with a big heart. We are a nation of compassionate communities to whom it is natural to come together in times of stress to support one another – and also to support newcomers to our country. There are, for example, community sponsorship programmes across the country that organise host families for newly arrived refugees – the beginnings of positive social integration.
Initiatives like this show us that, together, we can harness our compassion into real action in this crisis also. The Irish Refugee Protection Programme has a good track record of supporting and resettling refugees in Ireland, but it needs more support and additional staffing if it is to be able to give a lead in the response to this crisis. It is up to all of us to demand that Government funds this programme adequately.
Since the current crisis erupted, the Irish State has committed to expediting family reunification applications for Afghan nationals already based in Ireland, so that they can bring their families here to join them. In the Immigrant Council of Ireland we know at least of 12 who are suffering unendurable stress and anguish about the danger to their families in Afghanistan, and this commitment by the Government has brought them some relief. We need to see this commitment in action and we need to have a family reunification programme that is more humane.
As a small country with the great privilege of a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations, Ireland has shown strong humanitarian leadership
Our Government has also committed to bringing a further 150 Afghan refugees to Ireland. This is a disappointing figure when set against the images we have all seen of desperate Afghans fighting their way to get into the airport and on to departing planes. The Irish people need urgently to communicate to Government that we want to do and must do more. The Covid-19 pandemic meant that Ireland was able to accept very much reduced numbers of refugees over the last year and a half. We should be in a position to offer at least a thousand of these unfilled places to Afghan refugees. It is the very least we can do.
The State has a sorry record of dragging its heels with respect to international protection, the resettlement of refugees, family reunification, residency and citizenship for migrants. There are endless backlogs in the processing of applications and hundreds of people are forced to live in a direct provision limbo, sometimes for years, with no opportunity to integrate into Irish society. This is not good enough. It never was, and now, as we come face to face with this international crisis, we have an opportunity to reform how we receive and meet the needs of migrants and refugees in this country.
We can start by expediting the usually slow and tedious processes in the case of refugees from Afghanistan, but we need to address the problem generally also and make our reception of people arriving here in crisis more humane. In particular, we need to broaden the definition of family membership so that families can be reunited more easily.
As a small country with the great privilege of a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations, Ireland has shown strong humanitarian leadership. Taking measures also at home to improve our welcome for refugees can only enhance our international credibility. We need to take this challenge on, and we need to do it now.
Sr Stanislaus Kennedy is founder of the Immigrant Council of Ireland and Focus Ireland