In December 2012 Banksy – the renowned graffiti artist – produced a Christmas Card of Mary and Joseph unable to enter Bethlehem because of Israel’s apartheid wall which now surrounds that Palestinian town. It was a powerful and evocative image. It caught the sense of occupation and oppression faced daily by the Palestinian people and was a reminder of the plight of the five million Palestinian refugees scattered in camps around the Middle East.
Five years later that card is now a potent symbol of those millions more refugees who have been displaced by war and violence across the globe.
When I came across it again today it reminded me of a meeting I had in September with one of the international human rights agencies that is doing amazing work providing health care and support for refugees. Médicins Sans Frontiéres MSF – Doctors without Borders – came into the Dáil to discuss their work, in particular their efforts in Libya. While MSF are involved in many projects in many troubled parts of the world they were especially concerned at the worsening situation in Libya and the treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Most are being held in detention camps in Tripoli. None of those held have any way of challenging the legality of their detention and most have no access to consular servicers to help them.
There is no oversight and regulation of the camps and no effort to keep records. Some refugees are arbitrarily moved to undisclosed locations or simply disappear. In recent weeks reports have emerged of modern day slave markets in Libya where refugees and migrants are being bought and sold. The International Organisation for Migration has described the situation as dire.Some of those sold end up in makeshift prisons where they are forced to work without pay while their captors demand ransom payments from families. Others are still getting on inadequate boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea for Europe. So far this year at last two thousand men, women and children have drowned on this perilous journey.
Last week MSF also produced a damning report on the situation in Myanmar and the estimated murder of 6700 Rohingya Muslims, including some 730 children under the age of five, by Myanmar forces. In the last four months 640,000 Rohingya, that’s more than the number of people living in Munster, have been forced from their homes. They have fled to Bangladesh where they are currently housed in huge horrendous unsanitary and dangerous conditions.
MSF reported that most of those killed were shot by Myanmar soldiers, police or militias. Others were burned to death in their homes or beaten to death. There are countless reports of women and children being gang-raped.
These are just two specific examples of the many dangers faced by refugees. There are countless others. The trend throughout recent years has been for the numbers of refugees to increase. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established in 1950 to help the millions of European refugees who had been forced to flee or had lost their homes during the second world war. 67 years later the UN Refugee Agency is witnessing the highest numbers of refugees ever.
At the end of last year there were an estimated sixty-five million forcibly displaced people around the world. Of these over twenty-two million people are classified as refugees. Over half of these are children under the age of 18.
We have big challenges in Ireland. We have lots to do to build a fair society. Our first duty is to root out injustices in our own place. But most of us are better off than our fellow citizens in other parts of the globe. So, during this festive season let’s not forget those millions of people who have no home, no job, no food security. They are entirely dependent on the courage and hard work of organisations like MSF and UNHCR, and the generosity of millions of very sound people around the world.
I’m sure they would want to wish us all a very peaceful and prosperous New Year. We should do our best to help them to enjoy this also.
Bliain úr faoi mhaise daoibhse.