I am head of humanitarian programmes at Trócaire. Mr. Éamonn Meehan, our director, sends his apologies as he is in Rome at the general assembly of Caritas Internationalis, which takes place only every four years.
Trócaire is the official overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland. It is a registered charity and was established in 1973 with a twin mandate, to combat poverty abroad and to make everyone at home more aware of the needs of developing countries and of our duties towards them. Justice is at the centre of our mandate and this commitment to a just world has been our defining characteristic for the last 40 years.
Trócaire has a long history of fighting for the full realisation of human rights. We work with an extensive network of partners in 17 different countries on various justice related issues. We also work closely with the human rights unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I would like to acknowledge the active role Ireland has played as a member of the Human Rights Council, and particularly in its commitment to Resolution 25/12 on freedom of religion or belief.
Trócaire understands the persecution of Christians and ethnic and religious minorities as a heinous violation of a fundamental human right, namely, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion derived from the inherent dignity of the human person and one of the most vital elements that goes to make up identity. Across the Middle East, the existence of many minorities, including Christians, is seriously threatened by the deepening conflict. In Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, we work among many Christians. We witness a situation where violence, hatred, extremism, intolerance and exclusion are destroying the social fabric of society and endangering the very existence of many communities, communities that have co-existed peacefully for thousands of years. In conflict, the universality of rights is challenged and rights are denied, freedoms are abused and populations cease to have control over their lives.
In 2014, Trócaire responded to a call from Caritas Iraq to assist Christians, Turkmen, Yazidis, Shabaks and Shia Muslims forced to flee Mosul after it was taken by the Islamic State. Our colleagues in Caritas Iraq say it is not only about religion but about power, control and wealth. A grant of more than US$400,000 was provided by us to Caritas Iraq which assisted thereafter 4,000 of the neediest families. Families received vouchers to buy basic household supplies, such as mattresses, blankets and utensils and fuel for warmth and cooking during the winter months.
In our work, we serve people of all faiths and none, while recognising the vulnerability of minorities and particularly women and children among those minorities. When we provide humanitarian aid it is given regardless of race, creed or nationality and without adverse distinction of any kind. Our relief efforts are strictly guided by the humanitarian imperative to ensure that no group is excluded or needs ignored. Mr. Meehan, in an e-mail this morning, mentioned that the Pope had addressed the gathering in Rome and emphasised the point that no group should be excluded.
In Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, Trócaire is working with seven local partner organisations, four of whom are Caritas agencies. Some committee members met Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo when Trócaire hosted his visit to Ireland in November last year. He spoke of how, in the midst of the ongoing terror and destruction of Aleppo, people were supporting each other based on what they had and what others needed rather than on religious affiliation.
On 28 April last, President Higgins visited Trócaire’s programme partners in Lebanon where he met with staff and with refugees from Syria and Iraq who shared their personal stories of displacement and their hopes to return to their countries which have been ravaged by conflict. In his address, President Higgins spoke of the consequences of diplomatic failure in the region and the human tragedy that has resulted. He noted that displacement is a global problem and that there is a need for urgent and honest recognition of international and moral responsibilities to respond. The President expressed his solidarity with all those displaced by conflict and called for the international community to help carry the burden of the Syria crisis and recognise the strain on countries like Lebanon which currently hosts more than 1.3 million refugees.
The international community can and must do more to support all ethnic and religious communities in the Middle East, remembering always that violence has no religion, gender, ethnicity or morality but reflects a betrayal of basic humanity. Peace is crucial for the future of the Middle East and is the only way to guarantee the existence of minority communities, including Christians, in this region into the future.
On behalf of Trócaire and our partners in the Middle East, I ask the committee to consider the following actions that the Irish Government and the broader European Union must take to show leadership and solidarity and to demonstrate our common humanity. First, the Irish Government must take a more proactive role in ending conflict in the Middle East, building on the experience in Northern Ireland of peace building, conflict prevention and conflict resolution. Ireland should increase diplomatic engagement on Syria, supporting the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, in efforts to secure a renewed political process. Second, we ask the committee to work with the Departments of Justice and Equality, Social Protection and Foreign Affairs and Trade to ensure that a greater number of Syrian and Iraqi refugees are offered asylum and protection in Ireland. Ireland has granted refugee status to approximately 90 Syrian asylum seekers since the conflict began, as well as initiating the Syrian humanitarian admissions programme.
However, these numbers are disproportional to the gravity of the displacement situation and the EU has largely failed to take responsibility for shouldering the burden of the crisis.
I ask members to continue to engage specifically on the Syrian crisis to ensure that the support provided by the Irish Government is holistic and in tandem with the scale and complexity of the crisis. The Government must give more consideration to the work of national NGOs and local actors in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria that are instrumental in ensuring that aid continues to help those trapped in hard-to-reach areas. In addition to bearing witness to the suffering of others, the staff and families of national organisations in Syria live in fear of being attacked and directly targeted for providing assistance to those in greatest need. Flexible funding mechanisms must continue to evolve to respond to the increasing complexity and desperate nature of the situation and reach out particularly to local organisations providing life-saving assistance to those who are hard to reach and living in constant fear.