Thank you, Judge Williams for introducing me here today and thank you to the National Immigrant Justice Centre for giving me this wonderful award and for inviting me back to Chicago where I spent a very happy time last year at the University of Chicago. As you have just heard I was a negotiator and signatory to a peace accord in Northern Ireland in 1998. When I became a signatory to the Good Friday Agreement, I knew that peace had to be built, from that day on, on the vindication of the human rights of all. I am glad we signed it on Good Friday and not Pancake Tuesday as it wouldn’t have the same ring to it. But I am also glad that we worked hard since then to make every Friday a good Friday. And as the suffragists pointed out, it is deeds not words that make the difference. In three weeks the country I live in will ask the people in a referendum whether they want the UK to remain in the European Union. On June 23rd, if Britain says NO to remaining in the EU, then some of those deeds built into the peace agreement will be reversed, the European Convention on human rights will no longer apply and the border between north and south of Ireland will be reinstated. Our precious peace process could once again be placed in jeopardy. And the reason this time is because people are being encouraged to Brexit – to exit Europe – through their fear of immigration.
So I come here at a crucial time. Today, there are more migrants than at any time in history—over one billion worldwide. 1 in every 122 people is displaced across the globe. This is a time when we face the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. Border controls are being re-introduced and barb wire fences are stretching across the Balkans, reinforced with soldiers lobbing tear gas at refugees fleeing from persecution. This severe breakdown of trust is endangering the European Union itself; it is threatening the very process of integration and it needs to be reversed. A European Union of more than 500 million citizens should never have felt so threatened by the arrival of a million or so desperate souls. I ask myself every day how did we get to this state of affairs –it is a far cry from the 1951 Convention on Refugees, where citizens declared their mutual dependence on each other especially in the face of tyranny.
During the peace talks in Northern Ireland, I remembered what Nelson Mandela had told us when he brought us to South Africa, and locked us up in a military camp on the Eastern Cape. We were brought there, to be away from the media and hence the disused military camp, to listen to what he and de Klerk and Buteleza and other leaders had to say about resolving apartheid. At that time we couldn’t even sit in the same room, or eat in the same canteen, such was the distrust between our own parties. President Mandela had to do his talk twice – once for the Unionists and again for the Nationalists. On that occasion, and to our great shame, we brought apartheid back to South Africa. Mandela told us that their success lay in recognizing that all South Africans depended on each other – their Bill of Rights was also a Bill for whites. And yet today we seem to have forgotten how important our interdependence on each other is. We cannot afford to live alienated from each other. Our greatest challenge over the next generation is also our oldest one: how to live well together.
We would never have reached the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland had we simply tried to address the question ‘who was here first?’ I remember seeing a poster in Britain, put on an inner city wall to confront racism, that stated ‘We are here because you were there.’ So the answer is not about keeping people out but instead lies in that Universal Declaration of Human Rights that recognizes the dignity of all human beings.
When I was in Westminster Parliament last week, I gave a big hug to a man who had once helped us during our peace process. His name is Lord Afle Dubs and as a child, it was far from the House of Lords that he was reared. At the age of 6 he was put on the kinder-transport – a train for Jewish children – that left Prague when the Nazis invaded. He told me he could not remember eating during his long journey because there was no one there to tell him he could open his backpack. This little boy arrived first in London and then in Northern Ireland where he later returned one day as a Minister in the British government to help with the implementation of the peace agreement. The reason that I hugged him was not to thank him for doing that but to thank him for introducing an amendment into the legislation on immigration that was going through parliament to allow unaccompanied minors into the UK. He managed to do that successfully by reminding the parliamentarians what it must be like for children just like himself; the 26,000 unaccompanied minors now crossing Europe,10,000 of whom have already disappeared. The Mediterranean Sea was crossed by almost one million migrants last year and thousands more this year. Most are refugees escaping from Syria, Afghanistan, or Eritrea. The majority landed in Greece and Italy. Ali Mustafa was one of them and he travelled from Syria to Lebanon to Turkey to Greece to Macedonia to Serbia to Hungary to Austria to Germany to the Netherlands to France and finally to the UK. These refugees have had to pay smugglers to transport them at an average cost of €2000-3000, often in grossly unsafe boats and trucks. Over 3,500 have drowned and who will forget the picture of the dead baby lying on the beach on the beautiful island of Lesbos, where I often went for a holiday. Last week that sea became a cemetery once again when it claimed another 700 souls– applying that figure to those present here means the room would empty by two thirds of its guests.
Apart from smugglers, traffickers in women and children are also active in their insidious trade and making large sums of money off the backs of the world’s most vulnerable human beings. I have met some of those who have taken to these dinghies and each time I return to the Syrian border in southern Turkey, more of them have left for Europe. One of the reasons they are leaving in such vast numbers is not just that they are fleeing the indiscriminate barrel bombs in Syria, where people are dying of minor illnesses because they cannot get antibiotics, they are also fleeing because the fall out from that war means increasing amount of Syrians are being left stateless and without passports. A few months ago, I asked the Syrian women to raise this issue at the UN peace talks in Geneva. It is a gender specific issue because thousands of women are now widowed and children belong to fatherless households. Under Syrian law only men can pass on citizenship to their children. The UN estimates that 25% of Syrian refugees are stateless and statelessness is now an increasing phenomenon for immigration authorities to cope with. To be displaced and exiled is hard but to be stateless and without a passport makes the situation worse. It is a measure of their desperation that they are so prepared to risk their lives, and those of their children, on such a journey by land or by sea. They are seeking the right to asylum and are in need of protection. Many of them want to return when the war is over and do not seek permanent residence. However, the right of asylum permits transfer to other member states or ‘safe’ third countries and the question they are now rightfully asking ‘Is it right to send us back to Turkey – will we be safe there?’ For those of you who work on asylum cases, you know how important the answer to that question is especially in relation to the human rights record of those so-called ‘safe’ countries.
There were other proposals in response to this crisis - that the refugee burden should be shared more equally across all EU Member States, reflecting population size and the relative wealth of EU countries. But given the rise in right wing parties in government there was no majority among EU member states for a binding quota system. Rather than retreat into their national shells, the EU Commissioner for Refugees argues that Member States should take a bold step forward towards a single European border agency, and, eventually, a single European asylum agency. There needs to be organised, decent and orderly reception centres and processes; a decoupling of identification from reception; and a fair share resettlement of refugees by member states.
Last Saturday, because it was a holiday weekend, I visited one of the islands close to the Scottish Island of Lewis where Mary McLeod was born in a small black stone thatched cottage. In 1930, just like my two aunts, when Mary McLeod was 18 years old, she took the ship to New York to seek her living far from home. There was prohibition in USA which meant that the salted herring trade collapsed as bar owners no longer needed these side bits to wash down the alcohol. Losing this trade was an economic disaster for the islanders, and like thousands of others from Ireland and Scotland, she had no choice but to emigrate. In 1942 Mary McLeod was granted US citizenship, she got married and had five children. Her fourth child was called Donald and that is the story of Donald Trump’s genealogy. But the moral of the story is remember where you came from, especially when you attempt to create a hierarchy amongst migrants. As one commentator noted ‘It needs only a moment’s thought to realise that flight for economic reasons may be as justified and as worthy of sympathy and help as flight from political persecution.’ Such refugees might be, for example, escaping famine or environmental disaster. They do not, however, enjoy the right of non-refoulement (non-return) allowed to legally defined refugees. So Mary McLeod was amongst the lucky ones.
Talking about human beings as ‘swarms’ or ‘hordes’ or about taking only Christians and not Muslims needs to be challenged. It is driven by unfounded fears: the United States has resettled 780,000 refugees since the horrific events of 9/11, and in the 14 years since, a mere 3 of them were implicated in terrorist activity (which did not lead to any attacks). Two-thirds of the Asian population is foreign born and 50% of the Latino community. The election here in the USA is being watched carefully everywhere and especially to see if there will be cross-sectoral links with African Americans and other ethnic groups in the choice of who is to be the next US President. As for us in the UK in three weeks time on the European referendum, so too for you in November, votes matter. While some political leaders proclaim against Muslim refugees, or otherwise shirk their responsibilities, both here and in Europe there are also exceptions. So it is important to ensure that politicians don’t lose elections because they support immigration reform – we need to give them cover as well as electoral support. ‘No matter our differences we just want to live in peace’ was a powerful pro-immigration electoral message in Australia. Persuade the skeptics and equip supportive elites with the facts, for example, economically immigrants contribute to the economy. There is a need to align the policy debate with political power.
I will end this talk with a few words on the relevance of human rights to both peace building and immigration. They are connected. We have to stop what forces people into exile in the first place. Let me tell you how common it was to live a life knowing nothing else but violence. On Tuesday night when I arrived in Chicago, there was thunder in the air. I am unaccustomed to hearing thunder and was always told to be frightened of it by my wonderful Aunt Mary. For some strange reason thunder was seen by Irish Catholics as a bad omen – probably because it was so rare. Anyway Aunt Mary came to stay in our house on the night that a 1000 pound bomb exploded nearby. I rushed into her bedroom and found her under the bed and reassured her that she could come out. She asked me what had just happened and I explained that it was a bomb. ‘Oh thanks be to God’ she said ‘ I thought it was thunder’. So bombs were the norm and peace was the mystery. As part of the peace process we agreed to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate militias of all kinds over the past two decades. However there have been some who have refused to go away and I was appointed six months ago by the NI Executive to develop a strategy to disband paramilitaries. I have learned a great deal over that time and one of the lessons is that the coercive control and intimidation of those who insist on using their power to abuse others needs to cease. I don’t have time here to talk about what that strategy looks like. One thing I can say is that it made a difference that out of the three members appointed to the panel, one of us was a woman. It is rare for a woman to be given such an assignment – normally we women are left out of the key decisions on what to do with ex combatants. I am not convinced my male colleagues would have focused on the masculinity issue or the perceived fear of these paramilitary leaders that their ‘macho’ status as commanders and brigadiers would be removed. Some of them thought they were being ‘emasculated’ – rather than being the ‘go to’ men within these communities they perceived that they were going to be turned into wimps. What had to stop was their coercive control of young people, shooting young men through the knees, over 4,000 had been knee capped since the ceasefires or attacked with baseball bats – in communities where baseball doesn’t exist. And where the police are not the first responders, through fears to their own safety, violence against women and girls increases. So whether it is El Salvador or Honduras or Guatemala, the causes are the same and young men and women are in need of protection for the same reason. So we need to target the causes as well as providing assistance and acceptance to those who are exiled.
There is no doubt that migration is the morally, politically, and economically defining issue of the 21st century. How we respond to it reveals a great deal about the state of our society, the integrity of our communities, and the prospects for our collective future. I want to end by commending the work of the National Immigrant Justice Centre. When the prophet Malachi asked us ‘to walk humbly, love tenderly and do justice’ I am certain that he had people like Mary Meg and her colleagues in mind. Building peace and justice is an unfinished business and all of us in this room have much work to do. I thank you for all that you do and ask that you go on supporting the centre ‘to do justice’ both nationally and globally.
Fairmont Chicago Hotel
June 2, 2016