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SAR

In 2015, a little boy’s body washed up on a Turkish beach. He was Aylan Kurdi, aged 3. He lay on his front with his head turned to one side, wearing shorts, little shoes and a red t-shirt. For all the world, he could be gently dozing for a mid-afternoon nap.


The image hit all of us in the solar plexus and policy raced to catch up with the sense of outrage.

I was working for GOAL at that time and visited the area in Turkey where migrants had gathered to attempt the crossing to the Greek Islands. I met many Syrians gathering near Izmir, preparing to take to dinghies for the 4 km crossing to Lesbos. Migrants were notified about the availability of boats by text and the price would depend on weather conditions.


Night crossings in rough weather were cheapest; day crossings in calm weather the most expensive.


They would leave their lodgings and head to the nearby beaches, the launching place of so many of the journeys. These beaches were strewn with discarded belongings, life jackets and evidence of the chaos of recent launches.


On a visit to one such beach, I found a pink baby’s bootie and stuffed it in my pocket. It is on my desk in the European Parliament to this day. I do so to humanise an issue that can be caught up in statistics and turgid policy documents.


I believe these people when they say that they are fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution and that taking their young children on flimsy dinghies is a safer option than staying at home. Such a belief immediately triggers a duty under the Geneva Convention to offer protection.


Sadly, the EU’s focus in recent times has been on reducing numbers rather than saving lives. Through agreements with Turkey and Libya, the EU has effectively out-sourced its historic obligations.


Bear in mind that the EU needs migrants and lots of them. A recent study in Spain suggests that the population there will fall by 3.7m by 2050 even with 100,000 migrants per annum. This will mean lots more pensioners relying on fewer working people to pay the taxes that fund their pensions.


Also we should remember that first generation migrants are five times more likely to start a business and are heavily over-represented among Nobel prize winners and founders of blue-chip companies.


More recently (2019) I visited Lesbos to see the conditions in the camps there. As there is no system of relocation of refugees, families get trapped there. It is one of the most dangerous places in Europe with daily violence and outbreaks of disease.


The next major wave of irregular population movement into Europe is not far away. Assad is squeezing the life out of the last remnants of opposition in Syria and Lebanon is close to collapse. There are many millions living there who have established family connections in Europe and who will do anything to leave the area.


Rescue is important but relocation is next. Given our own history, this is an area in which Ireland should be showing leadership. If we can accommodate hundreds of thousands of people from across the EU, then surely relocating one thousand people per annum is manageable.


Read the words of WH Auden in his poem Refugee Blues from 1939.


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 to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day? 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.


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