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"Ireland seems to be far down the list of desired destinations for these refugees"

Will our children judge us for not doing enough for migrants the way we now wonder about Ireland’s response to the migrant crisis after World War II, asks Barry Ward.

Barry Ward

AS EU LEADERS were meeting in Bratislava last week, European People’s Party (EPP) local government members met in northern Greece to discuss how the EU should respond to the increasingly disturbing migration crisis.

Part of this conference included a visit to the Diavata Refugee Relocation Camp, outside Thessaloniki, where there was a first-hand opportunity to see the some of the conditions migrants arriving in the European Union are facing, and to hear their concerns.

Renovated at the request of the Greek Ministry of the Interior, Diavata is a former military barracks that is being used to accommodate migrants who have arrived on some of Greece’s many islands. It opened its doors on 24 February this year and is now home to about 1,000 men, women and children, mostly from Syria, Kurdistan, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Diavata Diavata in Greece Source: Google Maps

On arrival at the camp, we were met by Major George Moyfidis, who is the army commander in charge of the camp. He gave a briefing on the recent history of Diavata and the difficulties it faces in meeting the needs of its residents.

The difficulties facing the residents

The camp comprises approximately 200 shelters and is intended to cater primarily for families, so there are roughly as many women as men, but almost half the residents are children. There are also about 30 unaccompanied minors living in Diavata – young people who have tragically lost their parents in one way or another on their perilous journey to Europe.

unnamed (3) An awning at Diavata Relocation Camp Source: Barry Ward

The number of children is immediately obvious when you arrive in Diavata; they come in their droves, from the very young to teenagers, interested in new visitors, and surprisingly engaged, despite the fact that Diavata has no official school for them.

A walk through the camp quickly reveals the discontentment of the residents. Women tend to stay clear, but men are anxious to tell the visitors that the food they receive is of very poor quality, that they don’t have access to medical facilities, and that their situation is intolerable since they have no idea how long they will be kept in Diavata.

A young Syrian man, Ibrahim, told me how frustrated he is. He and his family have been in Diavata for seven months and there is no end in sight. He showed me the food they are given and claims that it is only fit for animals. He escaped terrible conditions in Aleppo, in Syria, and now feels that the Greek and European people should allow him to leave Diavata, get a job and start rebuilding his life.

unnamed (5) UNHCR tents in Diavata Source: Barry Ward

Ibrahim ultimately wants to go to Germany; most people in Diavata do.

“The situation is not the best for living”

At the EPP conference on Friday, the EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, himself a Greek and former Mayor of Athens, was very clear that the migrants can’t all go to Germany – not least because of the logistics of such a move, but also because he believes it will facilitate traffickers who promise the unfortunate migrants that they will get them to a particular country, usually Germany.

Ireland seems to be far down the list of desired destinations.

Back at the camp, our official guides were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the plaintive cries of the Diavata residents and Major Moyfidis was quick to explain that “the situation is not the best for living”. He recognised that the migrants had been in Diavata for seven months and that people were unhappy that they did not know how long they would be there for. “We must understand this,” he said.

The average age in Diavata is under 20 years old and the fact that the people miss their home countries is obvious to see: children’s graffiti has the words “I miss you Syria” in English and Arabic, murals shout “Save Aleppo”, and residents hold up signs asking why the Afghan people have been “forgotten”.

unnamed (4) 'I miss you Syria' on a wall in the camp Source: Barry Ward

The plight of these people is obvious and the conditions in which they are surviving every day are undoubtedly substandard. Diavata, which is served by the UNHCR and other charities, is one of the more ordered camps, having relocated migrants from the islands to a renovated, mainland site. Notwithstanding that, residents are living in a makeshift tented village and simply don’t have access to all the medical and educational facilities that are, according to the European Convention on Human Rights, fundamental rights.

Ireland is quite removed from the reality of the crisis

But you can’t help getting the feeling that the Greeks are doing their best in an impossible situation. It is now estimated that 11 million people have been displaced from their homes by the conflict in Syria alone, and Greece is one of the first points of entry into the European Union for many migrants.

At the EPP conference in Thessaloniki, a representative of the Turkish government, who was present as an observer, was at pains to point out that Turkey too is doing its best and desperately trying to accommodate every Syrian who wants to cross the border to safety in Turkey. An Italian delegate thanked other European Union states for their “tangible cooperation” in dealing with the particular maritime crisis that the Italian coastguard is facing.

In Ireland, we are quite removed from the reality of the migration crisis we see reported on the news. We see the human misery, but we don’t have to face it the way the Turks and our European neighbours do.

In light of what is happening, you have to wonder if, in a generation’s time, our children will judge us for not doing enough the way we now wonder about Ireland’s response to the migrant crisis created by World War II.

The decision of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald TD, that Ireland will take its fair share of refugees from this migration crisis is to be welcomed, but, seeing the tip of the iceberg at Diavata, you can’t help wondering if it’s a drop in the ocean.

Barry Ward is a barrister and Fine Gael councillor for the Blackrock area of Dublin 

Watch: The refugees stuck in limbo in an eerie, abandoned airport 

Read: Ireland the most welcoming country for Syrian refugees, according to major European study 

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