Earlier this year, while the world was still reeling from the attacks in Paris and Brussels, I was asked about a rumour which some people had seen flying around on Facebook. "Don't go to the Patrick's Day parade in town", a Middle Eastern woman supposedly said, "Stay out if you want to live." Would Isis attack Cork? Over the course of that week I heard that several variations of that rumour were being shared online, but of course it died down once March 17th passed and nothing happened. Not that it ever would have.
Things like this can seem silly and trivial to us, but what about when you consider the impact of social media on young people? I could make up a story where someone told me there would be an incident in town tomorrow afternoon, get my friends and their friends to share it, and before long there's a new rumour making the rounds. I don't for one second blame young people for getting caught up in this, they're still learning about the world. But what they learn about it comes from what they observe, and young people today are exposed to an enormous range of opinion which is at best anti-migrant and anti-immigration and at worst just plan xenophobic and racist – why else was the woman in that rumour Middle Eastern?
Take the Brexit. Nigel Farage, leader of the Pro-Leave United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), last week unveiled a poster showing a long queue of migrants waiting outside the border of Slovenia last year, with the large, sensational caption "Breaking Point". The poster was condemned by politicians and media outlets from all sides as being flagrantly racist, and it was reported to the police for the same reason. It's been pointed out that the poster and its message look very similar to Nazi propaganda from the 1930s.
Farage stood by it, and he's not the only one. Anti-immigrant language in the UK has become louder and louder over the entire Brexit campaign. Meanwhile, in the US, presidential candidate Donald Trump has made loud headlines for his calls to ban Muslims from entering the US and to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
The rise in anti-immigrant feeling is what gives way to rumours like the one above, and what allows people like Farage and Trump to gain support. A picture is built up of an “Us vs. Them” scenario where our very way of life is under threat. Thankfully, our own politicians haven’t quite jumped on this bandwagon but the sentiment still lurks. Last September, the Government committed to taking in 4,000 Syrian refugees. As the general election drew near, polls and surveys revealed that two thirds of Irish people were against this commitment, believing it to be too high and almost half believing it would lead to an increase in crime.
Let’s put that into perspective. According to the CSO’s most recent Population and Migration estimates, there are a little over 4.6 million people living in the Republic of Ireland today. As a percentage, 4,000 refugees would make up 0.09% of that population. Not even 1%. Not even 0.1%. We can manage that, surely?
With the world the way it is, the plight of displaced people isn’t going to simply vanish. Of course, like anything a government does, immigration is something that needs a healthy discussion, with various sides of the debate taken into account. But please let’s not allow an “Us vs. Them” mentality to develop here. If it takes root, as it is in Britain and other parts of Europe, we will be teaching our children and young people that it’s okay to discriminate, it’s okay to dehumanise, and it’s okay to reject those who are less fortunate than us. I don’t believe for a second that that’s Ireland’s future, so let’s make sure it isn’t.