Europe’s current refugee crisis has been dubbed the largest since WWII, with a record number of 107,500 asylum seekers crossing the EU’s borders in July.
According to the UNHCR, one in every 122 people in the world is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. Between the first quarters of 2014 and 2015, there was an 86 per cent increase in the amount of people claiming asylum in Europe.
Kosovars, Afghans and Syrians like the Kurdi family made up half of the asylum seekers.
According to Wexford man Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director for Amnesty International, we need to understand why these people are fleeing their home countries.
‘A lot of people use the term ‘migrant’ to describe these people. They aren’t migrants coming over here to find a better job or find a better life. They are people fleeing persecution and barbarity,’ he said.
David Williams, Manager of Media Relations with GOAL and another Wexford native, believes that people need to make the distinction, though he feels that recent media attention regarding the issue is increasing awareness.
‘People are beginning to distinguish between economic migrants and refugees,’ he said. ‘Some people come into a country looking to earn money and send it home, and that’s fine. Syrian refugees fall into a different category. It is important not to mix them up. People need to know that these refugees have no choice.’
The decision of these people to take perilous journeys with their families highlights the sense of desperation that pervades their communities.
’12 million people have been displaced from their homes in Syria,’ said Mr. Williams. ‘They are living in old school buildings and mosques and some have no shelter at all.’
According to Mr. O’Gorman, these people should not have to resort to such dangerous means to find security.
‘Why were these people in the sea at all? If Europe provided safe and legal routes to people who are entitled under law to protection and asylum, we wouldn’t see the Mediterranean turning into a graveyard. It has been a graveyard for a number of years.’
Although he does feel that the EU have responded to the crisis, he does not believe that the correct measures have been taken.
‘The EU has reacted,’ he said. ‘The reaction has been to put up walls to prevent people from getting in here in the first place. I think their reaction has been disgraceful, a sham.’
Former Wexford-based MEP Avril Doyle also feels that no real progress has been made to solve the refugee crisis.
In 2001, the issue was tragically brought home to the local community, when the bodies of eight refugees were found in a container in Wexford Business Park. According to Ms. Doyle, there has been a ‘lack of progress in solving the problem causing the people to flee.’
‘There would appear to be a lack of resolve to sit down and talk,’ she said. ‘Only through talk will we resolve war.’
Despite these sentiments, Mr. O’Gorman believes that there is a need to acknowledge the positive work that has been done by Ireland in these countries, citing the efforts of the Irish Naval Service.
Operations carried out to date by LE Eithne and LE Niamh have involved the recovery of over 6,000 refugees and the rescue operation is set to continue as LE Samuel Beckett takes over from the LE Niamh at the end of September.
‘We at Amnesty have been providing humanitarian aid to these people for a number of years so that these people can stay in their neighbourhoods,’ said Mr. O’Gorman. ‘That’s what these people really want; they don’t want to flee.’
GOAL have also been running a programme in Syria since 2012, the biggest programme in GOAL history. Last week, they also launched a new campaign, titled ‘Now You Know’.
‘We are trying to let more people know about the conflict in Syria,’ said Mr. Williams. ‘We have put up a petition calling on EU leaders to do more in terms of the refugees and put pressure on leaders globally to solve the problem.’
Although Ireland has so far agreed to take in 600 refugees, this figure is expected to increase.
According to Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, the number of refugees admitted by Ireland may treble following an emergency meeting of the European Commission next Monday, September 14.
Calls for the government to offer refuge to more than 600 people are widespread.
At the time of writing, over 28,000 signatures were on an online petition by Uplift calling on Taoiseach Enda Kenny “to commit to allowing thousands not hundreds of refugees seek refuge in Ireland”.
Despite strong support, there has been a small amount of public opposition, with some saying that we need to give priority to domestic issues.
Colm O’Gorman recognises that Irish problems such as the homelessness crisis must be acknowledged, but he feels that ‘the reality cannot be ignored.’
‘We can’t close our eyes and ears to what is going on,’ he said. ‘We understand emigration in face of crisis. We have a historic understanding of it.’
Avril Doyle is optimistic that Ireland will respond to the crisis but she believes that efforts need to be made immediately.
‘We have to start talking,’ she said. ‘It would be a push in the right direction. Otherwise we could be looking at it for years to come.’
The image of young Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach, struck a chord here in Wexford as elsewhere around the world, leaving many feeling helpless in the face of such a huge problem.
However, local efforts are being made which allow people in the Wexford community to lend their generosity.
One example is the efforts of Gary and Nicky O’Brian who are accepting donations at the People Support Centre on Mary’s Lane in Wexford town which will be delivered to refugees in Calais.
Accepted items include tents, clothes, toys and books, though food is not currently being taken in. According to Nicky, the campaign has already received a huge response.
‘It is unreal,’ she said. ‘We are already running out of space.’
She is urging anybody with donations to get in touch.
Among the other ways to get involved is Uplift’s “pledge a bed” campaign – a national campaign which has already seen 63 beds being offered in County Wexford.
(First published in the Wexford People: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.wexfordpeople.ie/news/sheer-desperation-of-migrants-31516371.html)