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Unprecedented local response to refugee crisis

September 7, 2015

The stark image of the lifeless body of a young Syrian child washed up on a beach in Turkey, drowned after fleeing his war torn home country, has prompted an unprecedented global reaction, with European leaders being called upon to provide safe haven for refugees desperately trying to escape persecution.

Thousands have perished in recent months attempting to reach European shores but few deaths  have had such an impact as that of young Aryan Kurdi, whose image has come to represent the despair and outrage at what many are calling the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.

On a local scale, the response to the humanitarian crisis has been overwhelming with aid appeals ongoing throughout the district. Aid-drop off centres have sprung up throughout Newry and south Armagh calling for donations of clothes, sleeping bags, blankets, toiletries, torches and first aid supplies to fill a convoy of lorries set to make their way to Calais as part of the Northern Ireland Calais Refugee Solidarity collection.

In Dromintee, the local GAA club was inundated with donations after launching its refugee appeal last week. The planned Vintage Day which took place at the club yesterday (Sunday) drew scores of people to the drop-off centre created to accept the influx of items donated by the local community.

Similar appeals in Newry spurred local people into action and the drop-off centres at Southern Group Enterprises and the WIN Industrial Estate were quickly crammed full of much needed items for stranded refugees.

The Mullaghbawn community has also responded in force, with a Refugee Aid benefit concert set to take place in early October in the Tí Chulainn centre.

Speaking to The Examiner about the upcoming benefit concert Patsy Doyle, who formed part of the organising committee said,

“When watching the young child lying lifeless in the water, my heart broke, and like everyone I thought why isn’t  someone doing something about this? And then I thought, we all need to be doing something.

“So I talked to a small number of people, who all agreed and expressed their feelings of helplessness also, and we agreed that we will do whatever we can.”

Mullaghbawn woman, Jeanette Keenan added,  ”The sight of the young child was just so abhorrent  that I agreed with Patsy, we must do something to help alleviate this dire problem.

“With the dozens of deaths daily in the Mediterranean of families that desperate to get away from the slaughter of Syria, I cannot imagine how desperate you would have to be, to put your child in a rickety boat to cross the sea, rather than stay on dry land.”

Appealing for local musicians, singers, entertainers and anyone who can help with the benefit concert to come forward, Patsy added,

“We Irish have faced famine and starvation before, and have had millions of refugees sent all over the world, sometimes to face hostility and discrimination. We know what it is like, so I believe that we have the generosity of spirit and the basic humanity to try and help those who cannot help themselves.”

A Facebook page, Refugee Aid South Armagh has been set up with everyone encouraged to like, support, share, donate, help in whatever they can.

All proceeds of the Refugee Aid benefit concert will be given to Save the Children Fund, who have a particular connection to the Syrian refugee crisis.  To take part or find out more about Refugee Aid in Mullaghbawn, telephone 028 30888690.

A special quiz in aid of the refugee crisis will also take place in Newry’s Canal Court this Wednesday 9th September.  Renowned quizmaster Aidan O’Rourke told The Examiner the event had been  organised due to public demand, after he and the Canal Court Hotel had been inundated with calls from local people who were desperate to hold one of the hugely successful quiz nights in aid of the refugees. The quiz will take place at 9pm on Wednesday night, with all proceeds donated to the Calais Refugee collection.

Local political representatives have also voiced their horror at the escalating situation, with Independent Newry City Councillor Kevin McAteer and Patrick Brown of the Alliance Party requesting an emergency motion of Council in relation to the refugee crisis to be debated at tonight’s (Monday) full council meeting.

The motion asks that the council “recognises the severity of the current refugee crisis; the legitimate right of the persecuted to sanctuary under international law; and understands the moral obligation to help placed on those nations able to do so. This motion calls upon the UK government to show leadership and devote resources to help those in need, and pledges that Newry, Mourne and Down District Council will offer sanctuary to hundreds of refugees, and that the appropriate lines of communication shall be opened by the council to enable this.”

Speaking to The Examiner on the issue Councillor McAteer said,

“It is important that we debate this issue and that we debate it as soon as possible, this issue is happening right now as seen from the disturbing images that have been portrayed in the media in recent days. There is no reason why Northern Ireland and this district in particular can’t take in refugees; it’s time to take action.”

Councillor McAteer has also called on the Assembly to intervene citing any failure to take in refugees as “an abandonment of our human values.”

“The MLAs in Stormont are in a position of influence whereby they can condemn what is happening and offer support and resources to ease this crisis,” he said.

“This year in Newry we celebrate 150 years since the Irish famine. During the famine 2 million Irish refugees left Ireland and travelled to various countries around the world to seek a new life. At this time the Irish were welcomed into these countries and now it is time to show our humanity and return the favour.”

Congratulating the entire constituency on its response to the Syrian refugee crisis, Sinn Fein MLA, Megan Fearon, said she was heartened by the way all corners of the constituency have rallied to raise much needed supplies for the Calais Refugee Solidarity collection.

“We’ve all been horrified and heartbroken by the images we’ve seen on our televisions and in newspapers over the past week,” she said.

“Nobody could help but be moved by the plight of those fleeing war in their homelands and the lengths they have to go to in order to reach safety.  Thankfully people across Newry and Armagh, indeed right across Ireland, were not only moved but moved into action.

Ms Fearon said “real commitments and action” were now needed from the UN, EU and various national governments and welcomed both Martin McGuinness and Mary Lou McDonald calls for Ireland, north and south, to increase its refugee quota.

“However, if in the meantime ordinary people can, through some small act, offer some form of comfort or a glimmer of hope to those fleeing death and destruction, then it’s our duty to so.  Everybody has a part to play in ensuring the harrowing images we’ve seen this week never happen again,” she added.

Meanwhile, in a major U-turn on the Irish government’s cautious approach to the migrant crisis, the Irish MInister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald said on Friday that Ireland could potentially take in at least 1800 refugees, bringing it past its previous commitment of 600.

The European Union is set to announce its figures for the resettling of migrants across the region this week.

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