Every day the news is full of reports on the refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands of people flee their homes and attempt to reach Europe. Countries such as Hungary are building barriers to stop them and scenes of police holding back refugees fill the news. There are scores of desperate people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean in rickety rafts. 3,573 have died trying to cross the sea in the last year, roughly ten people per day. Most people are confused about the crisis and what it means, so hopefully this will shed some light on the issue and answer some common questions.
What caused the crisis?
Roughly 400,000 refugees have attempted to gain entry to Europe, particularly in EU countries. Most of the refugees are fleeing war and violence, mainly in Syria, but there are also refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea (the only country in the world to have a lower freedom rating than North Korea).
Why is this getting so much attention now?
The fact is that aid agencies and NGOs like Amnesty have been warning about this problem for a long time, but most people did their best to ignore it. While war has been raging in Syria for years, many people hoped it would end and they could return to their homes. When this failed to happen and the resources of neighbouring countries became overstretched, they began to look overseas.
States such as Libya used to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, but the instability in the region means they are no longer able to. Also, part of the blame lies with European governments who in response to rising anti-immigration feeling, have restricted legal migration and made it difficult for outsiders to enter Europe. This forces people to use risky measures like using improvised boats. The attempt to ignore the problem only caused it to build up until the refugees overflowed from the camps.
Why don’t the Syrians go to neighbouring states?
In actual fact this is exactly what they are doing. It is estimated that there are 11.7 million refugees from the Syrian civil war. 7.6 million of them are still in Syria and 4 million are abroad. 95% of them are in Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. So while some people think there is a flood coming to Europe, in reality Europe is getting off very lightly and only has to deal with a small trickle. In contrast Turkey has roughly 2 million Syrian refugees to deal with, while Lebanon has over one million which is a massive sum for a small country with only a population of 4 million.
But why don’t they stay there?
Some people claim that these people are not real refugees because they left war-free countries, therefore they are only economic migrants. However, the fact is that Lebanon and Turkey simply cannot handle the huge number of refugees alone. A wealthy and stable country would still struggle with such a number and Lebanon is neither. It is for the same reason that all the migrants do not stay in Greece or the Balkans, these countries simply do not have the resources to support them. Nor do they want to, instead they are eager to move the refugees on as quick as possible (Turkey doesn’t even give them refugee status). It is only the rich Western European countries that come close to being able to give these refugees a decent standard of living.
What has been the response?
The way the crisis is being handled is a complete mess. Essentially, under what is known as the Dublin Regulation, the country in which refugees first arrive is responsible for them. This is why Hungary is trying so hard to keep them out. However, other countries like Germany have volunteered to take refugees that arrive elsewhere, but it is proving difficult for the refugees to get to Germany. For example Croatia let them pass through, but when they got to Slovenia, they were turned back.
I heard some of them aren’t refugees but are really economic migrants.
It is strange to see the term economic migrant used as almost an insult as if these people were undeserving of help. Are people not entitled to make a better life for themselves? If someone lives in an area with no work and no opportunities, would you blame them for moving to somewhere they can get a job and have a chance of making money? I fail to see why people trying to escape grinding poverty are somehow undeserving of help and it’s bizarre that some people insinuate there’s something greedy about this. The Syrian economy has collapsed so what choice do the people have?
The line between migrants motivated by security reasons and those motivated by economics reasons is not very clear. After all, many migrants are motivated by both. Even if someone is not escaping a warzone, isn’t it best that they leave before their home becomes one? It’s no good waiting until Islamic State have captured your town before deciding to leave, for too many by the time that happens, it’s too late.
Are the Muslims trying to take over Europe?
This is a bizarre question that surprisingly many people are afraid of. The answer is absolutely no. At the moment Muslims comprise 4% of the population of the EU. Considering the EU has a population of 500 million, even if a million Muslim refugees come, their proportion will still be 4%. Syrians don’t actually have a high birth rate (its only 3 per woman, much lower than the stereotype of Muslims), so they won’t massively outbreed the native population either. There is no grounds for the fear that Muslims will force Sharia Law on Europe, they simply don’t have the power and most don’t want to (not all Muslims are fundamentalists and a significant proportion will assimilate).
But what if some of the refugees are ISIS militants in disguise?
This is wrong for a couple of reasons. Firstly, not all Muslims are terrorists (a worryingly large number of people are ignorant of this fact). Secondly, ISIS has already set up its own state and that’s where its resources are being focused. Why would they divert much needed soldiers to go on a long and dangerous operation that would bring no benefit? While some people fear a global Islamic conspiracy, the fact of it is that most militants are parochial and are focused on the Middle East. In fact ISIS has warned people not to go to Europe (as they fear they will lose their faith) instead they want them to stay in the “caliphate”.
Hypothetical’s aside, we know for sure that thousands will continue to die if we refuse asylum and that should worry us more than imaginary terrorist plots.
But how can we afford to look after refugees when we’ve just come out of a long recession?
Ireland is not as rich as it was eight years ago, but we are still one of the richest countries in the world. If €30 billion can be quickly found to waste on Anglo-Irish Bank, than we can find a way to support people struggling to live. Ireland is planning to take in 5,000 refugees, which is 0.1% of our population. According to the CSO, the net level of wealth is €378 billion, which only a fool would think is inadequate.
Nor can it be claimed that we are already too generous with asylum seekers, in fact the Irish system is very harsh. Asylum seekers are forbidden from working and are given an allowance of only €19.10 per week. Only 38% of applications are approved and even these come after years of waiting so only 3% are approved each year.
Shouldn’t we look after our own first? Why take in more people when we can’t look after the homeless and poor already here?
If we must wait until every last social problem in Ireland is solved before we take in any refugees, we’ll be waiting until the end of time. In fact, a lot of people who use this argument know this and don’t really care about the homeless, but just use them as an excuse to block immigration. Charity is not a zero sum game and it’s not as though the homeless must fight refugees for coins. We can afford to look after both if the political will is there. For example, if instead of giving a tax cut before the election, the government could use those funds to help the refugees (a more worthy if less popular choice).
But won’t the refugees take native jobs?
A crucial feature of economics that many people fail to understand is that it is not a zero sum game and just because one person gets richer doesn’t mean someone else gets poorer. Instead, both can prosper. While the refugees will initially need a lot of government support, studies show that in the long run they can have a beneficial effect on the economy. The refugees will provide demand for local businesses for houses, clothes, food etc. Many of them will bring skills and ideas that are new to Ireland. The vast majority of migrants work and pay taxes. In fact as they are usually of prime working age, they contribute more in taxes than they use in public services. America and Australia are positive examples of the benefits migrants can bring and how the children of poor refugees can become successful and wealthy.
We have no obligation to take any refugees
Actually under international law we do. According to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has a right to asylum. This was set up after World War 2, in response to the appalling treatment of the Jews and how their plight was heartlessly ignored. Ireland acted shamefully in this regard and it is estimated that “at most 100 Jewish refugees entered the Free State during the entire Nazi period.” The difference between the refuges and the rest of us is not any skill or action, but simply the luck of birth. Because we were born in a rich country, we can expect a high standard of living, yet had any one of us been born in the Third World, we could be now huddled in a tent, desperate for a chance to make a living.
This has nothing to do with us, it isn’t our problem
To the contrary, the similarities between what the Syrians are going through now and what us Irish have gone through in the past is striking. For much of our history, the Irish were viewed with suspicion due to their foreign religion, strange culture and backward ways. Up until recently we were suspected of terrorism and until 9/11 the cliché of a terrorist was either a Communist or an Irishman. The legendary revolutionary group the Fenians were most active and even founded in America. The Famine in particular was a harsh time with the Atlantic being an even more dangerous crossing than the Mediterranean is now, with the vessels earning the infamous title of coffin ships. Many Americans called for restrictions on the numbers of Irish entering for fear they overrun the native population and force Papist rule on the country. As Muslims are today, we were stereotyped as unwilling or unable to integrate or get a job, preferring instead to have 8 children and live off welfare.
So when people say the suffering of the Syrians has nothing to do with us, they couldn’t be more wrong. History is repeating itself and the refugee crisis is our story in different clothes.