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Have we forgotten a time of 'No blacks, no dogs, no Irish'?

As a nation that used emigration as a solution, how can we begrudge a family trying to escape war? writes James Dunne.

James Dunne

IN FAIRNESS, WE don’t really need to be reminded again about how integral migration has been to our own history. From the ancient Celts traversing mainland Europe, through numerous plantations and the odd mass exodus of an economic or political nature, migration is as ingrained into the Irish psyche as the local pub. Roughly 70 million people world-wide now claim some form of Irish ancestry, which isn’t bad for a windswept rock on the edge of Europe.

From famine to social repression and economic recession, we’ve always had a valid excuse to venture further afield. But now our country, whose sons and daughters so often sought new homes across the world, seems to be firmly shutting the door to those on the outside once again.

“Ireland’s greatest exports is its people” is a witticism that’s as relevant today as it was in the Sixties. 81,900 people left Ireland in 2014, down roughly 7,000 from the previous year, but still a significant proportion of the islands 4.6m population. Our impetus for migration has changed in the past few decades though. While some are still driven by economic necessity, far more are drawn by the promise of travel and higher living standards, and also the chance of returning home “well-travelled” for the odd Christmas session.

‘Your typical migrant has a slight case of jet-lag, not an inflated inner tube’

On the other hand, the Irish navy is on the frontline as part of the EU’s Special Task Force in the Mediterranean, tasked with halting the “irregular migration” of people flooding from North Africa towards European soil, clearly those who are not the appropriate type of “migrant”.

The Irish Naval vessel, the LÉ Niamh, has been extremely busy thus far, plucking 358 people from the waters off Tripoli on the 24th of July, and rescuing 125 more from a rapidly deflating craft on the 11th of August.

Italy Migrants Source: Associated Press

And although the work of those on the frontline is absolutely commendable in the face of such tragedy, you have to question the branding of these people as migrants. Your typical migrant has a 30kg baggage allowance and a slight case of jet-lag, not an inflated inner tube and an apparent death-wish.

137,000 refugees (to use the more truthful term) have still managed to cross the waters of the Mediterranean in the first half of 2015 alone, despite the Task Force’s best efforts. Add to this the hundreds of thousands more who have already crossed or will cross in future and the gravity of how many now face homelessness and exclusion becomes glaringly obvious.

Playing on fears

So far Ireland, who has dispersed its children to all corners of the globe, has officially agreed to accept 600.

Comparatively, this figure is humiliating, but the defending argument seems to be that incoming refugees will have a negative impact on an Irish economy that has only recently shown signs of recovery. It’s not the first time Ireland has resisted the possibility of inward migration however; Ireland and the UK resisted full participation in the Shengen Agreement which essentially allowed the free movement of people in Europe.

And still today, parts of the population are still buying into this Nimbyism. A recent poll on TheJournal.ie indicated that 56% of people were against the resettlement of refugees in Ireland. A brief scan through the comment section of articles relating to the crisis suggests that a lot of people want to tell these migrants exactly where to go… and it’s not the Hazel Hotel in Monasterevin.

Austria Hungary Migrants Source: Petr David Josek

Right-wing parties such as Identity Ireland are playing on these fears to echo the anti-immigration and multicultural integration policies of parties like UKIP. The rapid rise in Islamic fundamentalism somehow feeds into these arguments also, as if every migrant is arriving complete with the intent of destroying us Western pigs and our way of life.

They claim that this is a dangerously complex issue for an already wounded Ireland that needs to look after its own first and foremost. And the situation, in its entirety, is certainly convoluted and not readily solvable. Ireland has its own problems, I don’t think anyone would argue against that.

‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’

But the immediate humanitarian solution is simple. For a nation that has traditionally used emigration as a solution in the past, would it not be contemptuous and completely hypocritical to refuse safe settlement of these displaced peoples? Yes, our migrants today leave with the proper qualifications and visas to ensure they can contribute to their new society. But Irish diaspora culture is still founded upon the memory of times that weren’t so easy- the economic, social and racial hardships our ancestors faced when leaving their own country- yet we reject contemporary refugees left with no alternatives?

Let’s not forget how quick we are to pull out the “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish” card or “the Irish Slave” anecdote at the drop of a hat in a historical argument.

Hungary Migrants Source: Marko Drobnjakovic

Ireland is a country that’s barely off its knees, and with a tentatively recovering economy, the mistakes of the past are still raw. There is not just economic risk in accepting masses of refugees into the country- the possibility for social discord is a real threat also. It’s adding additional strain to an economy in intensive care. And accepting these migrants certainly doesn’t solve the nightmare of adequately stemming the flow of migrants rather than finding ways to deal with them.

Humane response

But it’s hard not to see famine ships in the horrendously underequipped barges crossing the waters of the Mediterranean. It’s impossible for us not to remember the pain of internal struggle and unrest in our own communities. How can we begrudge a family trying to escape the hell of war for a better chance at life, especially when they’re already having to deal with the loss of their homes forever?

Greece Migrants Source: Associated Press

As fences start to spring up and trains crammed with refugees crawl from city to city, Europe seems to be reverting back upon decades of progress to its sinister past. And still, thousands are choosing the risk of asphyxiation or drowning over remaining in their homeland. It’s not exactly an easy decision to come to. Europe’s distinguished past of displacement has emerged once again, this one the worst since World War Two.

While it’s been left up to the EU to formulate a solution to stem the mass exodus and quell the pressure the Union faces, it’s equally important that each individual country pulls their weight and supports a humane response to this human tragedy in the interim, particular those like Ireland who are intimately acquainted with such human calamity.

Regardless of the sacrifices we may have to make to accommodate these exiles, they’re small in comparison. Consider to yourself that if you’re boarding an inflatable raft or crowding into the back of a darkened lorry in order to escape whatever terror you’ve left behind you, you’re not exactly blessed with choices.

James Dunne is a 24-year-old Kildare native living and working in Abu Dhabi. You can read his blog here

Read: Tears of joy as Germany welcomes refugee trains streaming into Munich>

Read: “My toes hurt, a lot of blood, we walked too much” – Pain along the long trek to Europe>

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James Dunne

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