Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Questions (44)

Maureen O'Sullivan


44. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the EU position on Libya; his further views on whether conditions within detention centres in the region are of grave concern; and his plans to address this on a European level. [37371/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

My question relates to Libya, the conditions in the detention centres there and how the Tánaiste can be part of addressing this at a European level.

I am deeply troubled by the escalation of violence in Libya in recent months, which we have spoken about in this House on a number of occasions, particularly the ongoing fighting around Tripoli, which is endangering thousands of civilians and putting already vulnerable migrants and refugees in Libya at further risk.

The EU has called on all parties to implement immediately a ceasefire and to engage with the UN to ensure a full cessation of hostilities. I participated in the May meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council, at which UN Special Representative Salamé briefed us on the situation and the council reiterated the EU's support for the UN-led peace process.

Human rights abuses against migrants and refugees in Libya, particularly in detention centres, are a matter of grave concern. The Libyan Government bears primary responsibility and must manage migration in full compliance with international law, although we are aware that the Government does not have full control over many areas of Libyan territory.

The EU is maintaining political pressure on the Libyan authorities to end the system of detention centres and is working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, and the International Organization for Migration to ensure that other options exist to protect and assist refugees and migrants. The EU High Representative highlighted the priority the EU attaches to this issue when she met the Libyan Prime Minister in May 2019.

Through co-operation with the UN and the African Union, the EU has also helped more than 45,000 people stranded in Libya to return voluntarily to their countries of origin and has evacuated close to 4,000 people in need of international protection. Since many more people remain at risk, the EU will continue to work with its partners to relocate them to safe places.

Ultimately, bringing real improvements to the lives of Libyans, and migrants and refugees in Libya, will require restoration of political stability. Ireland and the EU will maintain pressure on all parties to work towards a negotiated solution to the conflict; ensure access for humanitarian organisations, which is hugely important in order that we can get accurate testimony to what is happening; and, ultimately, to put an end to the system of detention in Libya. I am, however, not unrealistic about the scale of the challenge we face and the timelines to which we are working.

It is extremely difficult to understand why these detention centres in Libya continue to exist for two reasons: first, the conditions which we know pertain to the centres and, second, the fact that the centres are in a country that is not stable and is in conflict. There are two related issues, namely, the forced returns, which the Tánaiste mentioned, and the situation in the Mediterranean. Whether detention centre, forced return or the Mediterranean, there is real psychological and physical trauma to all those involved. Some NGOs took great heart from the Minister's words recently, when he wrote on Twitter:

Migrants stranded in Med need a much more coordinated + collective response from the EU. Ad hoc arrangements on a case by case basis is not sustainable or humane. EU is better than this!

How can the Tánaiste address these issues at EU level? There will be a summit on migration in Valletta, Malta, next week. Will the Government be represented there? If not, why?

I absolutely stand over what the Deputy quoted. I have been quite critical of the EU in terms of our inability to be able to agree collectively an approach not just on migration generally but on the need for humanitarian assistance and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean. I know there is a concern about creating pull factors and so on. There is some legitimacy to that concern, but it is not morally acceptable for the European Union not to put resources into ensuring that people do not drown in the Mediterranean. I was Minister for Defence when we decided to send naval vessels to the Mediterranean, effectively on a humanitarian mission, working in partnership with Italy. I think our ships took about 14,000 people out of the sea. The idea that we would knowingly allow people to drown in the Mediterranean and not have an agreed capacity to respond to that in a more humane way than is currently the case is not acceptable to me, and I have said that on a number of occasions to my Foreign Affairs Council colleagues. That said, the politics of this is really difficult. I hope we will be able to make more progress on this in the context of the new Italian Government, which may, I hope, take a more supportive position on the plight of refugees.

There certainly has been a change in the attitude of the Italian Government. Under the previous Interior Minister, there could be fines of up to €1 million, captains could be arrested and vessels could be impounded. A little progress is being made. The Tánaiste did not indicate whether Ireland will be represented in Valletta.

Whether we are or not, some calls need to be made on this. I support some NGOs such as Médecins sans Frontières, MSF, with regard to a sustainable and predictable disembarkation system that ensures the survivors' well-being. There needs to be an end to the current system of these forced returns to Libya. People are fleeing Libya, being caught and then forced back into dreadful conditions there. We need a more proactive and sufficient European search and rescue capacity. I know what the Italian ministers are trying to do. France and Germany have reportedly given the green light to the new system which would put an end to case-by-case negotiations. Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Romania and Spain are also in agreement. There is no mention of Ireland with regard to that. Is Ireland involved? If we are not going to the Valletta meeting, why not?

Ireland is part of that group. We said that we would play our part in burden sharing so that we would not have this case-by-case series of phone calls every time there is an NGO or state vessel that has migrants on board, in the hope that different countries will take ten, 20 or 30 refugees here or there. We have been doing that for the last year, quietly taking our share and trying to support people in a humane way. We would like to have a system that a large number of the member states of the EU would buy into, otherwise we are unfairly asking certain countries to take too much of the burden. This was the problem for Italy in the first place, which is why politics responded by electing someone who was advocating for a hardline message on migration. We need to help Italy. We also need to ensure that the burden and responsibility are shared. With regard to our attendance at the Valletta meeting, I am not sure because I will be in New York next week, as will the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon. I will check whether we are sending somebody. I have a very good relationship with my counterpart in Malta. I will check whether we are sending somebody to the Valletta meeting.