Sometimes I try to think of ways not to sound like I’m delivering another lecture when I write a piece about something I’m passionate about, but on this occasion I’m going to forego that and just say what’s on my mind. Life is precious and I don’t imagine many people would disagree with that statement but hidden within those three words is a world wide open to assumption and confusion. For instance, do we value all life? Or just maybe human life? Or do we extend that to human and animal life? Whatever parameters we place on our definition of life at least we all agree it is valuable. Value, however, is subjective.
Let me put this in context. We sadly had to have our German Shepherd Dog put “to sleep” this week because he was old (91 in dog years) and, because of health problems, he was in pain and that couldn’t be fixed. There’s no doubt in my mind it was the right thing to do. It’ll make us sad for a while and every time we think of him it’ll hurt a little and that will be the case or a long time. As usual we let our friends and family know he was gone by texting and posting on Facebook and Instagram. Lots of people left comments with messages of condolence for our lost friend. Every one of those comments was appreciated. Clearly we all valued his life and were sorry to see it end.
While our personal drama was unfolding a boat carrying refugees out of northern Africa in an attempt to reach safety on the Italian island of Lampedusa burst into flames and upwards of 300 people were killed. Many of them were children and two of the women were reported to be pregnant. 200 bodies still haven’t been recovered. That was just one boat of many attempting the same desperate dash to safety across an unforgiving sea. Many fail to make it and those who do are unwelcome.
The news of this tragedy competed with other stories of interest to the information hungry world, fuelled by instant reporting and ever decreasing levels of interest in what’s being reported. Some of those stories were of major importance and others were of the calibre of a twitter row between two celebrity singers. The news in this country focused on a government defeat in a referendum that cost millions and maintained the status quo; an elderly woman who had gone missing and was sadly found dead – being guarded by the little dog she had taken for a walk; and the search for a fisherman missing off the coast of Clare. Oh and two famous Irishmen who gained considerable notoriety for drawing world attention to cataclysmic world crises also grabbed some headlines – Bob Geldof is training for a trip into space (be kind) and Bono made the news for his impression of Bill Clinton. When we were informed of all of these items, then and only then, were we told about the Lampedusa tragedy. Please don’t get me wrong the death of the elderly woman and the lost seaman are tragic too, but that’s two people and there were over 300 lives lost in the Mediterranean – the other stories are tragic too in a completely different way. None of those lives was more valuable than the other but the death of faceless and nameless refugees just doesn’t appear to be viewed with the same level of interest – the message appears to be that the lives of the refugees have a lesser value.
A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – UNHCR)
Over 8,400 men, women and children have risked their lives in an attempt to escape violence in their homeland by piling onto unseaworthy boats in an effort to make it to Europe across the Mediterranean sea in the first six months of this year alone, 3,900 more than the same time last year. Many didn’t make it.
Every single life is precious and despite appearances I believe deep down we value each life highly. Refugees are not nameless and faceless strangers. They are our neighbours, could be our family and friends and, under other circumstances, could even be us. If we can’t offer them a helping hand at least show them enough respect to be sufficiently interested in their plight to know they exist and are living in such fear that they risk their lives and the lives of their families in the hope of enjoying the peace and safety we take for granted. I would like to think that our family and friends who showed concern for our loss this week will spare a thought for the plight of our neighbours forced to flee their homes, wish them a safe journey and welcome them to our shores.