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Access to Justice

They are not just migrants, they are real people

By Éamonn Meehan
Another week, another appalling loss of life in the Mediterranean. 
Around 200 people are thought to have drowned when a boat capsized on Wednesday. The death toll would have been worse were it not for the skill and bravery of Irish Naval Service, who were thankfully on hand to rescue people from the ocean. 
A lot has been said about “migrants” or “refugees” attempting to enter Europe, but we must also use another word to describe them: people. 
The faces that we see on our television screens being carried onto Navy ships in the Mediterranean or attempting to cross into England from Calais are people whose only crime is trying to find safety and security. 
They are from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea and many other countries but fundamentally they are people with the same desires, hopes and fears as you or I. 
I have spent time in some of the countries where these people are fleeing from. Many of these countries are torn apart by war. They are places without functioning governments, where militias can determine whether you live or die. Who would not want to escape from this?

Around the world, 59.5 million people have fled their homes as a result of conflict – a figure unprecedented since the end of World War II. 

Syrian refugees in Turkey

Syrian refugees being assisted by Trócaire’s partners in Turkey. Who can blame people for wanting to flee Syria?

While we are often encouraged to believe that these people are all trying to reach Europe, the reality is that 86% of refugees are living in developing countries. Of the top ten refugee-hosting countries, six are in Asia or the Middle East while four are in Africa. None are in the EU. 

The three countries at the top of that list – Pakistan, Lebanon and Iran – are home to 3.7m refugees between them. Lebanon – a country half the size of Munster – is home to one million Syrian refugees. 

Europe’s response to this crisis has been appalling. People in war-torn countries such as Syria have a legal right to claim asylum but Europe’s main response has been to try to stop them reaching our shores in order to claim this right. 

The EU attempted to find agreement on how to offer new homes to just 60,000 asylum seekers but could not agree on how to do it. Nobody can seriously claim the EU – with its 500 million population – does not have the ability to offer security to such a small number of people. 

As President Higgins observed recently, it is appalling to portray this as a challenge when taking the situation these people are fleeing into account. 

By allowing wars in countries such as Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan to drag on for years, the world has ended-up in a situation where almost 60 million people can no longer live in their own countries. 

The world has a refugee crisis, but events in the Mediterranean and Calais have also highlighted a much deeper crisis – a crisis in how we view people escaping war and our legal obligation to offer them protection. 

This is a crisis of our own humanity towards each other. 

This article was originally published in The Sun Sunday, August 9th, 2015.

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