Refugee crisis: Irish volunteers are stepping in to help

‘Harnessing the voluntary effort as part of the Government’s policy response will not only lower the cost but also increase the success of the policy’

Hundreds of migrants guarded by police walk several miles along rail tracks towards the town of Szeged after breaking away from a collection point close to the Serbian border on September 8th, 2015 in Morahalom, Hungary. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Hundreds of migrants guarded by police walk several miles along rail tracks towards the town of Szeged after breaking away from a collection point close to the Serbian border on September 8th, 2015 in Morahalom, Hungary. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

 

The current refugee crisis has sparked a divided response. On the one hand (and at present it is more dominant), there is the desire to help; and on the other there is the inclination to hide behind fortress Europe and say it is not our problem. A common refrain is to ask “What about our own?”. The reality is that housing and homelessness have been problems in Ireland for decades.

The tragic deaths of people trying to seek refugee status in Europe have been relentless. People are tiring of traumatic scenes and are taking action themselves. Some have realised that it is not enough to just leave it to government to respond. In Ireland, last weekend a volunteer effort sprung into action with hundreds of people involved in sorting through donations in Dublin and Cork centres, which are hubs for donations throughout the country as part of Ireland Calais Refugee Solidarity.

Donations which could not be taken on the convoy to Calais are being given to local charities, so in a very practical way, people moved by the refugee crisis are helping those in need, both abroad and in Ireland. The response has been phenomenal. People are donating their time and money. Businesses have offered vans, trucks and storage spaces and other kinds of help.

The response by Hungary has been shocking, but most governments have been wrong-headed on this issue. For a long time, EU policy in different states has been formed with an eye to the far right. The emergence of the National Front in France, UKIP and other parties dragged the centre ground to the right. Hungary has a government of the far right, with the even further right Jobbik as the main opposition. These parties have ploughed fertile ground, which have echoed fears that people in different countries have in regards to immigration.

It took the sinking of 900 refugees and other migrants earlier this summer to spark a change in EU policy in relation to rescue. Since then, the Irish Navy has rescued more than 6,000 people in what will have been a difficult mission for those involved. It appears that it took the death of Aylan Kurdi to prompt change in policy in regards to accepting refugees. The ongoing difficulties in Calais has led to the establishment of an unofficial camp “the jungle” accommodating over 3,000. When the British Home Secretary paid a visit to Calais, it focused on the security aspect of the situation there to the complete neglect of the humanitarian issues.

Rather than tragedy being the catalyst for policy change, the contribution of volunteers is a more positive catalyst for change.

In the past week, as well as the efforts of Irish people, in addition to our Navy, many have responded in other countries too. Austrians got into their cars to give walking refugees a lift across the border from Hungary; and German citizens have offered accommodation. In Hungary citizens have been offering food and drink to those sleeping rough at the train stations in Budapest, while their government builds fences and camps to make it more difficult for people to claim asylum in Europe.

Thousands of people are literally dying to get into Europe but Ireland is far from the borders which act as a fortress to those from outside.

We should look to the response of ordinary people as the inspiration for a humane and effective policy response. More and more people are posting that they could offer spare rooms in their own houses to refugees. This might seem like naive sentiment but there is a wish to help and government is in a position to harness goodwill. The model of fostering can be adapted and applied to asylum seekers, whereby people could apply through the social services to become approved providers. Other models such as the hosting of the Special Olympics could be explored as a template to provide inspiration.

Announcements have been made regarding the utilisation of hotels and unused State building for accommodation of refugees. This may be necessary, but we must remember that direct provision was initially intended to be limited to six months and now it is recognised as a failed policy, which impacts negatively on people’s physical and mental health, education and work opportunities. Lessons must be learned from previous failed policies.

Segregating people who come to seek asylum can serve to breed suspicion and feeds fear. Harnessing the voluntary effort as part of the Government’s policy response will not only lower the cost but also increase the success of the policy.

Policy should be devised not only on the basis of what government can do but what all the people can do in response to the refugee crisis.

Garrett Mullan is Director of Show Racism the Red Card and is involved with Ireland Calais Refugee Solidarity

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