DESPERATE PLIGHT Refugees crossing the Mediterranean sea on a dinghy, heading from Turkish coast to the Greek island of Lesbos in January 2016. Pic: CC BY-SA 4.0/Mstyslav Chernov
‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ – from Emma Lazarus’s poem, on the base of the Statue of Liberty
Drowning tragedies associated with asylum seekers and refugees have been happening in the Mediterranean for many years. Rickety, leaky boats, massively overloaded, regularly set off from North Africa bound for Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey and other southern European states. Media coverage waxes and wanes. Our attention span is limited when it comes to disasters happening in ‘far away countries’ and to ‘people of whom we know nothing’.
Media coverage of these events can be disturbing. If a boat carrying 100 people founders, the abstract nature of the deaths generates less emotional response than the shocking image that went viral of one child lying dead on a Turkish beach (Alan Kurdi, three years old, drowned on September 2, 2015).
Coverage tends to be more focused on the domestic political problems arising from the asylum/refugee crisis in destination states than on the underlying causes of the flight of those people. There are always groups who exploit human tragedy for their own selfish political and ideological ends.
When the asylum seekers and refugees manage to land in southern Europe, they fan out over the Schengen area, to Germany, Scandinavia and France. The short distance from Calais to Dover (34 kilometers, slightly less than the distance from Westport to Inishturk) tempts many people to undertake the hazardous trip across the Straits of Dover in flimsy rubber dinghies, shockingly overloaded.
It was only a matter of time before there would be a tragedy in the Dover Straits. It happened on November 24 with the drowning of at least 27 people, some of them children, in the icy-cold English Channel. This was the worst accident yet for people trying to cross from France to Britain.
Angry accusations of blame flying between Britain and France were depressing and unedifying.
There are many similarities and one crucial difference between the plight of today’s refugees and the plight of Irish emigrants in the second half of the 19th century.
Our ancestors were also asylum seekers, though they did not think of themselves in that way. They were fleeing underdevelopment, hunger and pestilence. They travelled in large, overloaded coffin ships across the Atlantic rather than in overloaded coffin inflatables across the Dover Straits. The consequences were similar: many died in transit. Many drowned. Some even drowned in Clew Bay in the 1894 tragedy near Westport.
The crucial difference is that the destination states – mainly Britain, America and the Antipodes – allowed them in, albeit sometimes grudgingly.
And just as the problems with mid-19th-century Ireland were caused by the political philosophy of a bigger, richer state, the underlying cause of flight from ravaged and failed states is mainly the direct and indirect consequences of actions and inaction of the rich states of Europe and North America.
In the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, the disasters that enveloped and scattered their civilian populations were largely due to the military forces of America, Britain and their allies. These armies waged their wars on terror and created conditions even worse than in Famine and post-Famine Ireland.
In the case of Syria, Russia sided with the despotic ruler, Bashar Hafez al-Assad, and crushed political opposition using poison gas, the bombing of houses, schools and hospitals and the burning of crops.
Then there are the migrants from sub-Saharan African countries where a large fraction of well-meaning aid from rich states ends up in the pockets of kleptocratic, corrupt rulers who squirrel it away in Swiss and UK banks that don’t ask many questions and profit greatly from the business.
Finally, there is the global climate crisis. The Dutch are wealthy enough to afford the costs of building protective barriers around their low-lying land as sea levels rise. People in Bangladesh and the Maldives are not so lucky. Nor are the people in the drought-ridden states of Africa where the last thing their corrupt rulers ever think about is the welfare of their people.
In a world dominated by social media and mobile phones, why would ordinary people in these countries stick around and watch their families suffer and die?
How did the rich states of the Western world became rich? They did it by using coal to fuel an industrial revolution in the 18th century. They trashed the planet at a time when nobody realised the future costs of the accumulated damage to the climate as the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere began its inexorable rise.
Rich countries are better placed than poorer countries to use resources to transition to ‘clean’ technologies. However, as COP26 demonstrated, they are less willing to help poorer, underdeveloped states to make a dramatic and expensive switch away from fossil fuels without further impoverishing them.
In pre-pandemic times, I enjoyed talking to Fadi Soufan at the Westport Country Market. Fadi and his partner Manar Salo have an enterprise called Aleppo Foods, specialising in Syrian and Mediterranean food and named after their native city in Syria which was destroyed during the civil war.
They moved here in 2016 as part of the Mayo Syrian Refugee Resettlement Project. The
South West Mayo Development Company provided dedicated resettlement support to all the Syrian refugees as part of this project. Aleppo Foods was recently awarded Best Newcomer Entrepreneur at Dignity Partnership’s (DiP) inaugural Empowering Refugee Entrepreneur Awards 2021.
One small success in a sea of chaos.
John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.