Migrant crisis: Pity spurs big-hearted Ulster to help refugee effort

An earlier vigil for refugees outside Belfast City Hall
An earlier vigil for refugees outside Belfast City Hall

More than 2,500 people have died crossing the Mediterranean fleeing the conflict-ridden Middle East in the past year. The image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, dead on a Turkish beach, caused an outpouring of sympathy. JOANNE SAVAGE reports

For many it was the abject poignancy of one stark image that occasioned the turn from compassion to action: three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s dead body washed up on a Turkish beach, face-down on the shore, a totally innocent and blameless victim of one of the worst refugee crises we have witnessed.

More than 2,500 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, but, as ever, people are more moved by a single image of senseless death than by faceless statistics.

Aylan, who died alongside his mother and sister, has helped catalyse a national outpouring of sympathy that was previously, and shamefully, kept in check. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel has put other EU member states to shame by offering asylum to 80,000 migrants and France’s Francois Hollande has offered to take in 24,000, the response from the British Government has been rather more muted: on Monday David Cameron announced that the UK will accept 20,000 refugees from camps in Syria, Turkey and Jordan arriving over the next five years, with plans to assist them under the existing Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. In place since March 2014, only 216 Syrians have been brought into the UK under this initiative to date.

Cameron’s announcement is something, but it places Britain far behind the generosity of Germany and France, and this seems out of step with the will of the people. Across Europe people have been responding to this humanitarian crisis in numerous ways with Icelanders offering their homes, Germans rebuilding beer tents for migrants, Pope Francis urging parishes to take in refugee families in resistance to the ‘globalisation of indifference’, Bob Geldof offering to house four families in his own private residences and a petition calling for Britain to take more refugees having received more than 420,000 signatures.

Here in Northern Ireland the overwhelming sense of compassion for the plight of refugees has been strong, with online groups set up to faciliate collections for goods as well as fundraising events.

Belfast City Council voted to welcome refugees to our shores and is urging Stormont to build a strategy for admitting newcomers.

Amnesty Northern Ireland is holding a rally at City Hall on September 12 in tandem with other events happening across the UK aimed at showing public support for the heart-warming message that refugees are welcome among us.

Co Down women Elaine McCully and Marcella Gilliland got together with others to form the online group Northern Ireland Calais Support for Refugees, which in just over a week has gone from 28 to 3,000 members and is leading a large number of collections for clothes and other provisions to be sent on a convoy departing from Cork to Calais on September 29.

But what matters most is how governmental policy can be altered to assist the freer flow of refugees into Britain and Northern Ireland so that once the initial waves of public sympathy and the collections and fundraising activities abate we are able to see these desperate people fully integrated into the UK and other EU member states.