Good old fam­ily values will help us man­age ‘the test of our gen­er­a­tion’

Irish Examiner - Supplement - - 60 YEARS OF EUROPEAN UNITY - Maeve Hig­gins Co­me­dian, ac­tor, writer

Ir­ish peo­ple are the most op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of the Euro­pean Union. The most re­cent Euro­barom­e­ter sur­vey (autumn 2016) showed that 77% of peo­ple in Ire­land were op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of the Euro­pean Union com­pared to an EU av­er­age of 50%. EU FACT

I’m from a gi­ant fam­ily. I mean, we are reg­u­lar sized peo­ple, there’s just loads of us. Fam­ily gath­er­ings are rare and beau­ti­ful and, of course, tricky.

Can you see where I’m go­ing with this? All the way to Europe baby, and this big old fam­ily that Ire­land has been a part of since be­fore most of us were born, the Euro­pean Union.

There are 28 mem­bers in this un­wieldy, charm­ing, and rel­a­tively new fam­ily.

Right now though, we need to work through our grow­ing pains.

Quickly too, be­cause peo­ple need our help.

Ris­ing to the chal­lenge

The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion calls the mi­grant cri­sis ‘the test of our gen­er­a­tion’. Not since WW2 have more peo­ple been on the move, and one in three asy­lum seek­ers in Europe is a child.

In Septem­ber 2015, we saw the body of a tod­dler, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turk­ish beach and a cry went out across the world.

We felt a col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity. Alan’s par­ents had fled from ISIS and were try­ing to get him and his brother Galib to the safety of the EU. We re­solved to do bet­ter, to step up and ad­dress the mi­grant cri­sis.

We had some good ex­am­ples. Le­banon is home to over a mil­lion refugees, and it’s 62 times smaller than France.

All refugees ar­riv­ing in Uganda are en­ti­tled to work and es­tab­lish their own busi­nesses, and are of­ten even given a bit of land. Pope Fran­cis, AKA the sweet­est man in the world, com­mended the coun­try’s “out­stand­ing con­cern for wel­com­ing refugees.”

So, how did we do? Well, we strug­gled. De­spite be­ing a fam­ily founded on the prin­ci­ples of peace and unity, bound by shared ideals of open­ness and in­clu­sion, we con­tinue to strug­gle.

Ger­many’s good ex­am­ple

Ger­many went all in, tak­ing in more than one mil­lion new­com­ers in the past cou­ple of years. Slove­nia, Croa­tia, Mace­do­nia and Ser­bia closed their bor­ders, strand­ing around 62,000 refugees in Greece, a coun­try al­ready ex­hausted by an eco­nomic cri­sis.

Some 62,000 peo­ple is a less-than-ca­pac­ity Croke Park crowd, and the EU pumped money over to help, yet the mis­er­able con­di­tions in many Greek camps per­sist to this day.

Mean­while, Den­mark re­quires newly ar­rived asy­lum seek­ers to hand over their jew­ellery to help pay for their stay in the coun­try, and Hun­gary is busy build­ing de­ten­tion camps.

The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is work­ing to har­monise this messy re­ac­tion, but it’s dif­fi­cult.

Can you imag­ine at­tempt­ing to get poli­cies through 28 gov­ern­ments? I can barely or­gan­ise a hen party.

But the re­ally dif­fi­cult thing is the mes­sage we are send­ing, that refugees are not wel­come.

Our lead­ers all met in Brus­sels just over a year ago

and — per­haps squint­ing to avoid the glare of their in­ter­na­tional obli­ga­tions, surely wor­ried about the in­creas­ing anti-im­mi­grant sen­ti­ment in some of their own coun­tries — agreed that all of those ar­riv­ing ir­reg­u­larly on Greek is­lands should be re­turned to Turkey.

Yes, the same Turkey that’s mor­ph­ing into an au­to­cratic state be­fore our eyes. The EU-Turkey deal meant that Turkey would re­ceive €6 bil­lion to as­sist the refugees, Turk­ish na­tion­als would be granted visa-free travel to Europe, and a hu­man­i­tar­ian scheme to trans­fer Syr­i­ans from Turkey to other Euro­pean coun­tries would be­gin.

This last part is hap­pen­ing, but su­per slowly. Some de­lay is to be ex­pected, it’s a ton of work on of­fi­cial, diplo­matic and min­is­te­rial lev­els, and at EU level, but it’s frus­trat­ing.

Ir­ish refugee re­sponse

Un­der The Ir­ish Refugee Pro­tec­tion Pro­gramme, our Gov­ern­ment com­mit­ted to wel­com­ing 4,000 peo­ple. To­date, just 627 pro­gramme refugees have ar­rived un­der the re­set­tle­ment as­pect, and 382 peo­ple from Greece un­der re­lo­ca­tion.

With the EU-Turkey deal, I won­der if we shirked our re­spon­si­bil­ity. I get it, be­lieve me. My re­sponse to pretty much any­thing dif­fi­cult is to turn to the per­son near­est me and say ‘Um, can you please han­dle this? I have cramps.’ But this is the most pro­found moral cri­sis of our time.

What if those des­per­ate Eritre­ans packed into boats were Nor­we­gian ladies hold­ing lit­tle blonde tod­dlers? If those hun­gry Afghan men shuf­fling through a frozen de­ten­tion camp in Hun­gary looked and spoke like the pre­vail­ing idea of Ir­ish­men?

Not nec­es­sar­ily chubby with brown hair and some­how also a red beard, but like, white and English speak­ing. Would that change how we treated them? I be­lieve it would.

This Euro­pean fam­ily we have cre­ated and nur­tured to­gether is still a bit wonky — see that mad old un­cle Brexit as he wan­ders out the door — but it’s a fam­ily that has en­riched its mem­bers’ lives and kept us safe for over half a cen­tury.

Fam­i­lies ei­ther grow or die out. There are many peo­ple who will work hard, drink a lot of cof­fee, tell bad jokes and com­plain about the rain, just like the rest of us do, and they need us to in­vite them in. We need them too, and we would be lucky to have them.

Com­ment: EU mem­ber states’ re­sponses to refugee cri­sis

Photo: An­dreas So­laro /AFP/Getty Images

Pope Fran­cis — AKA the sweet­est man in the world — with refugees, dur­ing his gen­eral au­di­ence, in Aula Paolo VI at the Vat­i­can, on Au­gust 3, 2016.

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