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Friday 9 December 2016

Andrew Lynch: It won't win votes, but we must throw a lifeline to migrants

This photo provided by the Italian Navy's Press Office Monday, May 4, 2015 shows members of an an Italian Navy unit, on the dinghy at right, as they rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, Sunday, May 3, 2015
This photo provided by the Italian Navy's Press Office Monday, May 4, 2015 shows members of an an Italian Navy unit, on the dinghy at right, as they rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, Sunday, May 3, 2015

Picture the scene. On Budget Day next October, Michael Noonan stands up in the Dail and confirms that he has €1.5bn to give away.

Instead of devoting it all to tax cuts and spending hikes, however, he plans to set aside a big chunk to support a new wave of immigrants from war-torn Libya.

To put it very politely, this new policy might not exactly be an election winner. Even so, can anyone seriously deny that it would be the decent thing to do?

With more and more desperate refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, Europe has a moral duty to extend the hand of rescue - and that applies to Ireland as much as any of our EU neighbours.

Last month, the world was shocked to learn that around 900 people had died when a fishing boat capsized off the Libyan coast. The victims had been trying to flee from a country that overthrew its psychotic dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but then descended into a particularly bloody civil war.

In response, all European governments, including Ireland's, expressed their horror and agreed to triple EU funding for border patrol vessels in the area.

By now, however, it is becoming clear that this tragedy was anything but a one-off. Last weekend almost 6,000 Libyan migrants were rescued by the Italian navy and others, with seven dead bodies found on rubber boats and another three corpses floating in the water.

In other words, an awful lot of people are still desperate enough to risk their lives by smuggling themselves into Europe. Calmer seas over the summer are likely to increase the problem.

So how should Europe react? The Chancellor of Austria, Werner Faymann, is a former taxi driver and therefore not shy about giving his opinion.

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On Sunday he called for the EU to set up a quota system that would oblige all member states to take in more African refugees, relieving the pressure on frontline countries such as Italy, Greece and Malta.

Officially, at least, Ireland seems to be on board with Faymann's suggestion. Our Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, has promised to give priority to mothers and the disabled while also warning, "I don't think it's a question of putting a figure or ticking a box".

There is just one little problem - we are already failing to look after our asylum seekers so woefully that even the minister in charge has dubbed it a disgrace.

Ireland's system of Direct Provision was introduced as an emergency six-month measure back in 2000. It is still in use today.

Essentially it involves herding 4,300 people into warehouses like cattle, leaving them in legal limbo and giving each adult the princely sum of €19.10-a-week.

Most of our Direct Provision residents have lost any sense of independence or dignity. They are banned from working, cannot look after their children properly and are understandably prone to mental health issues.

When Aodhan O Riordain was appointed Minister for New Communities last year, he admitted that the system was "not acceptable" and promised major reforms. The grim reality is that, without a huge increase in funding, there is precious little he can do.

This is why Charlie Flanagan's vague promises about helping the people of Libya ring pretty hollow. Most Irish people are justly proud of our record on foreign aid, with 63 tonnes of supplies arriving in Nepal yesterday to help survivors from the earthquake there.

That, however, is the easy bit - just as Britain sent some food here during the Great Famine but still left thousands to perish on 'coffin ships' that ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic.

Nobody in their right mind would expect Ireland to solve the Libyan crisis single-handedly. The really shameful fact is that as things stand, this country is not even willing to do its fair share.

We can certainly condemn our politicians for not throwing those drowning migrants a better lifesaver - but in all honesty we have to accept at least a little bit of the blame ourselves.

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