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Refugee crisis has not eased

by Éamonn Meehan, Executive Director

Europe has utterly failed to grasp the gravity of the Syrian exodus, and Lebanon is paying the price, says Éamonn Meehan

AMID the analysis of the recent local and European elections, the decline of immigration as an election issue in Ireland has gone unremarked upon.

Until relatively recently, questions about the growing influx of non-Irish workers were causing politicians to shuffle nervously in their boots on the campaign trail. The general election year of 2007 saw approximately 151,000 people migrate into Ireland. The vast majority of these people were EU citizens, while 3,985 were asylum seekers.

Today, it is questions about emigration, not immigration, that Irish politicians try to side-step.

Between 2000 and 2009, an average of 46,000 more people moved to Ireland than left its shores each year. Since 2009, we have seen a complete reversal of this trend, with an average of 30,000 more people leaving than arriving each year. As well as declining numbers of Europeans moving to Ireland, there has also been a sharp fall in the number of people seeking asylum here.

The number of people seeking asylum in Ireland peaked in 2002 at 11,634. Last year, just 946 applications were made.

Globally, however, the pattern of forced human migration shows no such signs of slowing down. As we mark World Refugee Day today, there are approximately 11m refugees around the world, a further million asylum seekers and an estimated 21m people displaced within their own national borders.

In stark contrast to the decline in asylum seekers coming to Ireland, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has noted that recent increases in the global refugee population are at a level not seen since the early 1990s, when conflicts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslav states forced millions of people from their homes.

A major driver behind this increase has been the war in Syria. An estimated 2.5m Syrians have been forced to flee into neighbouring countries, with a further 6.5m displaced within Syria.

A common misconception is that Europe bears the brunt of the global refugee crisis. While the Refugee Convention was designed in the aftermath of the Second World War to deal with the displacement of people within Europe, the vast majority — about 80% — of today’s refugees are hosted and cared for in developing countries.

Of the top 10 refugee-hosting countries, three are in Africa, five are in Asia and just one — Germany — is in the EU. Pakistan and Iran host almost one quarter of the world’s refugees.

When analysed on a per capita basis, the eight countries with the most refugees per capita are all African or Asian. Jordan is home to 47 refugees for every 1,000 inhabitants.

The Syrian war is an example of how the refugee burden can unfairly fall on a handful of states. Lebanon alone is hosting a million Syrians. Contrast this with the 76,373 asylum applications from Syrians across all 28 EU states. Indeed, Lebanon’s Syrian population is roughly two and a half times the total asylum claims made in all 28 EU states last year.

Syria’s nearest neighbours simply cannot cope. When we think of the national debate caused in Ireland by the arrival of 11,634 asylum seekers in 2007, how can we expect Lebanon — a country the size of Munster — to cope with one million Syrians fleeing the horrors of war?

Europe has utterly failed to grasp the seriousness of the Syrian refugee crisis. It is a shameful fact that more than half of all EU countries have failed to accept any refugees from the crisis at all. Such inaction cannot be justified morally when faced with the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.

In February, the Government announced that it would accept 90 Syrians this year. Others, including the UK, France and Austria, will accept 500 each, while Germany has agreed to accept 30,000.

Lebanon, meanwhile, is buckling under the weight of this crisis. Price increases and housing shortages, both a direct consequence of the sudden population explosion, are fuelling social and religious tensions. People in Lebanon warn that the country is at breaking point.

Leaving aside the humanitarian imperative, it is in Europe’s own interest to ensure stability in Lebanon. Ultimately this is best served by securing peace in Syria. In the short term, however, all EU states should ease the burden on Lebanon and the surrounding countries by offering safety and security to Syrian families.

First published in the Irish Examiner on Friday 20th June 2014

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