That Dáil Éireann approves the exercise by the State of the option or discretion under Protocol No. 21 on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland in respect of the area of freedom, security and justice annexed to the Treaty on European Union and to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, to accept the following measure:
Council Decision (EU) 2015/1523 of 14 September 2015 establishing provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy and of Greece,
a copy of which was laid before Dáil Éireann on 24 September, 2015.
I thank Members for making time today to discuss these motions concerning Ireland opting in to two EU Council decisions that provide for the relocation from Italy and Greece of persons in clear need of international protection. As Deputies will be aware, Ireland is not automatically bound by EU measures in the area of freedom, justice and security under the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which includes the asylum area, but may opt in to any measure where it wishes to do so. It is clearly apparent that Europe is facing an unprecedented migration crisis. This is a humanitarian crisis which has continued to escalate and to which there are no simple answers. Both Italy and Greece have experienced unprecedented flows of migrants over the past 18 months in particular, placing significant pressure on their migration and asylum systems. Since the beginning of the year, approximately 116,000 migrants have arrived in Italy in an irregular manner and more than 211,000 have arrived in Greece.
As Members are aware, to date, the Government has been working proactively with its colleagues in Europe to ensure that Ireland and the European Union respond comprehensively to this critical humanitarian crisis facing Europe. Ireland has played its part and many months ago sent some of our naval vessels, including the LE Eithne and subsequently the LE Niamh and the LE Samuel Beckett, to the Mediterranean to carry out vital rescue missions to ensure the safety of many people. These vessels have rescued people in truly horrific conditions, with examples of individuals sitting in tiny dinghies that are completely unseaworthy with petrol spilling into them and people being burnt and unable to move, of young children being on board them, of numbers on vessels far exceeding their carrying capacity and of people being kept in situations in which they could not move and had no chance of surviving when the vessels got into trouble. People have been found in truly horrific positions and I must condemn unequivocally the smugglers who are involved in this regard. Ireland has sent its naval vessels and through Irish Aid, the Government's development co-operation programme, it has been supporting efforts to assist the Syrian people. This measure will see the provision of €41 million in support by Ireland. Deputies will also have noted the decision made by the Council meeting of all the EU Prime Ministers to allocate €1 billion in aid to the refugees and, in particular, to help ameliorate the position within the refugee camps, which had deteriorated. This substantial funding was agreed after the meeting to which I refer and is important in dealing with the many different aspects of the humanitarian crisis.
The decisions being discussed today form part of a package of measures introduced by the European Commission in response to this crisis. The first decision, which was adopted by the Justice and Home Affairs Council of 14 September 2015, provides for the relocation of 40,000 people in clear need of international protection over a two-year period, that is, 24,000 from Italy and 16,000 from Greece. The distribution of these persons was agreed by consensus by member states in July and, under that proposal, Ireland agreed to accept 600 people in the first instance. Since the July meeting, the influx of refugees through the western Balkans in particular has increased dramatically. While there has been a stabilisation in the numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean, there have been huge increases of those coming via the Balkan routes and, consequently, it has become clear that significant further measures were needed. Accordingly, at a further emergency Justice and Home Affairs meeting on 22 September, a second decision which provides for the relocation of a further 120,000 people in clear need of international protection was adopted. In this decision, 66,000 of the 120,000 people will be relocated from Italy and Greece initially. As for the balance of 54,000 people, these will either be relocated from other member states coming under pressure in the future, if necessary, or, alternatively, they could be relocated from Italy and Greece. That number came about because Hungary decided in latter weeks that it did not wish to be a country from which refugees would be relocated and that redistribution of 54,000 people is to be decided. The distribution of the persons to be relocated across member states is set out in the annex to the decision. Ireland has not been included in the annex because we did not opt in to the proposal before it was adopted. It is estimated that Ireland's allocation under this decision would be in the region of 1,850 people.
Three weeks ago, the Government agreed, in response to the crisis situation, to establish an Irish refugee protection programme and to accept up to 4,000 persons overall under the EU resettlement and relocation programmes. Resettlement is when refugees who are already in the camps come to us and relocation pertains to those people who have arrived across the borders in Italy and Greece in particular. Included in the 4,000 people the Government has agreed to accept are 520 people it has agreed to resettle in Ireland from the refugee camps, 600 people to be relocated under the Council's decision of 14 September and 1,850 people who are expected to be relocated under the Council's decision of 22 September. The make-up of the balance is yet to be decided. It is important to note that persons accepted here under these programmes also have an entitlement, once their protection claims are processed, to apply for family reunification if they wish to so do, thereby further increasing the numbers accepted by Ireland. The 4,000 agreed to is in addition to those who reach our shores directly to claim protection. Again, Members will be aware that numbers of people arrive here and claim asylum. Those numbers, in line with the rest of Europe, have increased substantially from the beginning of this year, admittedly from a low base. Ireland has seen probably an increase of 50% in those claiming asylum and that is a separate tract to the subject under discussion this morning.
A task force has been established to co-ordinate and implement the logistical and operational aspects associated with this programme. I chaired the first meeting on 16 September, which was a large meeting attended by all the main Departments that will be involved in providing supports, as well as the agencies, the Red Cross, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, and others. The Irish people also have also shown great generosity in offering support and assistance of all types including accommodation, support to families and children and clothing. There have been thousands of offers of accommodation and the Red Cross has been given the task of drawing together these offers of assistance in a cohesive manner. On Monday last, the Red Cross launched its website to enable members of the public to formally register their pledges. I suggest to Deputies that people who offer help or support should be advised to give their pledge to the Red Cross - which can assess those offers of help - because obviously one must consider the appropriateness and sustainability of all such offers and how they might be taken up, probably more in the medium to long term rather than immediately. I thank the Red Cross for taking on this role.
At its meeting, the Government also approved the establishment of a network of emergency reception and orientation centres for the initial acceptance and processing of those in need of international protection who are accepted into Ireland under the EU programmes. I note the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality heard a presentation yesterday from the two agencies involved and I understand there was much discussion of and detail provided on preparedness at that meeting. The Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, which also was present, has put in place various initiatives to ensure it is ready to deal with the situation. In view of the profile of the relocation applicants, I expect they will have their applications for protection processed in a matter of weeks and that many will be granted status. This is a new programme by the European Commission. It is not like relocation, where refugee status has been granted previously nor does it pertain to asylum seekers arriving directly in one's country. It is about people coming to Ireland, who had arrived in another country, with the expectation that the vast majority are refugees and will be assessed as such.
We have all been shocked and upset at the scenes witnessed in southern and central Europe and the distressing scenes during rescues in the Mediterranean.
Ireland has always lived up to its international humanitarian obligations as is evidenced by our resettlement programmes which has seen almost 500 people resettled here since 2009, our sending of naval vessels to assist in search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, unlike other countries, and the introduction of a Syrian humanitarian admission programme, SHAP, last year which involved 114 persons being granted permission to come to Ireland.
By opting-in to these decisions we will not only provide a safe haven for families and children who are forced to leave their homes due to war and conflict but also show solidarity with other EU member states whose protection systems are under enormous pressure due to the large influx of migrants. I commend the motions to the House.