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Friday, 14 August 2015

Boat people and coffin ships

The crew of the LÉ Niamh have been busy again this week, rescuing another 125 people from an inflatable dinghy on Tuesday as well as the over 350 lives they saved last week.

And while the crew are just doing their best to treat every human being they encounter as an equal, politicians, business leaders and media personalities continue to argue over who should have to deal with the migrants.

This hard-hearted attitude to migrants is not a new phenomenon, demonstrated by our own history of boatloads of Irish people being transported to America only to encounter ‘No Irish need apply’ signs. These boats are still called ‘coffin ships’ because so many people died on the journey, and because of how the human cargo was loaded in like cattle. Even though people knew this hardship lay ahead, they still sold everything they owned to raise the price of a ticket because they were desperate to escape the famine and poverty in Ireland.

Vietnamese boat people arriving in Dublin,
with Minister of Foreign Affairs Michael O'Kennedy (centre in dark suit), ready to greet them.
9 August 1979.
A century later, Ireland was the country receiving migrants when we agreed to accept Vietnamese boat people for resettlement. This crisis arose after the end of the Vietnam war, when the communist regime began cracking down on those that had supported the South Vietnamese government. Large boats carrying up to 2,000 migrants began arriving on the shores of Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia, who refused to allow the ships to dock until other countries had agreed to resettle the migrants.

Because these large ships were encountering difficulties, many people decided to use smaller boats to cross the seas. Thousands of lives were lost when these boats sank, or else migrants had to deal with pirates, bad weather, hunger, thirst. Many women were raped when pirates raided their boat, or were abducted after all possessions had been stolen from the other passengers. If they made it across the sea, they would be put in refugee camps until they were accepted by another country.

The amount of people travelling by boat lessened when a programme was set to process resettlement eligibility from Vietnam, and a cut-off point, after which boatpeople would be treated as normal economic refugees, was set for March 1989.

Refugees arriving in 1981
18 March 1981
Ireland was not initially over-enthusiastic about opening our doors to these migrants, and only agreed after repeated requests from the UN. Two hundred migrants arrived in 1979, with other small groups landing hereon a couple of occasions during the 1980s. These were first given English language lessons in Blanchardstown, and then were dispersed around the country – to avoid ‘ghettoization’.  However, as this policy generally led to isolation, many families and people made their way back to Dublin after a few years.

As yet, though the Irish navy helping to patrol the Mediterranean and prevent more people dying in that stretch of water, the Irish authorities have not as yet agreed to accept any of the migrants. Our economy in 1979 was not particularly impressive, but we still managed to absorb severalyoung families without major repercussions. If we are asked to do so again for this new crisis 35 years later, there is no reason to doubt that we could not achieve the same.

George Colley cuts the cake after a naturalisation ceremony for some of the Vietnamese migrants.
8 July 1987
May the LÉ Niamh and her crew continue with the stellar work they are currently doing, and making us all proud. And may a better life lie ahead for the people they rescue from the water.

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