Refugee crisis: From solidarity to political response

The responses to what is being dubbed as Europe’s ‘worst refugee crisis’ since World War II, have been both overwhelming and perplexing, ironic and at times contradictory. As millions of refugees pour out of Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea, to mention but three so-called ‘sending countries’, towards the fences, walls and shores of the Fortress Europe ghetto, Europeans have mobilised in their hundreds of thousands. The outpouring of empathy and solidarity by ordinary people throughout Europe, citizens and non-citizens alike, has been a turning point in the bottom-up response to the plight of so many people fleeing western-sponsored wars, state oppression and deprivation. At the same time the politics of fear and Islamophobia is also rearing its ugly head, as people shout against Europe letting in Muslim people who, they are saying, will damage the precious nature of so-called ‘European civilisation’.

While the Hungarian authorities, aided by Israeli anti-refugee technologies, are erecting fences, ordinary Europeans – including Hungarians, Austrians, Germans, Greeks, Czechs and many foreign volunteers, are assisting refugees not only with food, clothes and blankets, but also with train tickets to the Austrian borders and to freedom. Ordinary Germans are responding to their government’s announcement it will take in 800,000 refugees, even though, as Angela Merkel said, this would change forever the nature of German society, by offering homes to refugees, some of whom, ironically, have been housed in former concentration camps.

Many of us, led by the newly elected British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, have also taken to the streets in rallies of solidarity. In Dublin alone, after Saturday’s refugee support rally at the Spire, ENAR Ireland organised the impressive Let’s Create a Human Refugee Welcome gathering and aerial photograph on Sandymount Strand.

krac-12-septBut what does all this mean? In promising to accept some 4,000 refugees, will Ireland also end the despicable direct provision system and give all asylum seekers already in the system refugee status? Or will the DP system and deportations continue to prevail? Will incoming refugees be invited as ‘programme refugees’ and offered residency rights and eventual citizenship like former programme refugees, including the Hungarians, most of whom left Ireland in protest against their dire conditions, the Vietnamese, the Bahai’s, the Bosnians, the Kosovars? Or will they be isolated and housed in the inadequate direct provision centres, poorly managed by for-profit companies, and forced to live on bed, board and the miserable ‘comfort allowance’ of €19.10 per adult per week, and be disallowed to work and take third level courses?

The sympathy and solidarity displayed over the past few weeks might be short lived and meanwhile asylum seekers in Ireland continue to languish in direct provision centres, while the Minister of State at the Department of Justice has used the excuse of having to implement the recommendations of the working group on direct provision, which the government had already said it would not honour, as an excuse for not making any firm decisions as to the numbers and status of the refugees to be accepted by Ireland. At the same time, many people call to ‘look after our own’ homeless and poor as an excuse for not building an adequate political response to the refugee crisis.

Solidarity that does not take into account the lived experiences of refugees who are racialized as undeserving ‘economic migrants’ is simply not enough. The challenge facing antiracism activists and refugee support groups now is how to turn the outpouring of solidarity and empathy into a positive political response and invite significant numbers of refugees who, as we all know, will change Ireland for the better with their courage, determination and enterprise, just as Irish emigrants – desperate, courageous and enterprising – have changed the countries they moved to for the better.