Sometimes things seen cannot be unseen. The tragedy in Syria, and that’s where the main impetus of refugees is from now, has been a horror. But numbers numb. 250,000 dead including 20,000 children is for most of us incomprehensibly large. But one death, that of a poor wee toddler washed ashore in Turkey, a small helpless child, that is comprehensible and unbearable.
That child, Aylan Kurdi, and thousands like him, are not economic migrants. They are refugees. And Ireland has a horrific record on refugees. We are it seems, governed, if such an organized concept can be applied to the department of justice which has always been in the driving seat of the clown car that is our refugee policy, by the same impulses as allowed Dev and his ghastly insouciance to refuse to rescue Jews in the 1930s. We pride ourselves on our status as an open nation while refusing to recognize that we have created hundreds of thousands of economic refugees. The very stability, clotted and curdled as it is, of the polity in which we live, that is down to the generosity of other nations to take in our economic migrants. And now, with real migrants, with children, drowning in the hope not of a better but an extant life, we …do nothing.
We have agreed, in the goodness of our hearts, to take in 600 persons fleeing the twin horrors of Assad and his barrel bombs and Daesh’s efforts to enforce a wahabbist year zero. 600… don’t go mad there now. We might go as high as 1800, shamed into it. On a per population or per GDP basis we should be taking in tens of thousands. Cue a sharp intake of breath from people such as the ghastly Ian O’Doherty and his ilk, to whom the solution is more simplistic than a Katie Hopkins soundbite.
Why are we not? There is, thankfully, no organized polity in Ireland which is xenophobic and anti immigrant. Bar a few nutters on the right we are in general quite milk and water on the issue. Some of the extreme left will and do argue, forgetting the basis of socialism and fabianism, that we should “look after our own first” , finding as ever common cause with their blood brothers on the right. It was after all National Socialism. The failures of the state to deal with the urban housing issues has become another argument against doing anything for those in literal life and death danger.
So why are we not seeing a top down initiative to do this? Of whom are the government scared? Do they fear Sinn Fein, who never tire of reminding us of how poorly we treated catholic refugees in the early 70s? Do they fear a revenant in Fianna Fail? Are the Social Democrats secretly anti-foreigner? They need fear nobody, but fear to lead. The idea that we have to be asked to save people from barrel bombs, homicidal decapitators, chemical warfare, and the assorted horrors, that is risible. Would they, individually, wait to be asked to save a child drowning in front of them? Presumably not. But when he is a thousand or so kilometres away, then we must wait for someone else to ask us intervene while they die. Logic, much?
And yet common sense and common humanity demand they act as our leaders. I know, they wont, but lets pretend that we have leaders rather than whatever it is we have. We have two issues that can find a common, or at least related, solution. In the first we have a collapsed state from whence millions are fleeing, dying on the way. We seem happy to be on the far end of the continent, and indeed want countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and the Balkans in general deal with it, countries that are significantly less well off than we. And then at home we have the slow death of the Irish country town.
There is a remarkable coincidence between two features of Irish rural life – slow growth or even decline in population and the incidence of vacant houses. This is most marked along the west coast, now being sold abroad as the Wild Atlantic Way. We have, by various estimates, over 150,000 vacant housing units excluding holiday homes. Few if any of these are in the cities. Waterville, from whence I hail, has an entire small estate on the road to the GAA field, vacant, and other infill developments here and there. Every town and village in the west has similar, the avatars and proustian Madeleines of collapse. So, perhaps we have two problems that can be solved.
Lets open our hearts, and our (vacant) homes. I suspect that given the choice between drowning in the med, being teargassed by Hungarians or camping outside a train station on the one hand and living in a perhaps somewhat in need of repair and refurbishment but structurally sound and habitable home in South Kerry or West Clare or the Upper Shannon most people would take the home. Lets think big.
Can we find a way to begin to repopulate and reinvigorate the declining parts of our state, to end the blight of wasted capital tied up in vacant homes, and to show our humanity? Lets take 10 or 20,000 refugees- lets be clear and take Syrians and Eritreans as they are the clearest refugee statuses to identify. Lets avoid ghettoization by not clumping thousands in sink estates around the suburbs of cities. Lets engender integration by making state support contingent on learning English and getting integrated into the community. Lets give a 3year status and allow people, after passing a basic English test, work, and if and when Syria is a habitable place, if they want to stay on a regular path to citizenship, let them, or let them return home as many will. Lets think big, and think joined up. Lets not have one more toddler drown because we cant be bothered to raise our hand to save him.
Originally published in the Irish Examiner.