I am sharing time with the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy.
It is several weeks now since the Taliban captured Kabul and the attention of the world was drawn to Afghanistan. Although the gaze of the media has shifted somewhat since the middle of August when we were all shocked by the scenes of panic and chaos at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, there is no doubt that the crisis still continues. It continues for Afghans displaced by conflict and violence, Afghan women and girls, those who depend on humanitarian aid or have simply run out of cash, Afghan human rights defenders, minorities and LGBTQI persons.
This is a humanitarian and human rights crisis. I welcome this debate which highlights the importance the House places on the situation in Afghanistan. From the representations made to my office by many Deputies and the public, it is evident that people have been shocked and saddened by the events of recent weeks. People are quite rightly demanding to know what Ireland has done to respond to this international crisis. I will address this question from a consular perspective - how we have assisted Irish citizens and Irish-resident Afghan citizens during the crisis - and from the perspective of Ireland's engagement in the international political and humanitarian reaction to the evolving situation.
Of course, our first concern as the crisis unfolded was to provide assistance to Irish citizens in Afghanistan who wished to leave the country. My Department and the Irish Embassy in Abu Dhabi worked tirelessly through August and into September to that end. This work continues, including with an additional 11 citizens and dependents evacuated last week on a Qatar plane.
The rapid evacuation effort at the airport in Kabul before the end of August was one of the most complex operations of its kind ever managed by the international community. I deployed an emergency civil assistance team, ECAT, to Kabul to support the consular efforts of staff in Dublin and in the embassy in Abu Dhabi. That team, which comprised consular staff from the Department and members of the Defence Forces, was an example of the close partnerships between the two Departments I lead.
The impact of both geopolitical turmoil and climate change will almost inevitably lead to more situations of rapid onset crisis and there is no doubt that we will be required to assist Irish citizens in increasingly complex and insecure environments in the future. The crisis in Afghanistan saw the first deployment of a joint ECAT since the crisis in Libya in 2011. Both Departments and the Defence Forces have gleaned valuable lessons from that successful deployment which we will use to further improve and enhance readiness and interoperability to manage crisis situations in the future. I wish to sincerely thank the members of the ECAT, diplomatic and military, for their efforts in such a challenging and complex environment, as well as all those who have supported the overall consular response, which has been significant. I also wish to thank our international partners, particularly France, Finland, the UK and Germany, for their assistance in our efforts and helping our citizens.
As Deputies will be aware, a number of Irish citizens and residents remain in Afghanistan and wish to return home. We continue to liaise with partners, including EU partners, regarding safe exit options in the period ahead. To date, 58 citizens and their dependents and family members have safely left Afghanistan. A total of 50 Irish citizens and their direct family members remain in Afghanistan and require ongoing support. Of those 50 citizens, 48 have requested to leave. Additionally, there are a number of Afghan citizens with Irish residency who wish to return to Ireland and my Department is also providing support to them. I know there are many people with deep concerns for family members, friends and colleagues who remain in Afghanistan. I can give full assurance that the Government remains strongly committed to assisting those requiring ongoing consular support in Afghanistan.
As the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, will set out in more detail, in excess of 370 Afghan citizens have been offered support through the Irish refugee protection programme. More than 150 people have already arrived in Ireland. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is leading on the arrangements for them once they arrive. Priority for refugee status has been given to those working on human rights issues, as well as those working with independent media, NGOs and European and international organisations. These are people who have been dedicated to improving and safeguarding the lives of others. They are very welcome here in Ireland.
I have been heartened by the many offers of support from the public to those arriving through this programme. Some people have offered space in their own homes. My Department and our diplomatic network are continuing to engage with those accepted into the refugee programme and their families who have not yet reached Ireland. We are liaising with relevant authorities, airlines and individuals, in particular regarding travel routes. In addition, the Department of Justice is reviewing all international protection applications from Afghan nationals, including family reunification visas, with a view to expediting their progress. This is in line with updated advice provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, in recent weeks. Furthermore, I am very pleased that a new humanitarian admission programme was agreed at Cabinet this week, namely, the Afghan admission programme. This is a further concrete demonstration of Ireland's support for and solidarity with the Afghan people.
I would like to put on record my appreciation for the excellent co-operation and flexibility that I and my Department have witnessed in recent weeks from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and the Department of Justice in responding to the situation in Afghanistan. This collaboration has enabled us to directly assist several hundred people. It is no exaggeration to say that this co-operation has saved lives. I suspect, as the months pass, that well over 1,000 people will be assisted.
I have mentioned already my concerns about human rights and, in particular, the situation of women and girls, as well as minorities, in Afghanistan. It is unacceptable that women are denied their most basic rights. The voices of activists such as Malala Yousafzai and Wazhma Frogh, who addressed the Security Council meeting that I chaired in New York, and human rights defenders such as Hassan Ali Faiz, who addressed the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence yesterday, need to be listened to and heeded. Many are risking their lives and the lives of their families to speak out and make known their expectations to participate in the future of their country. With our fellow EU member states, we will continue to listen to and amplify their messages and promote their right to participate in the political future of their own country.
As I said at the outset, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has reached a full-blown crisis. It is a country of 38 million people. There are already approximately 5 million internally displaced people in Afghanistan.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees have already crossed the borders into Pakistan, Iran and other neighbouring countries. Almost half the population is in need of humanitarian assistance, and one in three Afghans is food insecure. The Afghan Government previously relied on the support of the international community for the majority of its budget, but many of Afghanistan's traditional donors have frozen development aid until the situation stabilises.
The Minister of State with responsibility for overseas development aid and the diaspora, Deputy Colm Brophy, will now provide further details on the humanitarian situation and how we are responding to it.