Máiréad Leen provides a personal response to the current Refugee Crisis in Europe.
TWO orange soles. For some reason, they captivated me today. Maybe it was because I couldn’t bear to draw my attention up to the feeble body of the small, dead child. Those two words should not be seen together, but they are, and in this current crisis, they are seen placed side by side far too often.
There are certain iconic images that the world will always remember, for different reasons; those who jumped from the Twin Towers during 9/11, the Napalm girl running naked after a bomb during the Vietnam war, the men who built the New York skyline canvas as they casually eat their lunch, Charles and Diana’s infamous wedding kiss. This is one of those pictures. Other pictures show the increasing desperation and panic around Europe. Pictures of children squeezing in through little train windows, heartbreakingly hopeful for escape, for trains that just take them towards more poverty in refugee camps. Babies lifted into the air by their fathers, tears streaming down their faces as their frantic parents will them not to be crushed in the ensuing panic. A father, arms spread, attempting to protect his family from police as they lie on the tracks; a protest that is quickly and violently stopped.
A simple statistic: Ireland have agreed to accept a measly three hundred migrants this year. Yes, you heard that correctly; 300. Germany are accepting one million. Roughly speaking, Germany has a population seventeen times the size of Ireland. By that measure, Germany should only accept 5100 citizens. By that count, Germany is roughly accepting at least 200 times the amount of migrants that we are for our size.
Since when did we become a nation of mé féiners? Did this last brutal recession harden our hearts against any empathy at all? In Germany, citizens are offering their sofas, laden down with teddy bears and food for these desperate human beings. In stark contrast, the British politician Peter Bucklitsch stated: ‘the little Syrian boy was well clothed & well fed. He died because his parents were greedy for the good life in Europe. Queue jumping costs’. They are not migrants. They are people. This is something we seem to have forgotten.
Ireland has received international criticism and condemnation for our lack of hard-hitting action. A particular noteworthy point is that Angela Merkel herself individually stated that Ireland is simply not doing its fair share to help these people. We are member of the European Union but not only that; we are members of the EU family. We accepted all the bailouts we needed like meek children, aware of the wrongdoing of so many bankers who ruined the country and whom we placed our trust in. Yet when we are the ones who are expected to help, we fail drastically. For the last seven years, we have been left rocked by the biggest financial crisis, arguably of all time. The taxpayer essentially suffered to help stabilise our country again. This stability is undoubtedly fragile and we are all well aware of that. Yet we can surely sacrifice a few home comforts to ensure that these victims, who have suffered more than enough, are helped? In Germany, town councils and abandoned industrial estates are being used to house refugees. We have more than enough ghost estates that are being wasted. The Germans themselves held an empathy march. An EMPATHY march, whilst the notorious Katie Hopkins called these people ‘cockroaches’.
A quote I read in an article for MSF recently stated: ‘I got lucky in the birth lottery’. And didn’t we all? We, as Irish citizens, have an absolute life of luxury in comparison. We do not sleep on dirty floors; we are not numbered, like the Czech officials this week decided to do, with the ghosts of Nazi soldiers surrounding them. Just stop and think about that. If we could get even a fraction of the indignation that the water charges evoked, we would be doing a lot more in this crisis. Even in the last week, we’ve been told that there is a housing ‘crisis’ for student accommodation. It strikes me, as I look at the image of this beautiful child lying face down in the sand, that we do not understand the term ‘crisis’ at all.
I’m not saying we’ve had it easy: the abuse scandal, the mass emigration, homelessness. Some poor souls in Ireland suffer dreadfully and that is not to be ignored either. This is not about comparing pain; it is about recognizing the pain of others.
Last night, as I lay in my warm bed, I could not get that little boy out of my mind and do you know what sprang to mind? A burning building. These people are screaming, shown by the poignant ‘Help, Europe!’ signs widely broadcast around the world. The fire brigade race to the scene. Everywhere, there is chaos. Hands are literally reaching through the flames. People will risk burning to death and jumping through the fire rather than staying in in the building with the threatening flames. Lesser of two evils? Stay in war-torn Syria or attempt the perilous journey across the ocean? Mná agus fir na hÉireann, these migrants are not risking their lives for benefits and a plush existence. They are risking this because, if they stay, they are facing almost certain death.
Back to my metaphor. The fire brigade race to the truck and grab the hose, the only lifeline for these people. They are there, just about to help, just about to save lives, when suddenly, they stop, abruptly. ‘What’s happening?’ the victims shout. ‘SAVE US!’ But the firefighters simply shake their heads. ‘We can’t. You’re not on our territory. You’re not our problem’. They pack up and drive away and get on with their cosy lives. Should we, the UN, the EU, anyone, not begin to tackle this issue? Bush invaded Iraq for oil, but no-one can invade Syria, with an outcome of saving lives?
Let us not forget the traffickers in this situation, who circle like vultures waiting for their prey. Migrants, with crumpled photos of loved ones in their pockets and university degrees rolled up in their socks, can pay up to €10,000 per person for the deadliest route in the world, with probably one of the highest mortality rates ever to be seen in living history.
Last week, 71 people were squeezed into a truck, where they met a gruesome end. This week alone, 750 people are feared to have drowned. Aylan left Turkey in the cover of night, surrounded by darkness. This little boy, his brother and his mother all died. Another pair of brothers also drowned. Essentially, two families wiped out; snuffed out like a light.
Then, on a larger scale, I cannot help but wonder about the circumstances of his death. He was washed ashore, along with his brother, on a beach that is a popular tourist destination. It is an incredibly busy place. Perhaps if it wasn’t this particular beach, a photo never would have been taken. Perhaps if this little boy had been washed ashore in the dead of night, a photo would never have been captured. Perhaps if medics and border control had arrived on this scene earlier, there would have been no little body to see. Perhaps. Or perhaps this is a sign from God? I believe in God, but whatever it is you believe in: fate, spirituality, human conscience; this little boy is a message to every single one of us. Clearly, seventy one people being found in an abandoned truck with no ventilation was not enough for us and perhaps we needed more to force some sort of action. The thing is that it never should have come to this. It should never have taken a little boy’s lifeless body to force some sort of action. Seventy one deaths, no, even one death or injury is more than enough.
Aylan is not even a child; at the age of three, he has barely left babyhood. Today, the children of Ireland who were Aylan’s age have finished their first week of playschool. Their lives are just starting in ways his never can. He will not be put to bed by his mother because, even if he did survive, she is now dead too. He will not play with toys because, even if he was alive, as a migrant, there are no toys to play with and there would be no older brother to play with. He will not be placed in a warm bed because for these children, there are no beds. I hope that he is in the arms of God, being gently cradled in ways that the oppressors of his homeland never did, in a way his parents could not when they were all seized by the icy grip of the Mediterranean, in ways that bureaucracy never gave him a chance to be. Rest in Peace; to all those who have met their watery grave this year, men, women and children, victims of persecution and oppression who shouted for help but were never answered.
Today, those two orange soles should be bouncing on grass and kicking footballs. They should not be covered in sand, drowned in water, sticking out of a mortuary rack.