Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 29 Sep 2021

Vol. 1011 No. 7

Afghanistan Crisis: Statements

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.

I am thankful for the opportunity to have this important debate on the extremely worrying situation in Afghanistan. The current crisis comes against a background of 40 years of conflict, recurrent natural disasters, chronic poverty, drought and the Covid-19 pandemic. The people of Afghanistan have borne many hardships and are now experiencing new suffering, with the most vulnerable, particularly women and girls, most at risk.

Even prior to the events of 15 August, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan was one of the worst in the world. One in three Afghans was facing food insecurity at an emergency level. Half of all children under the age of five were suffering from malnutrition. The UN said this morning that almost half of Afghanistan's population, of 40 million, need humanitarian assistance and protection. This is likely to get worse in the near term. The latest reports from aid agencies on the ground indicate there are now 5.5 million people internally displaced and an additional 15 million Afghans at risk. Within these groups, women and girls are particularly vulnerable. International financing to Afghanistan has been suspended. Development funding has been severely reduced given the changes in government and governance now under way. However, this is happening at a moment when the country's economy and public services are under severe strain, with risks to the delivery of basic services, such as health services and education.

The UN's emergency relief co-ordinator, Mr. Martin Griffiths, recently visited Afghanistan to assess the situation and engage with the new acting administration. I spoke to him on his return. In our conversation, he highlighted the extremely challenging operating environments. He said that in the meeting with the acting Taliban authorities, he stressed the need for humanitarian access and principled humanitarian assistance. He also raised the issues of women's and girls' rights and their protection. These are top priorities for Ireland that we have highlighted in our interventions on Afghanistan at the Security Council, as the Minister has highlighted. In our discussion, Mr. Griffiths and I agreed on the importance of a particular focus on women and girls in the UN humanitarian response over the months ahead. We also discussed how the international community's humanitarian response was, in a sense, a litmus test for engagement between the acting Taliban authority and the international community.

Despite many operational challenges, the humanitarian community is on the ground and delivering much needed aid to millions of people. I thank those aid workers who stayed in Afghanistan to deliver under these most difficult circumstances. Their vital work reminds me of humanitarians in other places who are working in circumstances of conflict and at personal risk to ensure that aid reaches those who are most vulnerable. That is why respect for international humanitarian law is imperative. International humanitarian law helps to protect those who go only to serve. Our humanitarians, more than deserving of our thanks, deserve this respect, this protection.

Through the work of dedicated people, agencies are now scaling up operations across Afghanistan. This is allowing the delivery of community-based education initiatives, food assistance, emergency water supplies, treatment for acute malnutrition and psychosocial support services. Schools are reopening and vaccinations are starting. Airlifts of essential supplies have resumed. It is an extremely complex operation, but it is delivering results on the ground.

Significant challenges remain, however. Critical shortages of medicines and medical supplies are being reported across the country and are attributable to the absence of government funds. The salaries of healthcare workers and teachers have not been paid, in some cases for many months. The provision of humanitarian assistance is, in many cases, the only lifeline available for millions of Afghan people.

Additional funding is urgently required for humanitarian agencies to continue their vital work. The UN launched an urgent appeal for Afghanistan at the high-level ministerial meeting on 13 September. It asks for €515 million to provide assistance to 11 million of the most vulnerable Afghans to the end of the year. The UN has urged donors to fast-track funding and ensure that funding is flexible so that partners can adjust to the fast-changing conditions on the ground. At the high-level ministerial meeting, I confirmed Ireland's intention to do just that. I announced that, in addition to €2 million in Irish Aid funding already provided for Afghanistan in 2021, I had authorised a further and immediate grant of €1 million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, in August. This enabled an urgent response to the needs of the people displaced by the changes in Kabul, both in Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries.

Yesterday I was able to announce a further €2 million in Irish Aid funding to support the vital work of UNICEF and the Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund addressing the humanitarian needs to the end of the year.

UNICEF has a presence in 13 offices right across the country and is in the process of further scaling up operations. Owing to its field presence, mandate and existing network, UNICEF is uniquely positioned to respond to the urgent needs in the areas of education, nutrition and water and sanitation. Its expertise in targeting women and girls is critical in the context of Afghanistan. Community-based education initiatives, for example, comprise one way of continuing girls' education.

The Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund, managed by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, from its office in Kabul, is a pooled fund that enables swift and principled action in response to humanitarian priorities throughout the country. Its field presence means it is able to identify experienced humanitarian partners who can access remote and hard-to-reach locations. Approximately 80% of its funding is allocated to NGOs, both international and national.

The Irish Aid response reflects Ireland's long-standing commitment to the people of Afghanistan, working with partners such as Concern Worldwide and HALO Trust over many years. My officials are in ongoing dialogue with our NGO partners on their plans for continued engagement in Afghanistan and to help ensure the well-being of their staff there. In addition to direct funding, Irish Aid core funding to key humanitarian partners such as UNHCR, UNICEF and the Red Cross Family, as well as global funds such as the UN Central Emergency Response Fund, is essential. This core funding has allowed our partners to react quickly to emerging needs. Only last week, for example, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund allocated €38.25 million to support the delivery of basic health services in Afghanistan. Ireland is proud to have been the tenth largest donor to the fund in 2021.

Our financial support to respond to urgent humanitarian needs in Afghanistan goes hand in hand with our strong engagement and advocacy at the UN Security Council and the EU.

During our Presidency of the UN Security Council this month, and, indeed, for the duration of our term on the UN Security Council, Afghanistan has been a priority for Ireland. We use our membership of the UN Security Council to advocate for a principled humanitarian response in Afghanistan. We also use our membership to advocate for safe, rapid and unimpeded access for all humanitarian workers — both male and female — so they can deliver aid to civilians wherever it is needed. The role of women in the delivery of aid in Afghanistan is critical. If women aid workers cannot operate, there is a real risk that the response will not reach the most vulnerable women and girls with critical supplies and services.

The renewal of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, mandate will play a crucial role in facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid and monitoring any potential abuses. This will be an important test of the Taliban's commitment to allowing full, unfettered humanitarian access, and it is our responsibility to ensure there is no impunity. The international community must speak with one voice on this most critical issue.

Ireland has engaged strongly with the EU. Discussions on Afghanistan have dominated recent meetings of the Working Party on Humanitarian Aid and Food Aid, COHAFA. We supported the development of the European Council conclusions on Afghanistan, which call for full and safe humanitarian access to respond to the urgent needs of all Afghans, including families forced to flee their homes.

At EU level, we have developed key asks to all parties for the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. These include asks on the need for the independent needs assessments that include marginalised populations; impartial and independent humanitarian activities; and safe and unimpeded access for all aid workers — regardless of gender, nationality, religion or ethnicity. These will be critical to ensure we will be able to deliver well-targeted humanitarian assistance that is based on needs, and needs alone.

Earlier this month, the EU announced an additional €200 million in additional humanitarian support to Afghanistan and it is engaged with member states, including Ireland, in the development of a longer-term, Team Europe, response.

The situation of women and girls in Afghanistan merits particular attention. There is a deep concern that there will be a backsliding of gains made in the past two decades for women and girls and, indeed, some of that is obvious already. There are reports of women and girls being denied access to education, further reports this morning of women having been denied access to university, of restrictions on their movement, and reports of violence and violations are becoming all too common. We must put gender and the needs of women and girls at the heart of the humanitarian response in Afghanistan. Never has this been so important.

At that same time Ireland will continue to use its membership of the UN Security Council to consistently call for the protection and promotion of human rights, especially for women and girls.

Finally, we all know that there is no humanitarian solution to a humanitarian crisis. While we have a moral imperative to save lives and livelihoods, reducing humanitarian need over the long term will only be achieved through lasting peace for all the people of Afghanistan. Ireland will remain a strong voice on the UN Security Council advocating for an inclusive, sustainable, political settlement with full, equal and meaningful participation of women and inclusion of minorities and youth.

We also remain steadfastly committed to standing by the Afghan people in their hour of unprecedented humanitarian need. We can be rightly proud of Ireland's support to the Afghan men, women, and children most impacted by this devastating crisis. The House can be assured that my Department, through Irish Aid, will continue to monitor the evolving humanitarian situation on the ground and respond appropriately.

I am sharing time minutes with other Members.

I thank both Ministers for their statements on the devastating situation in Afghanistan and for the people in that part of the world. There are many Afghans in Ireland who have been here for many years and who are very concerned about their family members and others whom they know in that country and how they can manage through this situation.

I also pay tribute to the great number of human rights activists and workers on the ground who have done such great work over the past number of years, in particular since this crisis emerged. I especially welcome the introduction of the Afghan admission programme announced by the Department of Justice yesterday allowing an additional 500 people to resettle in Ireland. Indeed, at the time that the crisis unfolded a number of weeks ago, I joined the calls of many others asking for a proportionate approach to be taken to the resettlement campaign. It is good that the Department has heeded those calls. Indeed, everything should be done to provide flexibility for people trying to leave Afghanistan because before the Taliban took over, it was difficult for many people get travel documents, passports, etc. to leave. It is even worse now as we are hearing reports now of people having passports and travel documents confiscated and they cannot leave because of that. An element of flexibility is needed in respect of all of this.

I also pay tribute to the tireless work of the emergency consular aid team, ECAT, that was sent to Afghanistan by the Department of Foreign Affairs. We heard of the relentless efforts of that team to locate and provide safe passage for Irish passport and visa holders across the airways since the Taliban took over, sometimes at significant risk to themselves.

While I understand that the mess in Afghanistan is certainly not of Ireland’s making, it is probably an issue where we can look more to NATO, the US and other big players on the world stage as to how we got into this situation. At the same time, our seat on the UN Security Council gives us the ability to influence how the situation can be dealt with as it progresses.

Sinn Féin believes that the international community has an opportunity to offer aid to Afghanistan conditional upon reform and the upholding of human rights for all of the citizens, and in particular, for women and minorities. We have all heard about the Taliban carrying out door-to-door searches to identify anyone who poses a threat to their Islamic emirate. Women are, once again, being targeted by them. Before the takeover, one third of the government employees in Kabul were women. We now have testimonies of women being ordered not to return to work, with the exception of women who cannot be replaced by men. Despite the initial promises to be tolerant and inclusive, restrictions have also been introduced on girls attending school. The ministry of women's affairs has been replaced by the ministry for the propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice, which is tasked with enforcing Islamic law.

Protests against the Taliban’s rollback on social progress have been quashed by Taliban forces. Members of the LGBTQI community live in fear of their lives, many of whom are going into hiding or changing their locations for fear of being denounced by their neighbours or even by their own families.

There is a significant issue with the supply of drugs and we need to bear this in mind. There was a recent seizure in India of almost three tonnes of heroin worth €2.72 billion from Afghanistan. Indeed heroin production has been a major source of funding for the Taliban’s campaign since before its return to power and will continue to be so. Afghanistan already supplies between 80% to 90% of the world’s heroin. This situation will worsen as economic conditions in Afghanistan deteriorate. If the international community cannot stabilise Afghanistan, that supply is only going to increase and cause more problems in other parts of the world so this is a completely urgent situation.

When we talk about Afghanistan, much of the discussion is on terrorism and foreign-policy sanctions but we at times forget the people who are left behind and who cannot leave as they are trapped there. Afghanistan is on the brink of an economic meltdown with much of the social infrastructure built up over the past 20 years at the point of collapse. Basic services such as healthcare and education are faltering because teachers and medics are not being paid. For 20 years the economy was run by grants and aid to the tune of $20 trillion, which has effectively been switched off overnight. Coupled with the withdrawal of aid and basic services, everything is quickly breaking down.

We must recognise and understand that the occupation of Afghanistan for 20 years was a dismal failure. Little of the €20 trillion spent every day in Afghanistan was seen to help or assist the ordinary people of this country. We see that reflected in the ease with which the Taliban were able to take over. Had that money been spent to build an inclusive society and build civic leadership within that society, we would be in a different situation. It simply was not. The emphasis was on security and on counterinsurgency measures. Those counter-insurgency measures have, in the long term, been a complete failure because they do not provide for people and only provide for the egos of those in NATO and other organisations who set out with a particular agenda. That is the problem and is why we are in this particular situation.

People are now facing a serious drought and food shortages throughout Afghanistan. This will also lead to further serious, civil unrest and possibly even famine and we also have to be prepared for that. Currently, 2 million children are suffering from malnutrition and 7.3 million people are affected by drought. Afghanistan needs food, water, dams and infrastructure but, above all else, it needs external aid. We believe that any interaction to provide aid into that country can only be brokered on the condition of reform and we have to work to ensure that happens. That is not to say it will be easy. It will be a long and complex process but it is vital that the people of Afghanistan are not abandoned by the international community and I implore the Minister of State to consider what can be done, and in particular, to use our place on the UN Security Council to ensure that we can make certain that the ordinary people of Afghanistan get fair play out of all of this and are looked after because they have not been looked after to date.

Afghanistan has a long and turbulent history of domination by foreign nations. It won its full independence from Britain in the same period as the Twenty-six Counties of the Irish Free State gained independence from the same colonial power. Since that civil war, the occupation by the Soviet Union in 1979 and by the US in 2001 has seen that country in conflict for most of that time and certainly for the past 40 years.

According to Brown University, approximately 241,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zone since the US invasion in 2001. Some 71,000 of those killed have been civilians. For the past 20 years the economy of Afghanistan was run by grants and aid and $20 trillion has been spent by the US since its invasion in 2001. This is a significant amount but since the US withdrawal, the Afghan economy has begun collapsing and inflation is rising.

Hunger and drought rather than conflict pose the gravest danger to ordinary Afghans. Drought is affecting 7.3 million Afghans and more than 2 million children are suffering from malnutrition. What Afghans need most now is water, food and investment in their infrastructure to support themselves.

To date, however, the evidence seems to suggest the Taliban is intent on returning to governing as it did in the past. Therefore, aid must be conditional on reform and on the Taliban respecting international law and protecting all human rights. The people of Afghanistan desire peace and freedom from violence and the international community cannot allow the rights of Afghan women and children to be lost or rolled back as before under the Taliban. Prior to the takeover, one third of government employees in Kabul were women. Women workers were ordered home by the Taliban, with the only exception being those who could not be replaced by men. This is despite an initial promise to be tolerant and inclusive, and restrictions are also being reintroduced on the participation of girls in secondary school. The women's affairs ministry has been replaced with a ministry for the propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice.

Protests against the Taliban's rollback have been quashed with force. Members of the LGTBQI community live in fear of their lives. Many of them have gone into hiding or changed location for fear of being denounced by neighbours or family. There are reports of armed raids to arrest individuals, with families being threatened with punishment if they do not reveal their whereabouts. There is growing alarm over the freedom of the country's media, with reports of threats, detention and violent attacks on journalists. Diplomatic pressure needs to be applied by the international community to stop these regressive steps.

I welcome the fact the mandate of the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan was renewed with unanimous approval on 17 September under Ireland's Presidency of the Security Council. The world community cannot abandon the Afghan people. The Government has a role critical role in ensuring the UN does everything in its power to provide urgently required humanitarian aid and to offer protection of refugees and civilians, now and in the time ahead. Ireland needs to use its position at the UN to be a voice for reason, keeping a focus on the long-term goals of peace and social equality.

I welcome the 500 additional places for Afghan family members but this needs to be expanded and Ireland needs to do more. Certainly, the EU and the broader international community need to step up and do more. Sinn Féin believes the international community has an opportunity to offer aid to Afghanistan, conditional on reform and the upholding of human rights for all citizens, particularly women and minorities.

I welcome the recent announcement by the Government of the provision of 500 additional places for Afghan families here. The Minister stated that the people are very welcome and I wholeheartedly agree. They will add a great deal to Irish society and culture and will be a welcome addition. Following on from Deputy Martin Kenny's comments on that figure of 500, it is important it not be stuck to and adhered to rigidly. We have to be flexible and open to changes. I have no doubt the Minister believes the same and I would like to hear a commitment from him in that regard.

The Afghan people have known nothing but war and occupation since the 1970s and it appears painfully clear the US never learned from the mistakes of previous wars. Since invading Afghanistan in 2001, the US has spent €2.3 trillion on the war, much of which was siphoned away by rampant institutionalised corruption. The US pursued a policy that prioritised spending on tanks, guns and bombers, rather than focusing on advancing and improving the lives of ordinary Afghans, both rural and urban. For all the trillions of euro spent, Afghanistan still has one of the smallest formal economies on the planet. Today, 10 million children are in need of emergency assistance, with many of them suffering from severe malnutrition. Countries can be occupied by sheer brute military force, but that alone cannot create the new progressive nation so many Afghans have dreamed of. Sadly, for the moment, that hope has been lost.

Senator Higgins recently organised a briefing on events in Afghanistan and the accounts from some of the contributors were harrowing. US and NATO war crimes in the region, and a lack of accountability for those who carried out these crimes, played into the hands of the extremist Taliban and kept much of the rural population cautious about US and NATO forces. Many of these war crimes only became public knowledge to us in the West thanks to the likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, people who risked everything to shine a light on the dark, shadowy actions of the US Government. Julian Assange has been incarcerated in Belmarsh Prison in London since 2019, even though his sentence has long been served. The UN special rapporteur on torture examined Mr. Assange in prison and concluded that he showed all the symptoms typical of prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma. The question must be asked as to how long it will be before Ireland and the EU speak out and say enough is enough and demand that Julian Assange be freed.

This State's co-operation in respect of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has cast a dark shadow over our proud legacy of peacekeeping. Since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, more than 10,000 military and military-contracted aircraft have passed through Shannon Airport, carrying some 3 million US soldiers and an untold number of weapons. Indeed, according to research, the airport has been used on a number of occasions by the US Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, during extraordinary rendition to carry prisoners to CIA black sites for advanced interrogation - more commonly known as torture. As Eduardo Galeano put it, every time the US "saves" a country, it converts it into either a madhouse or a cemetery. Time and again, these words have proven true.

I compliment the Minister's office and Irish Aid for the commitment of these agencies and the delivery of overseas aid. The circumstances in which they work is difficult and challenging and it is important to acknowledge the contribution they have made to both Ireland and these deeply challenged communities throughout the world.

I welcome the Government's decision to take in an additional 500 refugees. That is to be commended and acknowledged, as my party colleagues have done.

I cannot even begin to imagine the experience of women and girls in Afghanistan over the past month. My thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones or fled their homes or who feel they are no longer safe and have no hope. The US, Britain, NATO, the UN and the EU have all failed the people of Afghanistan, but in particular the women and children. They have failed future generations who will now be born into an unequal, segregated, fear-filled, oppressive society. Ireland, given its role on the UN Security Council, needs to work to undo this harm and extend a hand of peace and support to the men and women, boys and girls, in Afghanistan, who have now had 43 sleepless nights since the Taliban took over.

My wife is a secondary school teacher and we have two daughters. When they were younger and we talked at home as a family, we would talk about their dreams and ambitions and what they wanted to do when they grew up. I would always smile when they talked about being scientists or artists. They play sports and love camogie. My heart goes out to the mothers and fathers in Afghanistan now who look at their children and think of their futures, because their daughters will not have the same future. They might never have had the same future my daughters had, but they certainly had the possibility of a much better one than they do now. There are parents now who in July were listening to the same stories from their daughters, who wanted to be vets, doctors, nurses or teachers. Those girls have had their dreams ripped away from them, practically overnight.

We need to send a clear message, to my daughters, to the Minister's daughters and to the daughters in Afghanistan, that this is not right or acceptable. We need to work together, through the UN Security Council and the EU, to let those girls know that they have a future, that we will help in every way we can and not forget them, and that we will ensure there are pathways through European and UN states to give them a chance in the future.

We must ensure that there are places for these girls in our colleges, universities, internships and positions, and in our society in the future. We cannot lose their potential. This is the bare minimum we can offer them. As the saying goes, "Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí" - if we support the young people, they will prosper. I want every girl, woman and everyone in Afghanistan who has suffered so dreadfully in the past month and over decades to know that people are thinking of them tonight. People are planning, hoping and working. I hope these statements will send the message, no matter how small, that people in Ireland and in this Chamber are thinking of them and their human rights.

We will support the Minister and the Government in everything they can do to support the people of Afghanistan. It is morally right and, for a country with a history like Ireland's, the Irish people would want us to do it.

I begin by expressing my appreciation to the Business Committee for scheduling this truly important debate at the request of my colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, with whom I will share time.

Like millions of others, I watched with fear and concern as the Taliban forces advanced towards Kabul in August and regained total control of Afghanistan. We were aware of the type of regime the Taliban implemented 20 years ago, when it was last in power in Afghanistan, with the oppression of women, the exclusion of girls and women from education, employment and public life itself and the brutal implementation of a variety of Sharia law, including amputations and death by stoning. The world cannot be blind or indifferent to that type of regime being established yet again and to half of the population of a nation being literally removed and obliterated from society.

There are a number of different, but urgent, issues that we, as a small country, can address. The World Food Programme warned last week that only 5% of the people of Afghanistan had enough food to eat. The ongoing drought, soaring prices and economic collapse are together building a humanitarian disaster. Our first task is to work to ensure that the world, acting together, provides sufficient food for the Afghan people to survive the coming winter and provides shelter for the millions of displaced people in Afghanistan to be able to endure the coming harsh weather. I listened to colleagues say that our support has to be conditional on change. I understand that. It is a major moral dilemma for us. However, I do not believe we have any choice but to provide, in these days, weeks and months, whatever is needed to the people of Afghanistan to allow them to live. We can certainly deal with the Taliban authorities, refuse to recognise them and even hold off releasing their international funds, but we must get food, shelter and relief to the people immediately.

Our second task is to address and support the millions of Afghans who are refugees in neighbouring countries, notably in Pakistan and Iran. These are people who fled for their lives, bringing virtually nothing with them. There are up to 3 million refugees in Iran. They fear being returned because the Iranian authorities say they will return them. Conditions in Pakistan are precarious too. The inflation rate there is 9% and there is huge pressure on existing natural resources. Pakistan has had 1.5 million Afghan refugees for decades and hundreds of thousands more have arrived in recent weeks. It cannot be expected to be able to carry that burden without significant aid.

Third, what can Ireland do immediately? Yesterday, as other Members have acknowledged, it was announced that up to 500 Afghans are to be given temporary residency rights in the State. A special admission programme for family members of the 1,200 Afghans living in the State will allow up to 500 to come here. I listened carefully to the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, on the radio yesterday. The families here would be required to house and maintain them. There are also limits on the number per family to be allowed in. The impossible task of selecting which of their family members in peril, sometimes in peril of their lives, can come is to be left to the Afghan families residing here. Of course, since they have to be maintained and housed by them, it is also, in essence, a means-tested scheme. We have to think again about that. We cannot ask people to carry that burden.

There is much more that must be said about these matters, but I want to give time to my colleague. However, I hope the Government will discuss that particular programme with the Opposition and think again.

I thank the Government for allowing these statements tonight and allocating a good amount of time for them. That is important. I first made the request for the statements some weeks ago, when the airlifts and chaos were happening. I am glad the statements are taking place now because we have had a couple of weeks of the Taliban being in control and seeing what the Minister called the backsliding happening already and how it is impacting the people of Afghanistan. We have heard in the contributions about the impact that this intolerable medieval regime is having right now and will have in the future. We know it because it has been in power previously. I will return to that.

I have a short amount of time and I wish to focus on two matters. With our role on the UN Security Council, and I am delighted that we are on the Security Council, I ask that the Minister and Ireland speak strongly about the role of private security companies in conflict zones and in peacebuilding. They play a vexatious role. If the Iraq War was the gold rush boom for the private security companies, Afghanistan was their pension pot. It was a nearly 20-year war and conflict zone in which private security companies absolutely coined it, not just in battle but also in training and in the provision of everything, including food, supplies and education. This was a privatised war and a privatised peacebuilding effort that ultimately failed. A retired Irish Army colonel, Ray Lane, on "Today with Claire Byrne" a month ago spoke about his experience there. I am 99% sure it was him and I apologise if it was not. He cited the role of private security companies and their failure in any efforts to peacebuild effectively. How can one win the hearts and minds of a nation when one goes in and then outsources the very job one went there to do? I refer, of course, to the United States and its active allies in this. That is a major global question, and we are well placed, given our history of neutrality and our history in the United Nations, to lead on the role of private security companies and how they operate throughout the world. What they have done in Afghanistan is absolutely abhorrent and has led to where we are today.

I welcome the announcement yesterday regarding the 500 Afghans. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, has entered the Chamber. I know him and I am aware of his work. I know what he achieving and trying to achieve in that regard. I am glad he is in his current position because I know we will welcome as many as we can. Nonetheless, it is still a drop in the ocean. However, if we can welcome, house and make safe those we can, that is the least we could do.

We are talking about the impact on girls and women. If people want specifics about the barbarity that is ongoing, I ask them to read the article on the BBC website by Elaine Jung and Hafizullah Maroof entitled "Giving Birth under the Taliban".

It is an horrific and frightening article. I will read two lines from it:

Rabia is cradling her newborn baby, just days after giving birth at a small hospital in Nangarhar province in Afghanistan's east. "This is my third child, but the experience was totally different. It was horrible," she says.

In a matter of weeks, the birthing unit Rabia delivered her baby in had been stripped down to its bare basics. She was given no pain relief, no medicine and no food.

That is happening now and has been happening in the years and months leading up to this. Anywhere the Taliban got in, this was being foreshadowed. With the rules requiring women to be chaperoned, men must accompany women to appointments for the maternity care. The cultural norms are different. Husbands and partners do not accompany women to birthing appointments in Afghanistan. This is leading to women missing their appointments as the husbands are not going because it is not the cultural norm. Women are missing their very important appointments throughout their pregnancy and then giving birth in these horrific conditions. One part of the article states they are required to bring their own supplies, including one woman who had to bring her own scalpel for her caesarean section delivery. This is the barbarity that is happening in Afghanistan and will continue to happen.

We all have a question about this regime. We can take as many refugees as we want and we can give as much aid as we want, but ultimately millions of women will live in that country. What do we do? How do we tolerate a regime like this on this planet? I do not have the answer to that question but we all must face it with honesty because the answers are not easy.

I welcome the attention that the Dáil is devoting tonight to the situation in Afghanistan and the terrible plight of its people. Like me, Members will have been distressed by the images of men, women and children enduring atrocious conditions outside Kabul Airport over many days just for the simple chance to flee Afghanistan, their home, and to get to a third country.

When we see scenes such as these, hear the pleas of people in Afghanistan whose lives are in immediate danger and reflect on our country's own history of conflict and hunger, it is incumbent on us to do all we can to help. As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, what I heard from the people in Ireland were calls for compassion and solidarity. Irish people wanted the Government to represent the best of them. We have had offers of housing and employment. People have offered their time to befriend and help to integrate those who have come here. These offers came from right across the country, from cities, towns and rural areas. In responding to the crisis in Afghanistan, the Government has sought to live up to those intentions.

My Department has been engaged since July, when it became apparent the Taliban would take over and there would be a serious threat to human rights. Our efforts have been to deliver an effective humanitarian response under the Irish refugee protection programme, IRPP, in this case one focused solely on Afghan nationals. To date, my Department has offered almost 400 people the chance of a new life in Ireland as refugees. I have worked actively with my colleagues, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys and the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, and our respective officials to create a number of pathways to Afghan citizens coming to Ireland and to respond quickly to the magnitude of the crisis in that country.

During this period, my Department has co-operated with a wide range of organisations, including Amnesty International, the Irish Refugee Council, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the UNHCR, to identify individuals and families whom we could welcome to Ireland under the IRPP. We have prioritised human rights defenders, people supporting women’s organisations, LGBTI+ activists, journalists and those most at risk from the Taliban takeover.

A total of 163 people have arrived so far either directly from Afghanistan or from third countries. Exit from Afghanistan was and remains extremely difficult for those fleeing the country. Many of the people we have offered places to as refugees here are still in Afghanistan, many in hiding there, but those offers remain live and valid.

Arrangements for those arriving in Ireland have been made by staff of the Irish refugee protection programme who are also assisting with access to services, accommodation, education and employment. More people will arrive over the coming weeks. Our work continues daily. We continue to identify further individuals and families to whom we will offer access to the Irish refugee protection programme.

Even as media attention on Afghanistan may wane, the threat of the Taliban will remain and our work will continue over the months ahead. While Ireland does not have a presence in Afghanistan or the means to get individuals or families out of that country, we have offered support and advice to those seeking access to a third country and from there to travel to Ireland.

The IRPP has proactively co-operated with organisations and individuals in the interests of helping the widest number of people. From the beginning, we have used community sponsorship as a way of supporting Afghan refugees. Community sponsorship mobilises communities to come together to support refugees and to help them to integrate into their local areas. Many of the Afghan refugees arriving in Ireland already have fluent English and are highly skilled. The local networks will help them quickly to become established in Ireland and access suitable employment.

I thank those community sponsorship groups and other groups which have already reached out with help and who are enabling us to support Afghan families and individuals in need of assistance. Their commitment of time, resources and expertise is giving many Afghans the chance of new lives here in Ireland in peace and safety. The interpersonal relationships, which are at the heart of community sponsorship, offer programme refugees very good outcomes for their integration into our communities in Ireland. My Department is funding regional support organisations which provide information, training and support to communities interested in establishing community sponsorship arrangements. I would like to highlight the important work being done by Amnesty International, Nasc, the Irish Refugee Council, Doras Luimní and the Irish Red Cross to support the community sponsorship programme. My Department can provide information to Deputies on the process if communities in their constituencies are interested in establishing new community support groups or are willing to assist arrivals in other ways.

I acknowledge the work of the IRPP unit in my Department and particularly the leadership shown by Eibhlin Byrne. They have worked tirelessly over recent weeks to respond to the crisis and to find innovative ways of making our resources go further in the interests of supporting as many people as possible. They have demonstrated a strong commitment to helping people in the very greatest need.

The Government has been responsive to the level of need in Afghanistan as the scale of this crisis has grown. We allocated 150 refugee places initially and then revised that number upwards in light of demand and in light of the scale of the tragedy in that country. The programme anticipates there will be ongoing demand from Afghan women, men and children for places in the programme over the months and possibly years ahead. The IRPP will provide further admissions on a humanitarian basis for Afghan refugees in the period ahead.

However, there are constraints as to what we can do immediately. The programme is comprehensive and offers accommodation as well as intensive supports to those admitted to it. Obviously, resources are not unlimited. I make that point because Ireland has existing obligations to resettle citizens from other countries also at risk and in need of our help. We have admitted programme refugees from Myanmar this year, who had been placed at danger because of their opposition to the military coup there. Earlier this month, 50 Syrian refugees arrived in Ireland. They had come from Greece and some of them had been rendered homeless by the fire at the Moria camp on Lesbos last year.

We also have ongoing commitments to bring unaccompanied minors to Ireland from Greece. In the past two months, 28 unaccompanied minor children have arrived in Ireland from Greece. This is on foot of the additional €5 million funding I was able to provide to Tusla in this year’s budget to ensure it can provide proper aftercare support, including residential support to these unaccompanied minors from Greece and Syria. All separated children who arrive in Ireland are received into care. The children are placed with families or in small residential settings of not more than six children. These children have the same entitlements as all other children in the care of the State.

On behalf of Tusla, I recently launched a campaign, Fáilte Care, specifically to recruit foster carers for unaccompanied minor children. There was a very strong response to this. Tusla received more than 500 inquiries from people wanting to learn how to become a carer for a separated child.

In light of our finite resources and the competing demands for places on our programme, we will have to prioritise those most at risk and most in need of our help. That may involve difficult choices depending on the numbers seeking admission to Ireland in the months ahead.

We continue to fulfill our other obligations. Earlier this month there was a mission to Lebanon to engage with our responsibilities under the 2019 UNHCR global compact on refugees. Officials in the Irish refugee protection programme were engaged in a selection mission in Lebanon. They spoke with more than 260 individuals with a view to bringing many of them to Ireland. Of those, 139 are children and many of those children have been engaged in child labour while they have been refugees in Lebanon. Many of the women who were spoken to have been the subject of sexual violence. A similar selection mission is planned for Jordan later this year.

Ireland has a proud record in humanitarian assistance and this year we have maintained that record. Sadly, when the risk involves an entire population, as is the case with the people of Afghanistan, we will not be able to help everyone in the country. Enabling people to come to Ireland as programme refugees is a necessary crisis response. We know that coming to Ireland comes at a significant personal cost to refugees. They have to leave their former lives behind including their family, friends, community, culture and employment. For many these losses mark their lives even when they manage to integrate successfully into their new communities. Enabling people to become programme refugees in Ireland is necessary where a person is at immediate risk. It is not the answer, however, to the wider challenge faced by millions of people in Afghanistan who are now deprived of essential rights and Deputies Duncan Smith and Howlin referred to that.

If we are to support the essential human rights of the Afghan people more broadly, we have to use all available opportunities to remind the Taliban and their backers that human rights matter. We have to reiterate the importance of women’s equality, the rights of LGBTI+ people, the right of girls to education and the rights of all people to democratic representation. I will use all opportunities at my disposal to promote respect for human rights in Afghanistan and to support those working to defend human rights there. We can all play our part in showing solidarity with Afghan human rights and equality activists who have demonstrated such courage in working to protect the rights of the many groups at risk in Afghanistan. It will continue to be important to let the people of Afghanistan know that their rights to equality, safety and self-fulfilment remain legitimate and that such rights should be capable of vindication. The space for change is limited at the moment but we can plant seeds that may grow in the future.

The Government has responded proactively and generously to support Afghan women, men and children who are at risk and it will continue to do so. The generosity of Irish people and communities is enabling the Government to help as many people as possible. Some 400 Afghans have been admitted to Ireland through the Irish refugee protection programme and 500 will be admitted through the Afghan admissions programme announced by the Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys, yesterday. Another 300 Afghans have been admitted through existing family reunification processes. These 1,200 people represent a significant statement by Ireland that we will always be there to help the most vulnerable. As Deputies have mentioned, it is incumbent on other EU countries and other developed countries to likewise step up. Working together, we will be able to offer hope to Afghan women, men and children. We will be able to support more people to create new lives with us in Ireland, safe from harm and secure in the knowledge that their rights are respected.

Whatever our plan is and whatever engagement we have on Afghanistan, I would agree with what many previous speakers have said in that it has to be from the point of view of putting human rights in a primary position. I welcome what the Minister has said about the 1,200 people who are being facilitated to come here. That is necessary work and it is a piece of humanity that we have to offer. It is incumbent on other states, particularly on those with power and wealth, to deliver for these people. We have to use our position on the UN Security Council to ensure that the international community does the best it can.

We must accept that we are not starting from a particularly good place. We are all in fear of what the Taliban has done in recent times and of what it is capable of doing. The Taliban is not a monolith and there may be sections within it that are looking to keep the show on the road as far as Afghanistan is concerned. The international community has to be clear on what is acceptable and basic human rights have to be acceptable. If we go back in time there was a point when the Americans had no major difficulty dealing with the Taliban. That was long before 11 September 2001 when they saw it as a possible force for security in the region, a region America played a huge part in destabilising.

You do not need to be a major student of history to accept that few of those engaged in putting US and other international plans in play as they impacted Afghanistan necessarily read a whole pile of history. Everybody knows that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires or a breaker's yard for empires. It is where the Americans decided the Soviets would have their Vietnam and they had no difficulty in ensuring that all the resources they believed were required were put in. This was long before the trillions of dollars that were spent in the recent war in Afghanistan. The mujahidin would not have been able to put up much of a fight if it were not for the weapons that were brought through, that the CIA facilitated and that the Americans paid for. The same number of helicopters would not have fallen if it had not been for the stinger missiles the CIA provided the mujahidin with.

We all know that due diligence was not done on who the money and resources went to. They went to the wrong people and to who the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, ISI, decided they would go to. These people did not have America's best interests at heart. As the Americans saw it the job was complete and they left after the mujahidin had for all intents and purposes beaten the Soviet Union and played a major role in winning the Cold War as they saw it. Those elements of the mujahidin then went to war with each other and eventually the Taliban took over. Then we had the situation where the Taliban allowed al-Qaeda to operate and we know the history of America with that. No one would ever consider standing over what then happened and the brutal crime that was visited on America. There might have been options at that point to deal with al-Qaeda without engaging in a war that was an abject failure and that cost 20 years and trillions of dollars.

The big regret in any of these situations is the fact that had that money been spent on something other than armaments and on destroying whatever level of infrastructure and economy there was in Afghanistan, we could possibly be in a better place. The international community and the American regime in particular did not do justice to those who lost their lives on 11 September 2001. In no way, shape or form was justice done for those people who have suffered over the past 20 years. We are dealing with it, we have to set out to do better in the future and we have to do whatever we can to facilitate the people of Afghanistan.

I want to thank the wonderful staff at every level of the Department of Foreign Affairs in the strongest terms, be they in the human rights unit, the diplomatic corps or elsewhere. The staff at every level of the Department have worked tirelessly to seek safe passage and sanctuary for those Afghan-Irish citizens needing to flee, for front-line defenders to whom we are providing sanctuary, for those people who are here or who will arrive shortly to our refugee protection programme, or for those in the new special admissions programme for Afghan citizens which was approved at yesterday's Cabinet meeting.

In a parliamentary democracy, I make no apologies for disagreeing with the Government on fundamental issues that pertain to taxation, spending, policy and approach. However, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the words of Hassan Ali Faiz, a member of Front Line Defenders who addressed the foreign affairs committee yesterday, having arrived in Ireland with his wife and daughter following a dangerous and traumatic journey while fleeing from Afghanistan. He told the committee that what the Government did in the current Afghan crisis to protect human rights defenders and journalists rekindled faith and belief in the great cause of human rights. It revived hope in human rights defenders that they are not alone and that there are friends out there who will recognise their noble work when they feel helpless and hopeless. All those involved in aiding Hassan and his family, and others like him, to come here safely should be commended in the strongest terms. Our only purpose now in this Chamber should be to find out how we can help many more people like Hassan and his family here, in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

I started with thanks and now I want to highlight some concerns about the scheme, simply to see where it may be improved. We all received communication from the Irish Refugee Council today. I echo some of its thoughts on the scheme announced yesterday in terms of how we can better aid the Afghan people who may arrive here in the coming months and how more of them could be brought in. There was broad recognition following its announcement that the new special admission programme for Afghan nationals had been improved by the Cabinet. There were some concerns and recommendations regarding the scheme. There was a request that the proposed commencement date be brought forward from December to October to reflect the urgency of the current situation in Afghanistan and the real risk to the lives of individuals there. In addition, it should remain open for a reasonable length of time to allow people to submit applications and gather their documents.

There were concerns that the proposed 500 places would be inadequate to meet the needs of the Irish-Afghan community's family members, who are equally at risk. Members of that community have urged the Department that each application be considered on its merits without a cap on numbers. They have asked that the limit of four family members per sponsor is removed. This arbitrary limitation does not preserve family unity and is not based on the factual position in Afghanistan, where entire family subgroups are at immediate risk of persecution.

While the focus on prioritising these groups of people is laudable, the categorisation must not be operated to limit the possibility of other groups that may qualify as beneficiaries. Others might equally be at risk, whether they are individuals from ethnic minorities, including men from the Hazari ethnic group, or former state employees. It is not possible or advisable to specify every group that may suffer and any such criteria should be applied broadly so as not to exclude individuals at risk. While single female parents and single women and girls are extremely important categories of persons at risk, it must be recognised that many married women are also at risk and it is not appropriate to wait until such time as their husbands have been killed, or forcibly recruited to the Taliban, to enable them and their families to reach safety, where necessary. It is believed to be essential that meaningful operation of the programme means having a broad definition of eligible beneficiary that is operated flexibly and does not result in such arbitrary exclusion of individuals. The new humanitarian admissions programme, HAP, must be adequately resourced and staffed to process applications quickly in recognition of the urgency of the situation. There is a recognition that understaffing may be taking place and this should be addressed as a matter of urgency.

There are concerns that provisions in the new scheme may replicate the documentary requirements of previous schemes. This programme will have to acknowledge the real challenges individuals in Afghanistan face in obtaining their identity documents, especially passports. Many individuals do not have passports, or have passports that have expired, and cannot apply for them at this time. Even if the Taliban resumes the issuing of passports, presentation to apply for a passport may expose individuals to danger. Even those who have held valid passports may not be able to exit their safe hiding places to collect them. It will be necessary to take a flexible approach in respect of documentation in light of the crisis nature of the situation. Canada, for example, is waiving passport requirements for certain categories of Afghans seeking to join family members there. Other possibilities include relying on available documentation or undertaking remote interviews.

There must be discretionary family reunification visas. Under the International Protection Act 2015, people with refugee status or subsidiary protection have a right to family reunification with the spouse to whom they were married when they left their country of origin. Minor children who are still under the age of 18 at the time of application for family reunification also have that right. Children have a right to be reunited with their parents and siblings who are minors. The family reunification policy document provides a policy around applications for visas for persons who fall outside the right to family reunification under the International Protection Act. Generally, the family reunification visa process is highly restrictive, requiring the physical receipt at the Irish embassy in Abu Dhabi of the applicants' passports and other identity and support documents and, very significantly, income and financial proofs on the part of their sponsor. In Ireland, this is €70,000 net in the case of an elderly parent.

Other suggestions have been made on the process and legal pathways that are responsive to the challenges faced by individuals in respect of documentation during the humanitarian crisis. Putting in place an electronic processing system so that electronic copies of passports and other documentation can be uploaded to a secure portal for the processing of applications would make it much safer for Afghan individuals than trying to get their passports out of the country for consideration in visa applications.

There are additional suggestions. We should encourage universities, employers and others to set up and expand student scholarship schemes or work visas that cover Afghans and, where applicants have been identified, to provide that it is an administrative requirement to issue relevant visas swiftly. We should act on expressions of support from individuals, groups, faith-based and diaspora organisations, municipalities, cities and universities to welcome Afghan refugees by setting up and expanding opportunities for community sponsorship and humanitarian corridors.

Other important issues are related to, if slightly outside of, the scope of what we are discussing. We need to believe people when they tell us they are fleeing danger, persecution or the threat of murder in their home countries. There has been a worrying trend of increased levels of leave to remain refusals that were apparent pre-pandemic. In 2017, 3,746 persons were refused entry to the State, 4,795 persons were refused entry in 2018 and 7,455 persons were refused entry in 2019. Not only has there has been an overall increase in refusals, and I fully accept not everyone can be accepted, these have increased from countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen where people's lives are clearly at risk. We know people are coming from unsafe, in-conflict zones, so how can we turn around and say we do not believe them when there is a dearth of information on refusals? Refusals of leave to land also impact on a person's potential future as it is considered to matter for future immigration applications. It echoes through all future visa applications made by a person refused leave to land so there is a heightened responsibility that it is only ever used appropriately and with the knowledge and burden of both the emotional distress and future impact it can have on a person.

When we talk about Afghanistan, we should also talk about complicity and future threats. I will raise a number of issues. The Taliban has profited exponentially from the continuing heroin trade. Over the coming years, that will create a danger for us in the West as the Taliban seeks to flood it with heroin and to maximise the taxation they will accrue on it. There were some suggestions in its first press conference that it would cease to trade. That has proved not to be the case and it will have ramifications not only for the Afghan people but for all of us in the West. That needs to be addressed and looked at. There is also the issue of complicity and the question of what it was all for. America was attacked on 9/11 but it responded by replicating the evil it sought to confront. We should reflect on our role within that and what constitutes true neutrality. It is my firm belief, as it is for many in this Chamber, that Shannon Airport should not support the military incursions of any state if it seeks to attack another. The world is not safe 20 years on. The strong continue to do what they will, while the weak will suffer what they must. We should be a proud and strong republic. Let this be a line in the sand in terms of Ireland's acquiescence in the use of our airports for the purpose of American militarism.

I welcome this week's announcement of approval by the Cabinet for a special admission programme for Afghan nationals. While it is welcome, I have some recommendations that have been articulated very succinctly by Deputy Gannon and the Irish Refugee Council.

I feel the proposed commencement date should be brought forward to October to reflect the urgency of the situation in Afghanistan and the real risk to individuals there at the moment. I also feel it needs to remain open for a reasonable length of time to allow people to submit their applications and to gather the necessary documentation. I am also concerned that the proposed 500 places will be inadequate to meet demand, and I get a sense there is a belief we will be taking in additional Afghans in the future. That is to be welcomed.

A large number of Irish-Afghan community family members are at risk, as are many Afghan families who have made a connection with Ireland or Irish aid and humanitarian workers and communities in the region. I am pleased the guidelines for the new scheme identify that it will prioritise those who are especially vulnerable in terms of risk to their freedom and safety. This also includes people whose previous employment exposed them to greater risk, for example, UN and EU employees, and people who worked for civil society organisations in Afghanistan.

Prior to this week's announcement I have already brought to the attention of the various Ministers the situation pertaining to three Afghan families. In those specific cases, their applications would be challenged under the new guidelines as they are five- or six-person family units, as opposed to the guideline specification of a family unit as four people. I am anxious that all three families are considered under the programme as their situation has been brought to my attention by Longford native Ms Rose Kane, who is currently working with the UN in Sudan. Previously, Rose would have worked closely with the lead applicants in each family during her time in Kabul as part of an international humanitarian effort. One of the applicants is a lawyer currently working for a local non-governmental organisation, the Supporting Vulnerable People organisation, and has a long record of human rights effort with an emphasis on women's rights in Afghanistan. The people of Longford are especially proud that Rose and many others have put their hands up and committed to humanitarian aid and effort overseas. It is very much the mark of a modern nation and a compassionate community that we are prepared to step forward and champion those faced with the darkest of challenges. Both my constituent and her colleague from County Mayo are very supportive of these applications and, indeed, Mayo man Mark Flanagan is one of 75 UN international staff who have remained in Afghanistan to keep humanitarian operations running in the most difficult circumstances.

This House truly appreciates and understands that the security situation in Kabul is deteriorating, day by day. It will be necessary to have all the paperwork in order and to take the opportunity when it comes to allow people to travel safely out of Kabul. For that reason, it is critical we bring forward the commencement date of the new resettlement scheme to October.

I thank the Ministers involved, in particular the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, for the chance to come here today and articulate the case for these families. I would hope they can be included in a resettlement programme that I, as an Irish citizen, am immensely proud of.

I welcome this week's announcement of the updated Afghan admissions programme and plan for family reunification. I thank the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, for their leadership on this important issue.

Ireland has always been a world leader when it comes to offering support and aid to countries in turmoil and I am glad we have moved so quickly to support the people of Afghanistan. We have given 340 humanitarian visas to activists, those with Irish connections and women at particular risk in Afghanistan. Some 150 of them have already arrived on our shores and I know we will work to ensure the remaining people arrive here safely as soon as possible.

I welcome that we are continuing to expedite the protection applications of Afghans in Ireland and we are taking responsibility for Dublin III and inadmissible applications. This all amounts to a huge amount of support for families and for individuals living through the nightmare that has once again unfolded in Afghanistan in recent months. If we can further increase these numbers and extend our support, we absolutely should.

I thank Senator Alice-Mary Higgins who this week organised an Oireachtas briefing on the situation in Afghanistan. With all the news coverage and social media posts we see, it is easy to think we know what is going on in Afghanistan and that we understand and appreciate the trauma people are suffering when really what we see is just the tip of the iceberg. In Senator Higgins's briefing, we heard from Afghan nationals who are simply terrified for the safety and well-being of their family members. We heard horrific stories of families being torn apart, of young women and girls being kidnapped by the Taliban and used as bargaining tools to pay off their families' debts to a terrorist regime. What was their families' crime? Working for the former government and being hard-working and well-educated citizens. That was their crime.

Many had hoped that the Taliban's charm offensive of being reformed and reasonable could be believed, but that was never going to be the case. Activists are in danger, as are the outspoken, those who protest, members of the LGBTA+ community and women across Afghanistan. The past 20 years saw huge strides being made for equality and education, particularly for women, in Afghanistan. However, in a few short weeks, that has all been destroyed. Women have resumed their former place as second-class citizens. They are no longer safe, even inside their own homes.

I welcome the initiative that Ireland has taken to support and welcome Afghan citizens to our country and I hope we will do more. In August, I was inundated with messages and emails from constituents calling on the Government to support the people of Afghanistan. The people of Ireland want to welcome Afghan nationals to our nation. While I very much welcome the new family reunification measures, I am concerned about asking Afghan people in Ireland to choose which four of their family members should come to Ireland. Families do not come neatly in fours. I do not think I could make that decision and I am not in such a traumatic situation.

I would also ask that leeway around the technical elements of visas and reunification be looked at. Digital copies of passports and IDs should be accepted from those looking to come to Ireland, given the exceptional circumstances. We must also be aware that for some of these people, the location of their ID or passport might not be known to them. Perhaps they have never had a passport. Perhaps their child does not have ID. As we continue to support the people of Afghanistan and welcome them to Ireland, these are straightforward and simple steps we could take to make the process just a little easier. I hope the Minister will consider this and will continue to work with the Irish Refugee Council to support our new Afghan Irish.

I compliment the Minister on the leadership he has shown during this awful situation and humanitarian crisis. He has shown great leadership in enabling the citizens of Afghanistan who live in fear and are traumatised to see a pathway out. It was lovely to hear the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, talking about the various programmes. He ultimately talked about 1,200 people being able to see a pathway into this country. Deputy Higgins is right that the Irish nation has thrown its arms open wide. We have said we are here, prepared and willing to do what we can to help and assist. That is the nature of the Irish people. The Minister is leading that campaign and I compliment him. That is important.

Ireland's approach to Afghanistan has been consistently clear. We have called for an end to the violence, for negotiations between all parties to reach a negotiated political settlement, and for the Taliban to work with others to build a peaceful and inclusive transition government that serves all Afghans. Of course, we have seen something very different in the weeks since the Taliban took over the country in terms of its attitude to families, women, children and those who worked for the former government. It has not built confidence in any of us who are watching.

The Afghan Administration must protect civilians and fulfil Afghanistan's obligations under international law. Human rights, especially for Afghan women, children and minorities, must be respected, protected and upheld. Afghanistan must never again become a haven for international terrorism. I again make the point that I truly fear for what is ahead for the people of Afghanistan. I do not see a bright future at the moment. All foreign nationals and those Afghans who wish to leave Afghanistan, including those who want to come to Ireland to be offered resettlement, should not be hindered in any way in doing so. The Taliban must guarantee safe access for humanitarian aid and those providing vital and life-saving assistance to the Afghan people. These are the principles that are guiding Ireland on Afghanistan during our Presidency of the Security Council. The Security Council adopted Resolution 2593 which reaffirms the importance of human rights, humanitarian assistance and the need to allow safe passage. Ireland will be very involved, and was very involved, in drafting the resolution.

At an international level, Ireland is working to address a range of issues, especially through our role as President of the UN Security Council.

When the Minister chaired the meeting of the Security Council on 9 September, he highlighted the need for an inclusive and negotiated peace settlement, for the human rights of all Afghans, especially women and children, to be protected and promoted and for the Taliban to fulfil its commitment to allow the safe, secure, orderly and unhindered departure of foreign nationals and Afghans at risk. The Minister has urged the Taliban to facilitate full and safe humanitarian access to allow lifesaving support to reach Afghans. He also recently approved the provision of an additional €1 million in humanitarian support through the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It is incumbent on us to compliment the Minister for the work he has done so far.

The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, talked about significant numbers of people making their way to this country. I welcome yesterday's approval for the establishment of the Afghan admission programme. Like many of my colleagues around the House tonight, I will make the point that it would be truly heartbreaking and devastating for families with more than four members to have to choose which four will come to this country. Words cannot describe what it must be like for them. In light of the importance of family reunification and how difficult it can be, this should be revisited, if there is any way to do so, and we should ensure that families are not separated, adding further trauma. That is of great importance.

Yesterday, we saw the Minister of State with responsibility for overseas development aid and the diaspora announce an additional €2 million in Irish Aid support for people in Afghanistan who are experiencing severe humanitarian crises. There is a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and it is deeply concerning. The country is facing a deadly combination of conflict, disease, drought and hunger. More than 18 million people, almost half the population, are in need of humanitarian assistance. One in three Afghans is facing crisis levels of food insecurity and more than half of children under the age of five are at risk of acute malnutrition. These are stark realities for people and I urge the Minister to continue doing what he is doing, to ensure pathways are created for people and to do all he can to ensure that women, children and minority groups are protected.

I echo the comments of previous Deputies about the Irish Refugee Council and some of the requests it has made with regard to this situation. We all have seen the horrors on our television screens. We have seen the desperation of people who are trying to get out of Afghanistan and who are facing the Taliban, particularly in the scenes at Kabul Airport in the final days of the American occupation. There is no doubt that the situation in Afghanistan at the moment is extremely worrying but it is even more worrying for the Afghan people who are now Irish citizens and who call Ireland their home. Their neighbours, friends and family members have been executed in front of their families because they have worked for western companies, the Americans or NATO since the Taliban fell in the early 2000s. These Irish citizens are anxious for their families to be airlifted out of what is now essentially a war zone.

A constituent of mine contacted me in the last day or so. In her own words, she said:

Afghanistan is under the control of the Taliban; my family is dying and are endangered. I feel extremely helpless and I am reaching out to you for emergency humanitarian reasons. I need emergency visas for my family. This is an opportunity for Ireland to provide shelter for people in need. This opportunity is worth’s a person’s life. The situation is extremely dangerous. Their main targets are women and schools.

It would be wrong not to take this time to talk about the disastrous war, led by the US, which led to this situation. Afghanistan is a glaring example of the disastrous foreign policy of a series of American administrations and presidents. It is clear this policy is certainly not led by any desire for peacekeeping if you look at the trail of death and destruction left across the Middle East and in Afghanistan. It is mind-boggling. I recently watched a programme on Netflix which provided a really deep history of what had happened since 9/11 and even previously, during the Russian occupation. It is mind-boggling that in the 20 years the Americans were in Afghanistan, the US spent close to $3 trillion and yet Afghanistan's infrastructure, economy, health system and education system are in a complete and utter state of collapse. They were never developed, or certainly not while the Americans or Russians were there. This is not due to the Taliban but due to the American Government's corrupt funnelling of those trillions of dollars to Afghan warlords and then back out to its friends in the US. American taxpayers' money was effectively laundered through Afghanistan before being returned to the massive American military-industrial complex.

The primary responsibility for the horrors the Afghan people now face rests with the Taliban fair and square. However, the American Government and its allies also bear great responsibility. It is our moral responsibility to help the Afghan people, like my constituent who now lives and works in our community. I ask the Minister and his office to ensure that the family members of citizens are prioritised as a matter of urgency. We also need to use our seat on the UN Security Council to provide whatever aid we can to the people of Afghanistan, whether through humanitarian support, the provision of emergency visas or relocation and resettlement schemes. I welcome the moves made in recent days to accept more Afghan people who have family connections here. As I have said, it is important that conversations are had with the Irish Refugee Council about the ways in which we can make it easier for people to come to Ireland. I genuinely hope that there will be some respite for the people of Afghanistan, particularly the girls and women who now face weeks, months, years or possibly decades of absolutely horrific oppression. I hope we do something. We in this House, and this Government, have a responsibility to support the people of Afghanistan.

I will be sharing my time with Deputy Barry. We will take five minutes each. I echo the sentiments expressed regarding the programme for admitting Afghans who have relatives here. It is a good initiative. Ireland has always played a good role in showing humanitarian solidarity across the world. There are other matters on which I would fundamentally disagree with the Minister but Irish people across the world have always held a hand out to those who are in need. That is a proud tradition of ours. It is very good.

The circumstances in Afghanistan are truly tragic but it is a tragedy made by occupation over the last 20 years. We have to understand what the last 20 years were all about. What was that all about? Why was the United States in Afghanistan in the first place? Afghanistan had nothing to do with the events in New York on 11 September 2001 and yet more than 75,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan. Ironically, most of these were women and children. There then followed the absolute catastrophe of the occupation of Iraq. The US has framed itself as a liberator. It is not a liberator but an oppressor. It is the oppressor that has left Afghanistan in a pretty terrible state. The amount of money spent is absolutely astronomical. After spending all that money, after all that time under occupation and after all that death and destruction, including the deaths of Afghan civilians, combatants, American soldiers and NATO soldiers, as soon as the Americans said they were leaving, everything fell apart. The Afghan army fell apart after two or three weeks.

What does that say about western and American imperialism? There is a narrative that this is about protecting women's rights. The hypocrisy is incredible. Look at Saudi Arabia. Who is the biggest economic contributor to Saudi Arabia? It is the United States. Nobody says anything about that. The situation regarding women's rights in Saudi Arabia is terrible but America deals with that country no problem. The Taliban is in some ways the creation of the United States. From 1979 to 1989, the mujahidin were supplied with arms by the United States which killed thousands of people. This is the bitter fruit of imperialism and occupation.

The Taliban are no friends of the Afghan people. They are reactionary fanatics and, eventually, the Afghan people will turn against them. The state was so corrupt that the president went to, I think, Qatar because he knew the game was up. It is the bitter fruit of adventurism and imperialism. We should have nothing to do with it. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the Afghan people here and in Afghanistan.

Despite proclamations by the Taliban that it will be different this time, the horror of rule by extreme Islamic fundamentalism is already there for all to see in Afghanistan. Female employees in Kabul's city government have been instructed to stay at home. High school girl students have been instructed not to return to class. Executions and amputations have been restored as punishment for criminals. Journalists have been arrested and other attacks made on press freedoms. The ministry for women has been renamed the ministry for the propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice.

The return of US imperialist rule is not on the cards but it would not be a solution in any case. More than 100,000 Afghan people were killed or injured under Washington's war on terror regime. In one recent year, more Afghan civilians were killed by occupying forces than by the Taliban. Under the occupation, corruption was rife and ordinary Afghans were treated with colonial disdain. The key beneficiaries of the occupation were the weapons manufacturers and military contractors who got the lion's share of the $1 trillion spent by the occupying power. US imperialism was the force which had armed and financed the mujahidin warlords in the 1980s, when they went to war with the Soviets. From the mujahidin came the Taliban and al-Qaeda. US imperialism spawned the Taliban in the first place.

Neither imperialist intervention nor rule by Islamic fundamentalism offers any way forward for the Afghan masses. The hope for the future lies in those masses, in particular the urban population and new generation of women whose interests clash so sharply with those of the country's new rulers. In time, I hope the clash results in a popular challenge to the rule of the Taliban and puts onto the agenda a democratic workers' and peasants' government that explicitly champions the liberation of women. Such a government would find its key allies not in the ministries of London and Washington, but in the working class of neighbouring countries, not least Pakistan. A socialist federation of those countries, based on the right of nationalities to self-determination, would represent a decisive step forward.

I will comment on the Afghan admission programme. Afghan nationals living in Ireland since 1 September can sponsor up to four family members. This is restrictive and will force people to choose between family members in some cases. What is fair or humane about that? Why is the scheme starting in December? Why is it not starting at the beginning of October? There are 1,200 Afghan nationals residing in Ireland, but only 500 places on the programme. This is far too low. Given the horrors that people in Afghanistan are experiencing and enduring, we should not put in place such restrictions.

I think I am sharing time with------

You are down to share with Deputy Richmond.

Okay. I acknowledge and thank the emergency consular aid team, made up of Irish diplomats in the Army Ranger Wing, who travelled to Afghanistan in the initial days of conflict, a little over a month ago. The contribution they made in getting Irish citizens and their families out safely was crucial.

I have parliamentary questions in with the Minister about family reunification and humanitarian visas. I am a patron, as are some other Deputies, of Front Line Defenders and I know they have requested additional support on the matter. I look forward to getting the opportunity to discuss that further during the Minister's questions tomorrow morning in the Dáil.

My initial direct engagement with those affected by the situation in Afghanistan was with Ascend Athletics, a group in Afghanistan which trains and works with girls to become community leaders and role models through the medium of sport, specifically mountain climbing. There was an immediate concern for the well-being of the co-ordinators of the programme, as well as the safety of the girls who had taken part. After extensive engagement with a range of Deputies, including me, and with different Departments, 20 visas were granted under the humanitarian admissions programme. I mention Ascend Athletics, their volunteers and their advocates to acknowledge the work that went into the process by so many Irish citizens and people concerned about the well-being of girls in every walk of life and the support they will provide to those 20 girls resettling in Dublin and Galway. It is a good news story, driven by citizen engagement and the responsiveness of the political system to that.

I welcome yesterday's announcement about the Afghan admission programme. It is a sign of how effective government can be when there is cross-departmental engagement and swift action across the board. The programme has come not a minute too soon and I look forward to further information on it and details on how the most vulnerable, such as refugees and asylum seekers, may apply.

I note that the Irish Refugee Council, whom I work with as do others, has requested that the opening of applications be brought forward to October. I know there will be a lot to configure but I fully support that request and ask that it be facilitated to reflect how urgent the family reunification process is in relation to Afghanistan.

I appreciate the Minister said yesterday this is a tailor-made programme. That is deeply appreciated by all who will apply, I imagine. I highlight that considerable support needs to be in place for people and families making the applications. We know as public representatives that, at the best of times, filling out applications can be overwhelming, but those applications carry extra weight and there are practical issues such as the inability to access required documentation in time, or at all, and language barriers. There are also people in a position where they have to choose which family members to nominate on applications, which is an unimaginably difficult situation. I will speak in a moment on a few cases which highlight how difficult those decisions will be. Some applicants may have five, ten or 15 family members while others have two or three. If it were possible to review them on a case-by-case basis, I believe it would be worth the additional resources required to make it happen.

Since I was appointed as Fine Gael's equality spokesperson last year, I have linked in again and again with charity and advocacy groups for refugees, asylum seekers and those in direct provision. I have spoken and engaged directly with people in direct provision many times. Some have been there for many years. That includes, as of today, 211 Afghan refugees.

A number of weeks ago, I had the privilege of virtually meeting a few Afghan families living across the country in direct provision centres. Brought into that Zoom call were their family members, at that time in Afghanistan. It was a deeply moving experience to be speaking at that point with Afghan families in Ireland and in Afghanistan. The pressure that placed was visible on the children's faces, knowing where they were and not knowing the risks they faced.

With their permission, I will give details of some of the families. Telling a story always brings the issue to life. One family I am in touch with constitutes a couple and their three children who left Afghanistan in 2008. They have moved twice since being forced to leave their home country before arriving in Ireland in summer 2020.

This family has lived a life of uncertainty for more than 12 years. They cannot make long-term plans. They encounter difficulties in their daily lives due to their status, as do many. The family is eager to have some stability and not to live in fear. They are all feeling the psychological impacts of being unsettled for so many years. Obviously, it is not an option for them to return to Afghanistan for a number of social and security reasons. As for family reunification, one parent has 12 family members stuck in Kabul: their mother, three brothers, two sisters-in-law and six children between them. Some have made it across the border to Pakistan, which brings its own challenges, but others remain in Afghanistan.

I have been in contact with another gentleman who is doing a part-time master's in international human rights law. He has worked on the front line in a hospital throughout the pandemic and has made a huge contribution to our country throughout these past 18 months and, I have no doubt, if given the opportunity, would continue to do so in the coming years. He has been an asylum seeker living in direct provision since 2019, almost three years. Due to his work on human rights in Afghanistan, there is no question that he will ever be able to return under the current arrangements. Obviously, he was not able to return earlier this year, prior to the Taliban takeover, when his father passed away due to Covid. His uncle, who was a policeman, was subsequently targeted by the Taliban, shot and killed. His cousins, who were in the military, have disappeared. He is now living under considerable additional stress and trauma with the uncertainty of his position here in Ireland and that of nine close family members: his wife, two sons, mother, sister, two brothers and their wives, who remain in Afghanistan, living in quite extraordinary circumstances and fear.

Finally, there is a gentleman who has been living in Ireland, in direct provision, for almost 11 years. That has been 11 years of the unknown, an unknown most of us will never experience. It has been exacerbated by the situation in Afghanistan, where 14 close family members remain stuck and, obviously, seeking support to come to Ireland. He is hoping to be reunited with his mother, wife, son, sister, two brothers, their wives and six nephews. I was so moved when he wrote to me and said he hopes for life when he wakes up every morning and looks forward to good news. In spite of everything - the uncertainty and the stress - he still holds on to that positivity that he will hear news on his application and be reunited with his family.

This is the personal effect of this. When making the applications, and with the configuration of the applications, these are all the burdens and stresses and the trauma, and everything that can be done to make the process more simple for people will be appreciated by them.

As I mentioned earlier, the Afghan admission programme is a sign of what can be done in a short amount of time. I recall the former Minister, Alan Shatter, doing something comparable with Syria back in, I think, 2013 or 2014. We have all made representations directly to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. If the Minister, Deputy Coveney, could further help those cases, I would be obliged. I appreciate I am out of time. I look forward to picking this up with him again during Question Time tomorrow.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the other Ministers for their very helpful statements and commend them on the amount of work that has gone into this area over recent weeks. It is pertinent that we are having this debate a couple of weeks on from the situation in Afghanistan being the headline issue of the time. The time since has given us a chance to reflect on what has happened and to see how other countries around the world are starting to see the real impact on the global community as it starts to seep out. It is in many ways a sad indictment of international news that this is not the constant headline story, but that is the world we live in and we are all used to that in this vocation in which we have all found ourselves. I will briefly touch on three areas that are all related.

First, I join others in welcoming the announcement made yesterday and the further detail given by the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, on Ireland's commitment to the Afghan refugees. That is very welcome, but I think we all agree we can be more ambitious. However, ambition itself is not enough because there are practical economic and real-world difficulties in ensuring that this is maximised, not just in terms of taking in refugees but also looking at migrants and our Afghan community here, as Deputy Carroll MacNeill so eloquently spoke of, to ensure that that family reunification can happen speedily. I note it is not just one part of Afghan society that is at risk at the moment; all of Afghanistan is at risk from this absolutely barbaric new regime that has found itself in power in Kabul.

I wish to take a moment to reflect on the absolute heroism we saw, or read of, on display from not just members of the Army Ranger Wing but also the diplomats who volunteered to travel to Afghanistan to stay in the airport, right up until the explosion came, to do their part for Irish citizens. You would think you would only see it in a movie. I do not know what the equivalent of the Scott medal is for the diplomatic corps, but those diplomats who so selflessly sent themselves into harm's way to bring Irish citizens out deserve everything they are entitled to, as do the members of the Army Ranger Wing who simply do this day in, day out. They need to be respected, and I have no doubt but that Deputy Berry will speak to that in a little more detail. It provides us food for thought in terms of the extraction capabilities of our Defence Forces, and indeed of the State as a whole, and our reliance and co-ordinated efforts not just with our partners in the European Union - and we should make special mention of the assistance given by the Finnish Government - but also with our nearest neighbours in the United Kingdom. We can all talk about things that are going on and parallel events, but when the UK's assistance has been needed it has never been found lacking in helping Irish citizens abroad and co-operating with our diplomatic corps, those Irish people working in aid agencies and within our military.

We have to reflect back, and many people will make comments about how western forces found themselves in Afghanistan and, in due course, how so many Irish people found themselves there working for aid agencies post the conflict. We remember why the US decided to go in. We can question the moral justice of their decision and the moral justice of what happened in Afghanistan; we cannot question the bravery of those who served, many of them Irish men and women under the flags of other armies. My friend, Tom Tugendhat, the British MP, spoke so eloquently in the House of Commons about his time in Afghanistan and the people he worked with. We remember those people who worked with Irish citizens in Afghanistan - those interpreters, those drivers and everyone else - whose lives are at risk and how we are duty-bound to ensure that anyone who worked with an Irish agency or a related body is brought home.

Let us be frank. We remember the original reason the US decided to enter Afghanistan. It was in direct response to the terror attacks 20 years ago, 9-11 in New York. It brings a serious risk to the world that once again we find Afghanistan being run by a barbaric regime that has no problem providing quarter to international terrorist organisations that are a threat to every single person in this world, particularly in western Europe. We have to be frank and honest that Ireland will never be immune to any security threat and that when we talk about security co-operation and engagement with European partners, it cannot just be piecemeal or warm words that will contribute nothing but when we need our partners we will come asking. We truly have to reflect on what our role in Europe is as the world sees so many developing threats, be they in the cybersphere - we have been victims of that in recent months and we know there are consequences of it - or be they all the discussions that are ongoing and the fact that we will have a wave of migrants and refugees increasing, not just from Afghanistan but from the entire region. We have to work with European partners and near neighbour partners to ensure we can ensure that our neighbourhood is maintained safe. I think that is the big lesson in the medium term, and I have no doubt but that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, in both his portfolios is the best man to lead that response.

The spotlight that shone on Afghanistan during the weeks before the withdrawal of American troops has truly been extinguished. Right now, 5,000 miles from here, the Taliban is emerging from the shadows and making its presence felt. Ireland needs to do more for the people of Afghanistan. We are an elected member of the United Nations Security Council for a two-year term which began in January of this year. We currently hold the presidency of the Security Council and we must shine a beacon of hope to show that the world has not forgotten the Afghan people. Imperial interests have moved on but tyranny remains.

I was contacted last month by a small business owner in my constituency who employs more than a dozen people. He is originally from Afghanistan and is now a proud Irish citizen. He is extremely worried for the safety of his family members who are still in Afghanistan. He is of the Hazara community, a minority group that was persecuted by the Taliban 20 years ago, and his family members are now in grave danger. He is worried for his teenage sister, who is not married and who, therefore, can be forced to marry a Taliban soldier. He is worried for his teenage brothers, who could be forced to enlist in the Taliban army. He is worried for his father, who has a disability and is looked after by his brother. He worries about who will take care of his brother, who may have to flee the country or join the army. That fear about looking after his father is really there. He is worried for his nephews, who are under ten, and worried they could be sent to camps and brainwashed.

He is worried that their mother, who is a widow after tragically losing her husband, could be forced to marry a Taliban soldier. This is just one man who is worried about his family members. Unfortunately, there are many more men and women who are concerned about their families. This man did not come to Ireland as a refugee and, therefore, does not qualify for family reunification. I wrote to the Minister about his case in August and am still awaiting a reply. I plead with him to help this man and to respond to me on the matter.

These are dangerous days for the people of Afghanistan, especially its women and girls. In the space of a few weeks, they have been set back centuries. They have lost their presence and vibrancy in everyday life, which have been replaced by invisibility and monotony. They have also lost the whole array of reclaimed colours that feature in their stunning traditional dress. In exile from their homeland, Afghan women have started a campaign with the slogan "Do not touch my clothes", as part of which they have lined up to show themselves to the world as they are and should be, clothed in their traditional reds, purples, yellows, oranges, silver and gold, not wrapped up head to toe in black. They have been cancelled as the women they are, hidden out of sight but, they hope, not out of mind for the international community, including all of us here.

Female politicians, especially, have a role in ensuring the women and girls of Afghanistan remain on the political agenda. We must do everything we can to stand with our sisters, whose traditional colours have been obliterated by black, just as their joy, professions, work and education have been obliterated by repression. Today, we heard from the CEO of the Irish Refugee Council, Nick Henderson, that, in less than a month, his organisation has received 2,300 calls and emails from families desperate to get their relatives out of Afghanistan. I acknowledge and commend the work done by the Minister and his Department in this regard thus far. However, the Sophie's choice being forced on Afghan families in Ireland in having to choose which member of their family will receive refuge is cruel in the extreme.

The word "Taliban" means seekers of the truth but what a truth it must be that leads its members to treat their women in such an abject way. Families are terrified that their single daughters and sisters, including young widows, who are banished from work, schools and universities, will be selected for marriage to leaders and fighters. These are not marriages at all but a life of sexual slavery and rape. The State must use its voice on the UN Security Council and all the soft power we possess there to make sure the aid the Afghan people need and depend on goes through quickly and fully. The coming winter will be extremely tough. There are already reports of shortages of food and people facing hunger. Members of the Taliban, however, with their designer shades, weapons and selfie-taking, will not be short of food or comfort. We must not turn our backs on mná na hAfganastáine. I ask colleagues to remember their slogan, "Do not touch my clothes".

I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber to debate this important topic. His speech and that of the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, were very detailed and comprehensive. The discussion this evening really emphasises the extent of the tragedy and catastrophe that have befallen the Afghan people, both those inside the border of Afghanistan and those who are scattered all over the world. It also underscores the massive extent of the defeat that has been inflicted on the international community by the Taliban. It is clear now that the strategy has shifted from intervention to one of containment and mitigation.

I want to make three points focusing on the Irish context. I echo what the Minister and colleagues have said regarding the bravery of the emergency civil assistance team, comprising both civilian and military personnel, which deployed at very short notice to Kabul. I commend the superb performance of those personnel. They were only on the ground for some 36 hours but managed to pull out 26 Irish citizens. It was an incredible performance despite all the complexities and the challenging operating environment. From our own perspective, their task was achieved against the background of a very challenging logistical environment. As the Minister is aware, we lack an independent airlift capability in this country. That was the primary reason, although not the only reason, that our troops were delayed for a week in getting to Afghanistan. An independent airlift capability is absolutely vital. I am reassured by the Minister's indication that there is at least a recognition that there will be many more of these types of operations in the coming years because of the climate crisis, which will necessitate the evacuation of Irish people in other locations.

I cannot emphasise enough that Ireland needs an independent airlift capability. For any state that does not have such capability, it is like being a farmer without a tractor or a jockey without a horse. It really is that fundamental and we must focus on achieving it. An allocation of €20 million would do the job. It is good that the Minister of State was here earlier because he oversees a budget of more than €800 million annually for overseas development aid, which is at it should be. The money is there and it is just a question of prioritisation. It would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to point out that there is an outstanding pay award from 2010 that has yet to be honoured for some of the military troops who deployed as part of the ECAT. If this House expects our troops to fight for us, then we must be prepared to fight for them as well. We paid the bondholders and it is long overdue that we pay our best soldiers.

My second point concerns the Afghan refugee admissions programme. I was pleasantly surprised by the announcement yesterday in this regard, which represents significant progress for a number of reasons. Instead of bringing stranger refugees into this country whose background we do not really know and, in the process, overloading our direct provision centres and the limited housing stocks of local authorities, it makes perfect sense to leverage the existing Afghan network here. The Irish diaspora across the world has been doing something similar for our people for decades and centuries, so it makes sense that we do this now. It is a good system and model for the future. However, the intake of 500 is quite limited. It makes sense as an initial tranche but I expect the number will increase over time as the extent of the problem becomes known. It is sensible to target the vulnerable people coming out of Afghanistan and look to get some of them here as soon as possible.

The third point I want to raise relates to the humanitarian situation. I agree with the comments of the Minister and the Minister of State in commending the humanitarian actors who have opted voluntarily to remain in Afghanistan. It is one thing to go to that country wearing body armour, armed to the teeth and surrounded by 6,000 western troops; it takes a completely different type of courage to drive around Kabul, as those volunteers are doing as we speak, armed with nothing but their wits. They are moving around in soft-skinned vehicles, with no body armour, and are completely at the mercy of the new regime there. I take my hat off and salute the humanitarian workers who are still in theatre. I welcome the €3 million that was announced by the Government in the past fortnight to support the UNHCR and additional UN agencies. That is a good step in the right direction. I also welcome the recognition in the opening statements tonight that humanitarian aid is only a short-term measure or stopgap. What is really needed in Afghanistan is a comprehensive peace settlement at a regional level.

That leads me on to the first of two questions I have for the Minister. Bearing in mind that a comprehensive peace solution is needed and that we have UN personnel in Kabul, will he elaborate on the indication in his opening statement that he hopes there will be an EU presence there in the not too distant future? What timeline does he envisage in that regard? Does he expect there to be an EU presence this side of Christmas and, if so, will Irish diplomats be involved?

I will choose my words very carefully in asking my second question. A gentleman called Mr. Hassan Ali Faiz appeared before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence yesterday, who was very clear in pointing out that he was a refugee who was brought back as part of the resettlement programme. He expressed a concern that among the hundreds and thousands of refugees who are coming to Europe, he was surprised by the amount of sympathy and even support some of them still had for the Taliban. Is the Minister satisfied we have a robust screening process in place that will ensure we are not storing up problems for the future from that perspective? I would greatly appreciate if he could address those questions in his closing statement.

I am sharing time with Deputy Haughey. Like many colleagues, I want to express my concern around the situation in Afghanistan.

In some ways, it is hard to find the words to express that concern. It is a very serious, multifaceted and multilayered issue and there is an immediate urgency to it, but it also speaks to wider problems we face here and as part of a global community.

On the immediate urgency of the situation, although we have made commitments to take in 500 refugees from Afghanistan, the programme is due to commence in December. If this is really such an urgent situation, why is the programme not commencing sooner? We also need to consider the issue of family reunification. Obviously, Afghanistan is a community with broader family networks than perhaps may be the case currently in Ireland. We need to consider some of the arbitrary cut-offs within the family reunification programmes operating in Ireland as part of our international protection responsibilities and find ways to reflect the urgency of the situation through flexibility, expansion of these programmes and ensuring they have adequate resources to work.

It also speaks to a broader issue. We need to differentiate between the overlapping issues of peace and security. Quite often, those two words, concepts and ideas are joined together as one rather than being distinct but overlapping concepts and ideas. Ireland has had a proud role in peacekeeping through the years, particularly in the context of UN peacekeeping. I am concerned that the poor state of the manpower levels in the Defence Forces means that we are retreating from that role. I recently received a response from the Department to questions I tabled regarding our contingent in Western Sahara. The contingent comprises two commandant-level members of the Defence Forces and it is too much of a strain to be able to continue that commitment alongside the other commitments we have. It is slightly worrying that what is being said is that we do not-----

That is not the reason.

The reply I received stated that the decision was taken in light of the resources needed for the several missions being run in the area. The House recently passed legislation relating to being able to clarify the chain of command in the context of multinational operations. That is very useful legislation but it is only needed now, rather than also in times gone by, because we are not able to produce the same strength for UN peacekeeping missions. We were undertaking missions by ourselves but are now joining with other countries, such as with Malta and Poland on a recent deployment to Lebanon, for example. These issues reflect a concern among members of the Defence Forces that there is a lack of sufficient resources or manpower to be able to commit to an overseas operation while keeping people at home to do the work, mentorship, leadership and management that is needed here.

This issue also speaks to wider concerns and a warning relating to the wider context of closer European military co-operation. Is this going to be about peace, of which Ireland has had a proud tradition, or is it simply going to be about security, whereby we roll in behind much more militarised powers that are using the global system for their own ends and to meet their resource and other needs? Are we to be left mopping up after them? Instead of challenging them and focusing on peace, we are simply focusing on security. These are issues on which we need to reflect in the context of our role in them and our ability in that regard. Consideration must be given to what we want the Defence Forces to be able to do and to actually do. Do we want them to be able to continue those proud traditions or are we looking at simply mopping up after a power gone mad across the globe?

All Members of the House are aware of the recent history of Afghanistan. As a country, it has been forever caught up in regional conflicts and interference by neighbouring powers. Prior to 9-11, al-Qaeda was allowed to operate in Afghanistan under Osama bin Laden, hence the subsequent US-led NATO action in 2001 and the toppling of the Taliban regime. In hindsight, one would have to question if the USA in particular could ever have hoped to bring about regime change and impose a Western-backed government and liberal democratic values without the full support of the local community and in a place where religious fundamentalism is deeply ingrained in the life and culture of the country. However, we are where we are. The sudden and abrupt withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan at the end of August was chaotic and could be described as a debacle.

Members of this House are right to have fears for the Afghan people. We have fears for women and girls, as mentioned by many Deputies, and fears for their rights to full and equal access to education, healthcare, freedom of movement and participation in public life. We have fears for minorities in Afghanistan, including the LGBTQI community. We have fears for human rights defenders, journalists and judges. We need to support all these groups and bring them to safety. They need our help and to be given safe passage if needed and requested.

Aside from the Taliban's approach to human rights, there is a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. The economy has stalled and the pandemic prevails there as well. There is a drought and food supplies are scarce. There is a real risk of a major famine and a humanitarian disaster. Many Afghans have been displaced, including internal displacement. In addition, there have already been reports of conflict, violence and intimidation. Ireland and the global community need to support humanitarian organisations through the UN and the EU and to increase humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. I note and welcome that Ireland has already provided more than €2 million in humanitarian funding to Afghanistan this year.

That brings me to the issue of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers. We need to show support and solidarity with the Afghan people at this time. I welcome the initiative whereby vulnerable Afghan nationals will be facilitated by Ireland under the Irish refugee protection programme. A figure of 300 has been mentioned in that regard. I note the announcement this week of a special Afghan admission programme which will have 500 places. This will allow current or former Afghan nationals living in Ireland to apply to bring their close family members to Ireland to live with them. This should not be a cumbersome process but, rather, flexible, with decisions made on a case-by-case basis. Many Deputies have drawn attention to the flaws in the scheme that has been announced to date. It should also be put on the record, however, that so far this year 670 Afghan nationals have already been granted permission to reside in the State.

That said, I note the decision of the EU justice ministers earlier this month to the effect that borders should be secured to avoid a repeat of 2015 - a clear reference to the Syrian civil war. What I hope the justice ministers meant was simply that the situation should be undertaken in accordance with the relevant legal systems and procedures. If that was their intention, I would agree with it.

As regards the repatriation out of Afghanistan of Irish citizens and their dependants, as well as Afghan citizens and their dependants, we need to continue our efforts for them, working with the Irish embassy in Abu Dhabi. I thank the personnel from the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Defence who took part in the deployment of the ECAT mission to Kabul airport on 23 August.

The Minister took risks in making the decision to send the team and the personnel who went were courageous and brave. They took risks too. As Irish citizens, we are most grateful to them for the work that they did.

There is also the question of the recognition of the Taliban regime. I understand that no state has formally recognised the new administration and that there has been no reopening of previous diplomatic missions. We should be very slow to take any action in that regard. This week, I and other Members of the Oireachtas heard from Afghans requesting that the regime not be legitimised, given what is happening on the ground. As the Minister stated, we must judge the regime on what it does, not what it is saying. Recognition can only come with compliance with international, humanitarian and human rights law.

I refer to remarks made by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in her state of the Union address earlier this month. In the context of recent events in Afghanistan, she called for a common EU defence and the pooling of defence capabilities. She stated the EU needed to be able to defend its interests, in a clear reference to the inability of many EU states to evacuate their citizens following the unilateral decision of US forces to withdraw.

These comments certainly deserve our attention. The issues raised by President von der Leyen have already been mentioned in the House by Deputies Richmond and Costello. The Commission's proposed strategic compass is due in November, but Dr. von der Leyen called for a pooling of intelligence and shared cyberdefence capabilities. Given the recent HSE cyberattack, it is something we could certainly consider. Perhaps that is a debate for another day, but it should be said at this stage, that in my view, Ireland must continue to be able to opt in or opt out of defence projects, given our traditional policy of military neutrality.

It is good and important that we are having this conversation and making these statements because we must not forget our role in this situation. This summer alone, Shannon Airport facilitated the transportation of six UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters through the airport as they returned to the US from the war efforts in Afghanistan. Much of the ammunition, large amounts of weapons, tanks and even fighter aircraft that had previously been transported through Shannon Airport en route to Afghanistan have been taken by the Taliban. I am not sure many Taliban fighters could place Ireland on a map and I also doubt they are aware that it was from our shores that some of the most advanced and deadly military technology now in their hands reached them.

This State has aided and abetted US atrocities for many years. Since 2017, the number of Afghan civilians killed in airstrikes carried out by the US and its allies rose by 330%. Many of these bombs fell on the ordinary Afghan population for whom this Government is now expressing concern. We have also - admittedly, unwittingly - placed deadly weapons in the hands of the Taliban who may, and are likely to, carry out future atrocities against their own citizens. Why was this State, which is supposedly neutral - I agree with Deputy Haughey's earlier comments in this regard - so willing to act as a US accomplice? The Minister is just as aware of the whole issue around Shannon Airport as I am. We should bear in mind that the US offered to pull out of Shannon and Fianna Fáil said "No". Not only were other options available to the US, but it had already begun using them. For example, Prestwick, near Glasgow, had been increasingly used by the US military for refuelling purposes in recent years.

We also need to think about what the reality of this is for people, including children. Only last week, I read a report in The Guardian describing how 86 children were killed by British forces. Britain will now have to pay compensation for that. As I have said before in this Chamber, and I am sure I will say it again, we do not have the luxury to say we do not know or do not understand because we do. We need to do better.

I raise an issue with the Minister that I have raised previously, namely, the case of Julian Assange. Mr. Assange is due to appear in court on 27 and 28 October. I am aware that the Minister has meetings with people. I ask him to raise-----

This has nothing to do with the Afghan situation.

It does, because Mr. Assange pointed out a decade ago that the real winner from the Afghan war would be the US military industrial complex. The war funnelled trillions of dollars of US taxpayer money directly into the pockets of five big US defence companies that were involved in the US war effort and the atrocities that resulted from it.

I will borrow the words of the great historian, Howard Zinn. While written from the perspective of an independent activist, I think they are words that we can all reflect on.

It is a world of clashing interests – war against peace, nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy against elitism – and it seems to me both impossible and undesirable to be neutral in those conflicts.

The US military departed Afghanistan on 30 August, a day ahead of schedule, ending a 20-year occupation and leaving Afghanistan in the Taliban's hands. We all saw the news clips of the days of chaos at Kabul Airport, which were punctuated by a suicide attack on 26 August that killed as many as 180 people, including 13 American troops. It was one of the deadliest attacks of the war. The troops killed were the first American service members to die in the country since February 2020. President Biden stated that after nearly 20 years of war, it was clear that the US military could not transform Afghanistan into a modern, stable democracy.

It is hard to believe that the Americans spent 20 years, and millions of dollars daily, in Afghanistan and have nothing to show for it. While I am not an expert, the withdrawal, in my view, was hasty and has left the ordinary people of Afghanistan wide open to attack, as is evident on a daily basis. President Biden has a lot to answer for in this regard and little has been made of this fact. It is shocking to see the scenes since the withdrawal. Surely, in the 20 years of the American forces being in the country, they could have steered the country to more peaceful means, instead of it being thrown into chaos.

Afghans have seen nothing but war since the 1970s. Of the tens of millions of dollars pumped into the country, none were used for peaceful means. The war continues. Now we see the signs that it is being left to countries like Ireland and others across the world to try to help and aid the Afghans. I hope the efforts being made by countries across the world will enjoy greater success than the efforts made in the previous 20 years under American occupation. I wish, hope and pray that the Afghan people will not continue to suffer as they did. In fairness to this country, we have seen down through the years how the church has helped other war-torn countries. We always stepped in, fundraised and sent out moneys to help and give some comfort to people who were in terrible circumstances.

I do not believe the Irish will be found wanting in this case either.

When the United States and NATO turned to rebuilding the failed state of Afghanistan in the 1980s, they attempted a western-style democracy. They sent billions of dollars to try to reconstruct a desperately poor country already torn apart by two decades of war – first during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and then in the civil war. There were early successes. New schools, hospitals and public facilities were built, and thousands of girls barred from education under Taliban rule attended school. Women went to college, joined the workforce and served in a parliamentary capacity and in government. Independent news media emerged, which is important for all democracy. Corruption was rampant, however, with hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for construction stolen and embezzled. The Afghan Government proved unable to meet the most basic needs of its citizens. The country, despite its slight progression, has gone full circle. Can we in Ireland just shrug our shoulders? I do not believe so. We have played a massive part in this by ignoring our neutrality when it suited us.

During the entire occupation of Afghanistan by the United States and its allies, Shannon Airport has facilitated a steady flow of military personnel and arms. We are neutral. Admittedly, money makes the world go around but we facilitated the passage of US troops through Shannon and continued do so even when they pulled out of Afghanistan. Around the world, it is thought that Ireland is a neutral place. Ireland is regarded for its humanitarian efforts to help other countries. The Irish are the most giving people in the world. My concern is for the safety of Ireland and the people here. I hope none of our actions in facilitating the US in Shannon will put anyone in this country in harm's way because Ireland is a neutral country.

The fact is that one in four members of the US Army travelling through Shannon to Afghanistan never returned home. Included were mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and cousins, and we are neutral. I would like to give 30 seconds of my remaining time for silence in this House to remember everyone who has died in an atrocity in Afghanistan.

People might say I am loud and very interested in my area but, as I have said before, it turns my stomach that people have died over our facilitation of people's passage to Afghanistan. My only worry is that despite our good nature in this country and willingness to help people, it will be held against us. As I said before, we are neutral but it seems that we are bouncing in and out of neutrality. I hope that after the US pulls out of Afghanistan, we will not be regarded as having been facilitators. For the protection of our own families and everyone here in Ireland, we must now examine our neutrality, how best to protect our country and people, and also how best to protect people in Third World countries, as we have done for decades through our goodwill and humanitarian efforts. I commend anyone who leaves these shores to help, as they have done in Afghanistan. I commend everyone who has left these shores on humanitarian and Defence Forces grounds. They have gone out to help. They have left these shores with no body armour to help other countries. I hope that, based on the part we played in respect of Afghanistan, we will not be held accountable and will not be considered part of what happened there.

The Minister should not worry as I am not going down a particular avenue but I just want to refer to the vote of confidence in him two weeks ago. When I spoke on the motion of confidence in him, I meant, with full, heartfelt sincerity, that he had gone the extra miles during the Afghan crisis, particularly in respect of a family who live just 100 m from my home. I refer to his taking calls by night and text messages. It was not just for this reason, although it was a reason, that, on the night in question, I felt, with heartfelt sincerity, he was doing a good job in his Department. That is where I want to begin my contribution.

To wind back the clock a little, in June of this year a neighbour, Tahmina Hashemi, who lives just 100 m from my home, got a phone call from her mother — one of many in the same week — to say she was feeling very unwell in Kabul and did not know how much longer she would be around for. Tahmina hummed and hawed. Kabul was a relatively peaceful city at the time so she decided, with the blessing of her husband, to leave County Clare and board a flight. I do not know how she got there but, through various connecting routes, she made her way to Kabul, Afghanistan, with her two daughters and son. She stayed there by her mother's side for a number of weeks, and then all hell broke loose in Kabul.

I have to hand a picture of Husna Hashemi. She is her mother's daughter. She is a two-year-old Irish citizen who twice was held in her mother's arms as Taliban fighters thrashed them with whips and fists on the way to Kabul airport. Twice they tried to get to the airport and twice they did not get there. I articulated all that to the Minister. I appreciate all his engagement at the time. Husna's older sister, Sana, should have started preschool with my own daughter two weeks ago. It breaks my heart each morning as I walk my daughter to school — my wife does the same — that there is a coat hook without a coat on it and a bag place without a bag that would belong to little Sana, who is also an Irish citizen. She is an Irish girl; she does not belong in a war-torn country with bombs and bullets flying overhead and a corrupt and horrible regime thrashing women, children and everything between.

I have been in touch with the Minister's Department. The family is still in Afghanistan. Last week they got a text message from the embassy asking them to make their way to a certain hotel in Kabul and that they would be taken from there.

When they went to the hotel, there were Taliban fighters at the door corrupting the system that the Irish Government had put in place. They said that the family's paperwork was inaccurate. In the crowds behind them, some people were passing Afghan currency over their heads and, without any documentation, making their way through the barriers. On this third occasion, Husna, Tahima, Sana and Younis yet again did not get out. They are Irish people who belong in Ireland and who should be in preschool, primary school and secondary school. It is so wrong.

Political accountability has to start somewhere. The Minister did everything he could but the embassy staff in Abu Dhabi dropped the ball several times. I emailed and phoned several times and gave all of the details, PPS numbers, passport numbers, etc. I then saw a press release a month ago which stated that we got as many Irish citizens out as we could but that 60 people presented in the previous 24 hours. That is complete rubbish. The embassy had the details of these girls for many weeks and had failed to act. I do not have much time left. I am not keeping a full eye on the clock and I ask the Ceann Comhairle to forgive me.

There are also four staff members working for an Irish headquartered company. That company is located just half a mile from Dáil Éireann. For their entire working lives, they have been on phone calls, emails and chats over and back to Dublin. They are in a war-torn country. I received a WhatsApp audio message from one of them the other evening which I would love to play the Chamber. It is full of the sound of gunfire going off in her street. These people are petrified and we owe it to them to get them home.

Finally, forgive me again, a Cheann Comhairle, if I have gone beyond my time.

The Deputy will be finishing at eight minutes on the clock.

Thank you. I will end at eight minutes then. I ask the Minister to please intervene. The people to whom I refer need to be brought back. These are Irish citizens. We talk about hospitals, roads and airports, but it breaks my heart to see young girls who belong in our Irish education system still stuck out in Kabul and who, when they try to get the safety, are thrashed by Taliban fighters. I appeal again to the Minister to intervene. He has been very good so far and I ask him to ask his staff in Abu Dhabi to buck up a little bit because they dropped the ball big time.

Finally, on Shannon Airport, UN resolution 1441 is the genesis of the use Shannon Airport by US military. It is a UN mandate that is how it all started. When the Sinn Féin Deputy in our constituency, Deputy Wynne, starts talking about this, she talks about the shame of Shannon. There is no shame on Shannon.

The situation in Afghanistan is stark, as Deputy Cathal Crowe and many other speakers have noted. Despite promises that there would be inclusive governance in Afghanistan, there is a new cabinet whose members are all male and all Taliban. Protests have been banned, press freedom has been severely restricted and the Taliban has announced that the country will be ruled along Sharia law principles, which may exclude women from the workforce and other areas of public life.

I know that Ireland will use its Presidency of the UN Security Council to raise these issues. I hope that Ireland, working with the international community, can also pressure the Taliban to respect international law and human rights through all other possible means. In any approach to the Taliban, we must ensure that we do not harm the people of Afghanistan. Some 80% of the country’s budget has been covered by international funds for the past 20 years. We must ensure that any funding given to the country goes towards creating proper employment and economic development, rather than being expropriated by the Taliban.

I recognise the response of this Government and, in particular, the announcement yesterday of the special admission programme for Afghan nationals. I know that there are many Ministers involved in this but we should consider being flexible about some of the provisions in the programme, including the overall family size limits and protection of other groups like ethnic minorities.

The Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, referred to Doras, a brilliant organisation that provides support and advocacy for people from a migrant background in Ireland. Doras has prepared a response to some of the matters to which Deputy Gannon referred. I encourage the Ministers to engage with Doras. This organisation is telling me that it has received more than 2,000 phone calls last month from people seeking information about bringing family members from Afghanistan into Ireland.

I want to expand on a point made by the Minister about the community sponsorship programme. As he mentioned, there is a regional support organisation for the programme. It has been working with people who come together as friends and neighbours or as clubs or community groups and who want to welcome refugee families to their communities and help them settle in to their lives in those communities. I thank the Minister for his support for this programme. It is an expression of who we are as a nation that we are willing to welcome those people fleeing hardship into our communities and that Ireland is a place of kindness, of inclusion and of understanding.

As we are in our decade of centenaries, I can think of no better expression of the Irish nation than of Irish people being supported to give a warm supportive welcome to those fleeing Afghanistan. Our values are important and how we express them to the world is also important. The work that the Minister is doing in integration is vital as an expression of our values as a nation. In essence, we define ourselves in part by how we treat others. It takes much work and effort to ensure that the famous Irish welcome is not just a cliche but something actively practised throughout our society.

I pay tribute to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, for ensuring that those values that we espouse are effectively communicated and practised on the international stage. Through the structures of the Security Council, the Minister has been very clear that Ireland's values are to lead on humanitarian relief, on the important space of Ireland’s experience of placing priority on women’s involvement in the processes that shape their future and on the welcoming of refugees.

As others have done, I also want to acknowledge the truly incredible efforts the Minister and his staff made in these recent months and to also acknowledge the members of the Irish Defence Forces who worked hard to save the lives of Irish and non-Irish citizens who were stranded in Afghanistan. Amidst the chaos and disorder that is the reality in Afghanistan right now, it might seem trite to refer to the challenge of climate change but the effects of climate change are continuing, with warnings that a severe famine is imminent in Afghanistan. A particularly harsh winter, as well as drought, has made this more likely. Most Afghan households depend on agriculture for income and a famine would be devastating for the country. The prospect of an increased frequency of droughts would be a terrible vista.

The people of Afghanistan are not causing climate change. The average person living there causes 40 times less greenhouse gas emissions than the average person in Ireland. We can and we must dramatically reduce our emissions to play our part in making the future safer for people in countries like Afghanistan. We could point to our size and say that our contribution to climate change does not matter. We could also do this for issues like welcoming refugees and humanitarian relief. As a small country, Ireland can always try to opt out because the magnitude of the difference that we can make is not big but values matter. Irish values matter and what Ireland does to protect and support people in poorer countries is not a nice-to-have extra but is a fundamental expression of who we are.

First, I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman, for all their work on this issue, particularly in the context of the repatriation of Irish citizens and their family members. I also thank Deputy Cathal Crowe for his contribution, which was very important and powerful in the context of what is happening and why we are here discussing these matters.

There are a number of families with whom I have been in contact over the past month or so that the Department of Foreign Affairs has assisted me in getting them home. I also pay tribute in particular to the members of the Army Ranger Wing for the work that they did, along with the Department of Foreign Affairs officials, in the context of the emergency intervention. The latter was a proud moment for many Irish people in the context of what was going on in Afghanistan.

The taking over of Afghanistan by the Taliban was not a surprise, but the speed at which it occurred was. One has to recognise that Afghanistan has a very young population that now faces significant challenges, particularly females, many of whom were studying and in school and will now be prevented from doing so, or so we are led to believe but from international reports. Young girls and women with dreams and aspirations have questions to ask as to whether they will have the opportunity to achieve those dreams. That is where the generosity and values of the Irish people comes to play, as Deputy Leddin has quite rightly outlined.

There is a great deal that we can be doing in overseas development assistance and other supports we can give the international community and to NGOs that have access to the country, by way of trying to mitigate against a humanitarian disaster in respect of food supplies and the disintegration of the Afghan economy, as Deputy Leddin and others mentioned. This will lead to very significant difficulties for the population.

I welcome the announcement of the new admissions programme which is a very positive step. The broadening out of the family reunification criteria is something that we must address, not just for Afghanistan, but for other countries.

The generosity and values of Irish people was mentioned quite eloquently earlier. I believe that we are the most generous people in the world per capita in terms of giving to charities, among other things.

That is deeply pride-inducing for us as a people.

At the same time, I received an email this afternoon from a citizen with a very common name, decrying the fact there are so many foreigners in Ireland and arguing we should close our borders and follow what Michel Barnier suggested, I believe, in a completely different context. Such attitudes make my blood boil. We have a responsibility to those who are not as fortunate as us. We have our own problems but we do not have problems like those in certain countries, including Afghanistan. That is why we should extend a firm hand of friendship and the supports of this nation to the many citizens of Afghanistan, who now face a very bleak future.

I am sharing time with Deputy Connolly.

Like my constituency colleague, I commend the Minister and his Department on the work they have done and continue to do in evacuating Irish citizens. The type of interaction he described is one that reflects those I have had with him the past, when he has been contactable late at night when officials are not, and that is not a criticism of officials. They are not paid to be contactable by Deputies late at night. Nor is the Minister, but he tends to be available and I, for one, appreciate that.

In framing a policy on Afghanistan as a neutral country - I support our neutrality - we need to reflect on what has happened there. From what I can see, Osama bin Laden, pretty comprehensively, achieved what he set out to achieve more than 20 years ago. That is not palatable to many but that is what has happened, in light of the state Afghanistan is in now. The Taliban is comprehensively in control of the territory of Afghanistan in a way it was not then. The Panjshir Valley seems to have fallen, although there are disputed reports from there. The Taliban pretty comprehensively controls the entire territory in a way it never did before. The only difference now is that it has trillions of dollars of western military hardware at its disposal, which was left in a panicked retreat.

We can see it even more broadly than that, in the context of the US presence in the world, and in particular in the Muslim world and the proxy war happening between the Sunni forces, led primarily by the Saudis, and Iran and the impact that is having throughout the Muslim world. We need to reflect on that, how that victory came about and what the West did. I acknowledge it is easy to talk about the West, but what happened to facilitate that? Massive corruption was exposed by WikiLeaks and the then Vice President of Afghanistan was reported to have arrived in Dubai with $52 million in cash. I am sure the corruption being reported was reported to all western embassies but, nevertheless, it continued.

I worked in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005. I have to say, what I saw there was not the paradise it is being portrayed as now. I am not saying the Taliban was not worse or that what is going to happen now is not worse, but that which was portrayed as a great revolution was certainly not that and did not quite enjoy the popular support because ordinary people on the ground were not enjoying any of the benefits of it. It was all being filtered off into the corruption of officials. We must not lose sight of the fact that the military victory, such as it was when the Northern Alliance took Kabul, was really warlords who got air cover from the West to retake Kabul before carving it up among themselves again. They have very recently retreated, for now, into neighbouring states.

There are not really good guys and bad guys. The idea that they might be bastards but they are bastards - that might not be parliamentary language but that is the realpolitik of international relations - only got us so far. We are right back now to where we were then, faced with the question of whether we - Ireland, the West - should negotiate with the Taliban now as we could have then or go through this all over again and lose further western lives in Afghanistan. For every western life lost, a multiple of Afghans were killed. It is not a very happy or cheerful message but it would be wrong to think the Taliban came to power without popular support. No occupational force could sweep through a country as quickly as it did without considerable support on the ground. It was obvious from a long time ago that the western project would not succeed there, such as it was.

It is good this matter is on the agenda and we are getting an opportunity to discuss it. I thank the Minister, his Department and the other two Departments for their work on the ground. My office has been touch with the Minister, as have those of all the other Deputies. I thank him personally for that.

I will outline some of the concerns the Irish Refugee Council has put to us, before moving on to the general to discuss the shame of Shannon Airport. The council's concerns have been clearly articulated but I will just run through them again quickly. There are about ten. What does a "close family member" mean? That needs to be addressed. The phrase "by December" needs to be brought forward; there is no urgency as it is. The number of places is up to 500 but that is the least we can do. Let us recall our role with our friend the US in causing what has happened with the Taliban. The Minister stated previously, when we had discussions in the House on neutrality, that we have to look after our friends and know who they are, an issue I will return to.

The limit is 500 places with up to four close family members. As someone who comes from a large family, I can see the immediate difficulties with that. There is a right to have a prioritisation, and the Minister set it out, but there are ethnic minorities. There are married women who are in serious trouble and other groups who are possibly excluded. Stamp 4 is not at the same level as refugee status and there are problems with evidentiary issues in regard to passports and so on. In the case of one of the families for whom I made representations, the man is in Galway and the wife is in Kabul with no passport because it is elsewhere. A question was asked about electronic processing and whether visa fees and documentation requirements can be waived. Canada has shown the way in that regard. The final issue relates to the financial conditions as set out in the family reunification policy.

I welcome yesterday's announcement and what we are doing. I have outlined my concerns but they have been set out much more articulately by the Irish Refugee Council. We must ask what has happened. I tend to read the news rather than look at television, but the images from the newspaper are still embedded in me and I ask what has happened. Our friend the US - they are the terms and we have to be nice to our friends and recognise them - invaded a country in 2001 for its own purposes, ostensibly to get rid of the Taliban, but 20 years later, it is almost stronger than ever. The US invaded for its own purposes and it was a fraudulent war, in my opinion and that of John Pilger and many other well-respected journalists and commentators.

History has gone out the door because of how bad the Taliban is. I do not have the words to describe the Taliban. There is, however, a history to Afghanistan. It elected a government in 1978. I will read what The Washington Post reported at the time. It stated, "Afghan loyalty to the government [which was democratically elected; not loyalty to the Taliban] can scarcely be questioned." Secular, modernist and, to a considerable degree, socialist, the government declared a programme of visionary reforms that included equal rights for women and minorities. Political prisoners were freed and police files publicly burned. That was in 1978. The problem was the US did not like that because the Soviet Union was backing Afghanistan at that point. There had been no invasion of Afghanistan at that point. It had a government democratically elected. So it went on, with the Soviet Union versus the US, and Afghanistan caught in the middle. More than 50% of university students at that point, and throughout the 1980s, were female. The US decided it could not let this happen.

There was the invasion by Russia and, subsequently, the invasion by America. We cannot discuss that in two or three minutes, but I can say that we must use our seat on the Security Council for peace. We cannot be a party to ongoing wars led by America and other countries for their industrial power. We cannot keep doing that. I was trying to get the exact figure for the Deputy but 2 to 3 million American soldiers have gone through Shannon Airport. I have no idea what UN resolution, and I have a little experience, supports 3 million soldiers going through our airspace on their way to wars, rendition flights and all sorts of questionable practices, to put it mildly. It is in our name because we are now part of that. Please point out the UN resolution that allows us to do that. There is shame involved. The shame is on successive Governments that have utterly disgraced us by allowing this to happen in our name. I appeal to the Minister to use his seat on the Security Council as a voice for peace in the world and a voice that says we cannot keep wars like this going. Certainly, as a woman, I consider it intolerable and I will have no part of it.

I thank the Deputies for contributing to the debate. It has been quite an extensive debate over three hours or so and has been very useful. I will try to respond to the questions and comments. Some of the questions apply to programmes that will be outlined and administered by other Ministers, but I will try to respond to the thrust of the questions. Perhaps I will break my response up into different issues that have been raised.

The first is our response to assist Irish citizens in Afghanistan and help get them out, to assist Afghan citizens who are Irish residents and to assist family members through a special programme that was announced this week. Members should not forget that over the last number of weeks there has also been a prioritisation of family reunification decisions, just under 100, since the start of September. We have been doing everything we can, and we have been using all the vehicles we can put together quickly, to facilitate people getting out of Afghanistan. As is the case for many other countries, there have been barriers to the ability to get people from where they are, either in Kabul or elsewhere in Afghanistan, out of the country, be it across the border into countries such as Pakistan, Iran or Turkmenistan or through Kabul airport. Unfortunately, we still have citizens to get out, many of them vulnerable children. We will keep working on that. I pay tribute to my teams in Abu Dhabi, Dublin and elsewhere who are working night and day to try to work with families, to keep in touch with them, to find avenues to help get them out safely and, in some cases, encouraging them to stay where they are until they can assist in getting them out safely. Last Sunday, for example, we had the success of getting 11 Irish citizens and some dependants as part of the group onto a Qatar flight to Doha. We are currently working on a similar option that, hopefully, can materialise in the days ahead.

It might be useful to give the up-to-date statistics on our current position. So far, we have managed to facilitate 58 Irish citizens, plus dependants, to get out of Afghanistan safely. We currently have a total of 50 Irish citizens plus dependent family members in Afghanistan, that is, 33 Irish citizens and 17 dependent family members. Two of those Irish citizens are not seeking to leave. Like many other incredibly courageous and brave people, they wish to stay in Afghanistan to contribute to supporting local populations through the organisations with which they work. The other 48 are certainly seeking to leave and we will do everything we can to continue to help them find options. As regards Irish residents and family reunification visa holders, there are 25 Irish residents, who are Afghan nationals, and family members and there are 40 family reunification visa holders currently in Afghanistan looking to leave. That is 65 people who we are also prioritising in terms of trying to give them support and guidance to get out safely.

On top of that, there is the Irish refugee protection programme. I wish to single out the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. There was talk earlier about picking up the telephone and talking to Ministers late at night. In my view, Deputy O'Gorman has been phenomenal through this process in respect of interventions I have asked him to make in emergency situations to get journalists out quickly, because they are in danger of being shot and killed, and to get other vulnerable families and individuals out. That included assisting with a request that came from Northern Ireland through the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland to get an interpreter who had worked with the British army and was under threat, as well as a series of family members linked to that interpreter, on our refugee protection programme and, therefore, getting a visa waiver to help those family members to get out and travel safely to Ireland over time.

Deputy O'Gorman and his team have found a way to make things work, which is sometimes very difficult in a political system and Civil Service-led system where systems matter with regard to transparency, accountability and all the other things that need to be in place before one can make political decisions. The team of people around Deputy O'Gorman performed under pressure in a compassionate and professional way and got a load of people a visa waiver that subsequently allowed 150 of them to come to Ireland, with many more to follow. To give the statistics in that area, 149 have already arrived in Ireland. The figure might be slightly higher now as that figure is perhaps two days old. There are 74 who are currently in a third country and travelling to Ireland and 150 still in Afghanistan. I suspect that number will continue to grow.

I also pay tribute to numerous organisations ranging from Nasc to the Irish Refugee Council, Amnesty International and others who are working with community sponsors to make it possible to bring people to Ireland as refugees, knowing that they will have somewhere to stay and will have a sponsor and a support mechanism to make that happen. The truth is that when refugees come to Ireland they do not go to direct provision centres. They are refugees who are entitled to be here. They are not going through an asylum process, which is what most of the residents in our centres are going through at present. They rely for housing on the local authorities and rental options and they rely on local community sponsors. Many of the vulnerable people who are coming here are doctors, nurses and journalists. Many of them are fluent English speakers. In my view, they will be not only people who deserve our support because of their vulnerability in Afghanistan but they also will be an extraordinary asset to enrich communities here. They will find gainful employment and so forth very quickly and will add significantly to Irish society.

I also recognise my colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy. On the humanitarian side we have prioritised, as one would expect, extra financial resources for UN organisations because we know they can operate.

The UNHCR and OHCA are both leading UN efforts, talking directly to the Taliban in a pragmatic way about getting in the supplies that are needed for humanitarian assistance and about keeping medical facilities open. The majority of medical facilities across Afghanistan are run by the international community because of the inability of the previous administration to operate a healthcare system across Afghanistan. When I spoke to the head of OHCA, Martin Griffiths, in New York last week, he told me that when he was speaking to members of the Taliban, they made it very clear to him that they know how to fight but they do not know how to run a country or operate the systems that are required to provide basic public services to a very large population spread across an enormous landmass, which is predominantly rural, in Afghanistan.

The importance of acting quickly with the international community working through UN organisations and many other international organisations, which are staying in situ in Afghanistan as winter sets in, cannot be overstated. I pay tribute to all the international organisations that continue to operate with their local Afghan partners to provide those kinds of essential services.

Before I run out of time, I wish to answer some of the questions that were raised about the new family reunification scheme or access programme announced by Government this week. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, will respond to all those questions comprehensively. The thinking behind this was to try to quickly put in place a new scheme that could allow a large number of people in Afghanistan to get a visa waiver to come to Ireland and join families who already have accommodation in place here and who can accommodate more family members safely. The attempt to restrict it to four per family was to try to recognise the capacity issues that undoubtedly need to be taken into account when new family members are coming to join a household here. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, will speak on this herself. I am sure it will be a priority to try to ensure that family units are kept together. There may be some flexibility in respect of the four-family-member rule.

People have asked for more than 500 places. Of course, we want to be as generous as we can, but we need to start somewhere. A scheme to facilitate 500 people while trying to prioritise the people who are most vulnerable surely makes sense, as long as we can do our best to keep families together. There are many multiples of 500 people who want to come to Ireland, but we need to try to prioritise the people who are most at risk. We need to ensure that we can provide the necessary services and supports for people when they come here. Otherwise we will make commitments that we struggle to follow through on when people arrive.

I commit to work with all Members of this House on the individual cases that many of them are advocating for. It is sometimes outside our control to be able to get somebody into Kabul airport because of the behaviour of the Taliban and because of other circumstances outside our control in Afghanistan. However, we will continue to work with public representatives, families, human rights organisations and NGOs. Many interested stakeholders are approaching us at the same time, trying to protect vulnerable people and we are trying to accommodate as many people as we possibly can.

We have set up a special unit within the Department to assist the team in Abu Dhabi and to work with other Departments. This is a cross-Government effort, involving the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, the Department of Justice, my Department and other Departments. We will continue to do what we can to get all Irish citizens out and to get as many people as we can accommodate generously, coming to live here within our society and to give the most vulnerable people the protection that they deserve.

I thank Members for the constructive nature of this debate and I would be very happy to come back in a few weeks or a few months to update the House on the progress we have made.

I am Minister for Defence as well as Minister for Foreign Affairs. If ever there was an example of the two Departments working together in a way that really makes sense, it was when we agreed together to send an emergency consular aid team, ECAT, to Kabul airport at relatively short notice, using diplomatic channels to get political support from France, which subsequently turned into an extraordinary facilitation by the French military, to get our team safely into Kabul and out again. The partnership between the Army Ranger Wing members and the two diplomats who were leading that mission is a very good template for us to build on for crisis intervention in the future in order to support and help Irish citizens which I have no doubt will be needed again in the future. We will now build on the lessons learned from that to put a more permanent preparatory structure in place between the two Departments and with the Defence Forces, which will build on the lessons we learned from that 48-hour intervention that managed to get an extra 26 people out of Kabul at a very difficult time.

I thank Members for their contributions and I look forward to continuing to work with all parties and none in this House in continuing efforts to assist people who need it in Afghanistan.

Sitting suspended at 8.57 p.m. and resumed at 9 p.m.