21 June 2016

‘Ireland has just moved a little closer to the Mediterranean’
What if the Mediterranean was a little closer to Ireland?

A sign in South Anne Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

There is a sign on a chalkboard outside Sheridan’s Cheesemongers in South Anne Street, Dublin, that claims with good humour: “Ireland has just moved a little closer to the Mediterranean.”

Further down, beside a map the shows France, Spain and some Mediterranean islands, it adds: “A few more strokes lads and we’re there.”

But what if the Mediterranean moved a little closer to Ireland?

Monday [20 June 2016] was World Refugee Day, and I wondered what “strokes” do our politicians need to pull to place the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean higher on the European priority list?

The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed World Refugee Day from 20 June 2001 on because that day marked the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees.

The convention says a refugee is someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Refugees Welcome … outside Leinster House during yesterday’s march (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

To marked World Refugee Day in Dublin, I took part in a street protest in Dublin supported by United Against Racism, Amnesty International, the Irish Anti-War Movement and other groups.

One of the leaflets handed out yesterday offered to debunk some of the myths about refugees:

We don’t have space: There are over 250,000 empty homes in Ireland.

What about our own? One-in-six people born in Ireland lives abroad, the world looks after our own … go figure that one.

They’re not real refugees, they have smartphones: refugees are fleeing persecution, not poverty.

Can’t they go somewhere else? They do. There are 1.9 million Syrian programme refugees in Turkey, 600,000 in Jordan, 1.2 million in Lebanon … and 210 in Ireland.

Refugees = ISIS: ISIS? In a dinghy? You must be joking. They’d fly with forged papers.

Why are there so many men? They risk the journey first to pay for their families’ safe journey later.

Providing rescue attracts more refugees: They must and will flee, whether we help or not.

“No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

We Welcome Refugees … outside Leinster House yesterday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The UN refugee agency released a report yesterday saying that the number of refugees and internally displaced people worldwide stood at 65.3 million at the end of last year. The record number is because persecution and conflict in places like Syria and Afghanistan have led to an increase in their numbers.

To mark World Refugee Day, the aid agency GOAL released six interesting facts about refugees.

1. More than half of the world’s refugees are children.

2. Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud were refugees, along with music artists MIA, Wyclef Jean and the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama, who was forced to flee Tibet at a young age, remains a refugee.

3. Most refugees live in cities, not camps. About 25% of the world’s refugee population live in camps but many more live in cities, where most pay rent. Many refugees end up living in slums and informal settlements on the fringes of cities, where conditions are often difficult and hazardous.

4. More people are displaced today than any time since World War II. For the first time since World War II, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has exceeded 50 million people. Every day, more than 40,000 people worldwide are forced to flee their homes. This is equivalent to the population of Longford. While more than one million migrants crossed into Europe in 2015, an overwhelming 86% of refugees are hosted by developing countries.

5. The contraceptive pill, fish and chips, the mini, and Sriracha, the hot sauce with a cult following, were all invented by refugees. The key ingredient for the contraceptive pill was developed by Carl Djerassi, an Austrian refugee. Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Portugal in the 17th century brought fish and chips to Britain. The Greek refugee who created the iconic Mini, Sir Alec Issigonis, fled from Turkey in 1922.

6. Syria was the world’s second-largest refugee hosting country before war broke out in 2011. Today Syria is the largest refugee producing country in the world, with a staggering 4.2 million refugees. The crisis has been raging for over five years, resulting in the internal displacement of 7.6 million people. An average of one bomb a day fell on the province of Idlib in northern Syria in October, an area about the size of Galway.

United Against Racism … outside Leinster House yesterday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Outside Leinster House during the march yesterday, the historian John Molyneux of the Irish Anti-War Movement read the poem ‘Refugee Blues’ by WH Auden:

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you'll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew;
Old passports can't do that, my dear, old passports can't do that.

The consul banged the table and said:
‘If you’ve got no passport, you’re officially dead’;
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go today, my dear, but where shall we go today?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said:
‘If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread’;
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying: ‘They must die’;
We were in his mind, my dear, we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors;
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

Later, as I walked down Grafton Street, a busker opposite Marks and Spencer was playing the haunting theme music from Schindler’s List, and I wondered what has changed over 75 years and what have we learned since then.

Busking in Grafton Street last night … what have we learned since World War II? (Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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