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Do we have an obligation to the world’s refugees?

One of the constant refrains in the refugee debate – a dispute primarily over resources which is framed as a dispute over hospitality – is that Irish people have historically emigrated and that Ireland should return the favour to those seeking opportunity now.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history can spot the flaw in this argument. If anyone can point out one example of a country who housed Irish immigrants free of charge in the 19th or 20th century I would be very surprised. Countries who had open borders in the past did not have a welfare system.

While down in East Wall, walking and talking with the protesters, one passer by did make this point, saying that: “we once went all over the world why shouldn’t they get what we got”.

“I work” was the reply of the protestor, which sort of gets to the root of the question. It seems like there are two questions jumbled up here. The first is, is there a duty of hospitality to those who are worse off, and the second is one of resources and whether it is possible or desirable to try to house every person who lands on our shores.

Another question consistently pushed through the media is whether as a nation we have an obligation to house those fleeing war zones.  Locals point out that many of the people bussed into East Wall are likely not fleeing a war zone, so that case for their refugee status seems very dubious. Are these people that just took advantage of the messages tweeted out by Minister Roderick O’Gorman which could be read as an invitation to come and avail of a great offer?

Many of the people coming here don’t seem to be refugees in the sense of fleeing a conflict, at all, but that observation may be talking past the sale. The more fundamental question is whether Ireland has a moral obligation to house all refugees?

Much of the commentary around the current immigration crisis doesn’t even question this assumption, but a more comprehensive understanding considers both international law and the moral consequences of our actions.

The international law concerning sanctuary states that the first safe country has obligation to provide shelter for those fleeing in danger of their lives. Ireland is not contiguous to any conflict zone and we don’t have a legal obligation to provide shelter to someone who has left a conflict zone and travelled through other safe countries. This addresses the crudely termed “welfare shopping” question. A person who has been resident in Belgium or the UK should not be processed as a refugee in Ireland if they came from one of those countries, or any other safe country.

Furthemore, as Matt Treacy has pointed out,  the EU directive which is often quoted by RTE and other outlets as obliging us to take refugees without capping numbers  does not, in fact, say that we have any such obligation. Article 25 of the Directive clearly says that it is up to Ireland – or any member state – to take refugees according to their capacity. That’s what other countries do. Why the Irish government refuses to do as France does, for example, leaves us with unanswered questions.

However, our moral obligation – as opposed to generosity – to those fleeing a conflict zone is a more complicated question. I think that we do have an obligation to house refugees from the Ukrainian war. I say this because we’re part of the EU, and as members of the EU (though it is a rotten relationship and I think we should get out of that crumbling Empire as fast as we can) we are saddled with the obligations that the EU has taken upon itself.

I also believe that the EU’s part in helping to continue the war in Ukraine makes them complicit in the hardship visited among those people. Being part of that union we do share that obligation and we should play our part even if it does put undue pressure on our resources.

On the other hand, there is no obligation to house refugees from war zones in which we have had no part in. In reality, Ireland does not have an obligation to provide sanctuary to refugees from Ethiopia, Syria, Afghanistan, or from any of the other war zones around the world, where conflicts are often stoked by elites in Washington and London.

Ireland has a second duty in this. A duty to humanity in general – a duty which Ireland has upheld nobly as peacekeepers with the UN around the globe – that is, not to become part of the war lobby who seem so keen to escalate conflicts.

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