Migrant crisis: It’s a question of human rights – not charity

‘Another EU summit is not required to resolve this situation, and the Irish Government does not need to wait for further requests for assistance’

A young migrant girl holds up a handmade sign outside Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary, September 3rd. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

A young migrant girl holds up a handmade sign outside Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary, September 3rd. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

 

Minister for Defence Simon Coveney has said that Ireland’s response to the current refugee crisis in Europe is, and has been, a generous one. There is no doubt that the contribution of the Irish Naval Service, in saving thousands of lives, has been hugely significant. The decision to continue the mission, and to deploy the LÉ Samuel Beckett, is very welcome. This is a limited response, however.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has registered more than four million Syrian refugees as “persons of concern” falling within its mandate. Almost one quarter of those are children. With such numbers of people seeking protection, offering to host just over 1,000 refugees over a 2½ year period is far from generous.

It is also troubling to hear repeated references to Ireland’s generosity in the face of this crisis. Offering protection to people fleeing systemic human rights violations is not an act of charity. It is a human rights imperative, a matter of legal and moral obligation. Simon Coveney rightly cautions that the Government must be ready to provide accommodation and services to refugees before committing to increasing numbers. He is, of course, correct, but if there is no political will to take these steps, then such obstacles will not be overcome.

The concern to distinguish between genuine refugees and economic migrants, is also troubling. It is not the role of Government Ministers to determine whether a protection claim is well founded. We do not know how many of those who have died seeking to cross the Mediterranean were seeking asylum from persecution, or simply a better place in the world (to paraphrase the post-war Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt). Their right to seek and to enjoy asylum – a cornerstone of our human rights regime – was not protected by European governments. Neither was their right to be protected against abuse by unscrupulous traffickers.

As a matter of law, Ireland is required to prevent and combat human trafficking, an egregious human rights violation. The 2005 Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings, requires states to adopt a human rights based approach to the fight against human trafficking. This includes taking appropriate measures to enable migration to take place legally, so as to reduce vulnerability to abuse. This legal obligation is frequently ignored by states. Yet, it is and will be critical to preventing further deaths on Mediterranean crossings.

As another European summit approaches, concern has been expressed that freedom of movement within the European Union is now under threat. This freedom was always limited for third country nationals and refugees within Europe. Juxtaposed, as it is, against an expanding “Fortress Europe”, freedom of movement has been for many no more than a distant and fragile hope.

It is timely to remind ourselves of the freedoms that lie at the heart of the greater European project. The Preamble to the Charter of Fundamental Rights declares the Union as founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity. Those values are now fundamentally threatened by the construction not of shelters, but of walls and barbed wire fences.

The European Convention on Human Rights, adopted in 1950, against the backdrop of mass forced displacement in Europe, proclaims the realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms as at the heart of the Council of Europe’s very raison d’être. In its judgment in the case of Khalaifa & Ors v Italy, handed down on September 1st, the European Court of Human Rights reminded Italy that the increased responsibilities that come with immigration do not displace states’ obligations to effectively protect the human dignity of all persons. These obligations apply to all states, not just those at the coal face of this crisis.

Addressing root causes of the refugee crisis, as the Taoiseach has advocated, is essential. There is no quick or easy solution, however, to the conflicts and systematic human rights violations that we are witnessing in Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. The imperative to address root causes, does not discharge us of our human rights responsibility to provide protection to those now displaced.

The proposal to expand the list of so-called “safe countries of origin”, to facilitate fast-tracking of asylum claims and a speedy removal of asylum seekers, fails to address the core issues at the heart of this crisis – Europe’s lack of solidarity, its failure to agree a fair and comprehensive resettlement programme and its faltering commitment to the right to seek and to enjoy asylum. Eritrea, Syria, Afghanistan, are not and cannot be designated as safe countries of origin. As the broken Dublin system continues to fail, Europe appears to be in denial.

Writing on the plight of refugees post second World War, Hannah Arendt reminded us that more than freedom and justice is at stake, when “belonging to the community into which one is born is no longer a matter of course and not belonging no longer a matter of choice.” This extremity, is the situation of people deprived of human rights, deprived in her words, of the right to have rights.

Another EU summit is not required to resolve this situation, and the Irish Government does not need to wait for further requests for assistance. What is required is a much greater act of solidarity, and a willingness to defend and vindicate the rights of very desperate people – refugees and migrants.

Siobhán Mullally, Professor of Law, University College Cork and Vice-President of the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action Against Trafficking.

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