Memet Uludag went to speak to a Syrian refugee who made it to Ireland and condemns the record of the Irish government on dealing with refugees.
It was the wrinkled hands of an elderly refugee, holding my hand firmly, while he was telling me his story, that made it truly real, what it means to be a refugee.
He told me of his journey, his fears and hopes, but most of all of his life in the past that now seems so long ago in a faraway place that is no more.
His journey, he called “was one of the few lucky ones”. One that is repeated a million times without a lucky ending. “The unlucky ones” he said, “are stuck either in Syria, or somewhere along the way. God help them”.
We talked about Syria, his family, his new life in Ireland and other things, but not much – hardly a few words – about the refugee deaths at sea. “It breaks my heart” he said, “We are lucky. It breaks my heart”.
As I left him his words were repeatedly playing in my mind: “At the age of 60, I didn’t know how to start a new life, learn a new language and so many other things. But I don’t complain, I must and I will. We are the lucky ones”.
He repeated the word ‘lucky’ a lot. I think he is right. What a shameful world it is, that one’s life, safety and future depend on luck.
The EU Refugee Resettlement Program, agreed in September 2014, had established a quota system to relocate 120,000 refugees (66,000 from Greece and Italy, 54,000 from Hungary). Ireland, along with the UK, had opted out of this program but offered to take 4000 refugees without committing to any specific timeline or schedule. Switzerland, Denmark and Norway had also offered to the take in some refugees. With the previously agreed number of 40,000 the total number to be relocated was to be. 160,000.
Hungary objected to the program and did not commit to taking any refugees. In response the EU froze the relocation of 54,000 from Hungary and therefore the actual number to be re-settled had been reduced to 66.000 instead of 120,000, thus reducing the total number to a tiny 106,000.
The EU program is already in disarray. There are now many more objections and disagreements from various other EU states who have a strong anti-refugee stand. Furthermore the relocation of 66,000 refugees has been significantly delayed, if not stalled, due to inaction of the EU governments. Since September, only 272 people from Italy and Greece, out of the initial total of 160,000 have been relocated. This equates to just 0.17% and 0.03% of the 1,008,616 asylum seekers who arrived by sea in 2015.
4 months on, with thousands of people living in various make shift refugee camps, trying to survive the winter, the EU Resettlement Program with its already tiny quota has in fact stalled before even starting.
With this speed it will take years to settle all of the 160,000 refugees.
The Syrian man was indeed right to call himself lucky.
Between 2000, the beginning of UNCHR Refugee Program, and September 2015, Ireland had resettled a tiny number of 1,314 UN registered refugees. The Syrian refugees who came last year as part of this program have been brought over from refugee camps in Lebanon.
Towards the end of 2015, 32 Syrian’s were taken in by Ireland.
The Irish government is in no hurry to settle the promised 4,000 refugees. In late 2015, the government, we were told, was going to send officials to Italy and Greece to individually interview, vet and select people according to a pre-determined set of criteria and bring them to Ireland.
In October 2015, the Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald had told that Irish officials to go to Italy to select first intake of refugees. It was promised that almost 2,500 were scheduled to come to Ireland before Christmas under new EU programme. In fact, only 32 came.
On top of not being implemented, the selection process in itself is a shameful one. The criteria are not based on the needs of the refugees but on their ‘suitability’ to Ireland, such as language, skills, historic links with the country etc. What this means is, ‘pick and choose your own refugee’. Basically, two people fleeing from the same place and from same threats could be dealt with differently, one, deemed to be ‘suitable’ and given protection, the other rejected and left in Italy, potentially to be deported.
Furthermore, unlike the people coming as part of the UNCHR refugee program, the EU refugees to be brought to Ireland have to apply for asylum and only if they are successful, be granted the refugee status. This means putting these people into the Direct Provision System (DPS) without the guarantee of long term protection. These people were to be, supposedly, fast tracked.
Ireland did not fulfill its promise for 2015 refugee settlement. But the same lazy attitude did not exist when Minister Fitzgerald rushed the International Protection Bill through the Houses of the Oireachtas, without much time for democratic debate.
Irish Refugee Council (IRC) described the bill as, “it may see asylum-seekers swiftly deported”. Sue Conlon of IRC said, “The outcome of passage of the Bill, as it stands, will lead to people being at risk of being returned to persecution or serious harm and refugees separated from family members”.
There are over 4.500 asylum seekers in Direct Provision Centres (DPC) in Ireland. The Working Group on Direct Provision System (DPS) has produced none of the results promised by Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin who was tasked with running the Working Group.
Despite promises, and hopes raised, the repeatedly proven to be inhumane and dysfunctional DPS was left untouched in the recommendations of the Working Group.
With the International Protection Bill giving the state further powers to fast tracked deportations; the DPS left untouched, 12 more Direct Provision Centres planned, and the virtually non-existent resettlement process, Ireland has taken its deserved place in the ‘shame list’ of EU states. It is clear that this government is not going to do anything significant to bring the promised numbers to Ireland before the next general elections.
The EU has repeatedly congratulated itself for being so generous and taking in 160,000 refugees. This number is not only a fake one but the timeline to settle people is uncertain.
There is no transparency on what the Irish and other EU states are doing. There are no deadlines or measures to validate the progress of the refugee resettlement.
Ireland has a very low acceptance rate for asylum applications. Historically it is one of the lowest in the EU.
Recently, the EU and Turkey have signed a refugee deal, known as the ‘€3 Billion Deal’. This comes on top of the previously signed Readmission Agreement.
Deal with Turkey
The International Protection Bill, and the arrangement put in place with Turkey will enable all European states to deport back the refugees who crossed into Europe from Turkey and failed in their asylum applications.
Furthermore, the deal with Turkey, with the assistance from Turkey, is designed to create much tighter ‘Fortress Europe’ borders to stop the refugees.
The current refugee crisis did not start in 2014. It began in 2011. There are now millions of Syrian refugees in countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and other North African states. There are also – still – hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the post-war conditions and ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The conditions in refugee camps in above host countries are getting worse by day. People outside the camps live in dire conditions, without the hope of going back to Syria. These are the reasons why refugees started to come to Europe.
More than a million refugees crossed into Europe in 2015. More than 800,000 arrived in Greece. Of those, a huge percentage came via Turkey. Hence the urgency by the EU to make a deal with Turkey. It is simply to stop the refugees, not to look after them.
Ireland is not a champion of human rights. For a long time the Irish government played with numbers to be settled. Given the progress to date, the final figure of 4000 refugees to be settled is meaningless.. The Irish government consistently didn’t play a humanitarian role at EU level and at refugee summits. It did not press for EU to act. More than 15 years ago, the Direct Provision System was put in place as a temporary measure. Today it is clear that it plays a crucial rule in Ireland’s inhumane refugee/asylum process.
Today, the way the Irish government deals with the asylum seekers here and the refugees in Europe is an embarrassment to the history of its people.
Richard Boyd Barrett TD, in his speech in the Dáil said,
“The Government should be utterly ashamed of itself for the Bill and for bringing it to the Dáil on international human rights day. The Labour Party should be especially ashamed of itself, as its members parade around as champions of equality, but they will support a Bill which is regressive, cruel and draconian with regard to some of the most vulnerable people in the world. It is deeply ironic that a Bill such as this could be put forward when we have a disaster in Syria which has forced half the country’s population to flee in desperate circumstances. They have been herded into camps surrounded by barbed wire in Greece and elsewhere, they have drowned in the Mediterranean and they are desperately in need of assistance and refuge.
What we should have is a Bill which offers a compassionate, generous and independent system of asylum which does away with the utter scandal of direct provision and gives rights to asylum seekers, particularly to their children, prioritises them, gives them the support they need and gives them the right to work and participate in society. All these things which should be in the Bill, especially at this time, are not in the Bill. Instead what we have is a Bill which is about fast-tracking cruel deportations, making them easier to carry out, with none of the safeguards necessary to vindicate the rights of some of the most desperate and vulnerable people in the world. It is utterly shameful.”