Europe’s failure to fulfil humanitarian obligations ‘as shameful’ as The Famine
President Michael D. Higgins compared the plight of migrants fleeing war-torn countries to that of the victims of the Irish famine during an impassioned speech at Glasnevin Cemetery. He was there unveiling a memorial – a large Celtic cross set on a plinth – to those who perished during the Great Hunger in the mid-19th century.
And he accused those in Europe of failing to fulfil their humanitarian responsibilities and of not learning from the tragedies of the past.
“Is there not a lesson for all of us, as we are faced in our own time with the largest number of displaced people since World War Two, as the Mediterranean becomes, for some, a marine grave as European nations fail to respond to their humanitarian obligations?
“We now have the capacity to anticipate the threat of famine. We have the capacity to take measures to avoid it; and yet we allow nearly a billion people across our world to live in conditions of extreme but avoidable hunger,” Mr Higgins said. “The mistakes of the past must not be repeated when facing the threat of famine today.
“The moral principle remains the same: should we adjust our populations to an abstracted economic ideology, or should we, rather, use the best of our reason to craft economic and social models that can anticipate the needs and care for the peoples who share this fragile planet?”
More than one million people died between 1845 and 1852 as a result of the Irish Famine. At its height, there were more than 60 burials a day at Glasnevin, while the cemetery became the final resting place for more than 20,000 victims in total.
Mr Higgins acknowledged that famine has never solely been an accident of nature and that the general attitudes which shaped the Great Hunger are still present.
“We can discern structural features, which created the social vulnerability that is famine. Dependency on a single food source is obvious, but other factors also come into play,” he said.
He added that the Irish Famine was “more a series of mistakes” rather than “providence”. The president explained that the cross, which was donated by the Glasnevin Trust, would serve as a “permanent memorial to and reminder to those people”.
The unveiling was attended by a number of ambassadors in addition to a representative for refugees and they each laid wreaths by the statue. Heather Humphreys, the Irish Arts Minister, was also present and she explained how hunger and starvation remains the reality for millions of people today.
“While reflecting on issues beyond our own country, we should remember that, while the Famine is an historical event for us to remember, similar suffering remains around the globe today,” she said.
Ireland takes in just a fraction of refugees
Ireland has taken in just 311 Syrian refugees, despite a promise from its government last year that it would welcome 4,000.
The Refugee and Migrant Coalition accused the Irish government of failing to meet its proposed quota and made reference to the fact that the State had admitted just one unaccompanied child.
“This is unacceptable. Children seeking safety and protection who are separated from their families are languishing in squalid camps, suffering abuse and exploitation and falling prey to human traffickers because of the failure of EU leaders to manage this crisis effectively and humanely,” said Edel McGinley, director at Migrant Rights Centre Ireland.
Reiseal Ni Cheilleachair, an advisor with Trocaire, contrasted the government’s reaction to the migrant crisis to the surge in demand for Irish passports following the Brexit vote. She said it was important that it now adopted a similar attitude with regards to those arriving from war-torn countries.
“The passport office hired over 200 extra staff to deal with the post-Brexit demand for Irish passports,” she explained. “The government must be equally proactive in providing adequate administrative, financial and logistical support to meet the needs of refugees in Ireland who are fleeing desperate situations.
“It is now imperative that the government speed up the pace of relocation, ensure children separated from their families are prioritised and commit to introducing a humanitarian scheme to bring loved ones to safety here in Ireland.”
A spokesman at the Irish department of justice acknowledged that the government must address the issue of unaccompanied children. He said it is working with departmental officials in Athens and that it is hoped that a group arrival to be assessed in October will contain unaccompanied minors.
He added that Ireland has agreed to receive 2,622 asylum-seekers relocated from Greece and Italy, and 780 people resettled from camps in Lebanon.