Nos. 1 and 2, motions on the Council decisions establishing provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy and of Greece, will be debated together. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Sean Sherlock, and congratulate him on his recent marriage. I call on the Deputy Leader to move the first motion.
European Council Decisions: Motions
That Seanad Éireann approves the exercise by the State of the option or discretion under Protocol No. 21 on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland in respect of the area of freedom, security and justice annexed to the Treaty on European Union and to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, to accept the following measure:
Council Decision (EU) 2015/1523 of 14 September 2015 establishing provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy and of Greece,
a copy of which was laid before Seanad Éireann on 24th September 2015.
I thank the Acting Chairman for his good wishes which are greatly appreciated.
I speak to the motions on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. I thank the House for making time available to discuss the motions concerning Ireland opting in to two European Council decisions that provide for the relocation from Italy and Greece of persons in clear need of international protection. As Senators will be aware, Ireland is not automatically bound by EU measures in the area of freedom, justice and security under the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union which includes the asylum area but may opt in to any measure where it wishes to do so.
The conflict in Syria has led to the world's largest humanitarian crisis with more than 12 million Syrians displaced from their homes. Of those, more than 4 million are refugees in neighbouring countries. I pay tribute to the role played by Syria's neighbours in their generous response to the Syrian crisis. The numbers seeking sanctuary in Lebanon and Jordan are greater than those seeking to come to Europe. It is an enormous challenge for them and us. Italy and Greece have experienced unprecedented flows of migrants in the past 18 months in particular, placing significant pressure on their migration and asylum systems. Since the beginning of the year, approximately 116,000 migrants have arrived in Italy in an irregular manner and more than 211,000 have arrived in Greece.
The Government has been working proactively with its colleagues in Europe to ensure Ireland and the European Union respond comprehensively to this critical humanitarian challenge. Ireland has played its part and many months ago we sent some of our naval vessels, including the LE Eithne and, subsequently, the LE Niamh and the LE Samuel Beckett, to the Mediterranean to carry out vital rescue missions to ensure the safety of many people trying to come to Europe for protection. The Minister for Justice and Equality; the Minister for Defence, Deputy Simon Coveney, and I visited one such mission in Malta recently. Irish Aid, the Government's development co-operation programme for which I have responsibility, has been supporting efforts to assist those affected by the Syrian crisis since 2012. We have allocated more than €39 million to help them within Syria and in neighbouring countries. We have pledged that by the end of 2015 Ireland's support for the Syrian people will reach €41 million. This is Irish Aid's largest response to a single crisis in recent years. Ireland has also contributed almost €2.5 million in humanitarian aid to Iraq since the crisis erupted there in summer 2014.
Within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and through Irish Aid the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and I continue to monitor the position. Irish funding supports UN agencies and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, as well as the great work being done by Irish NGOs which are implementing vital programmes in countries neighbouring Syria. They are providing displaced persons with shelter, food, water and sanitation, as well as support to victims of sexual violence. However, the unprecedented scale of the needs has led to a huge strain on neighbouring countries and everyday hardship for refugees. It has also denied refugees the means to build new lives and to see a future for their children. The crisis continues to escalate.
The decisions being discussed today form part of a package of measures introduced by the European Commission in response to this crisis. The first decision which was adopted by the Justice and Home Affairs Council of 14 September 2015 provides for the relocation over a two-year period of 40,000 people in clear need of international protection - 24,000 from Italy and 16,000 from Greece. The distribution of these persons was agreed by consensus by member states in July and Ireland agreed to accept 600 people under the proposal. Since the July meeting, with the influx of refugees through the western Balkans in particular increasing dramatically, it became clear that significant further measures were needed. Accordingly, at a further emergency Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting on 22 September, a second decision was adopted which provided for the relocation of a further 120,000 people in clear need of international protection. In this decision, 66,000 of the 120,000 people will be relocated from Italy and Greece initially. The balance of 54,000 people will either be relocated from other member states coming under pressure in future, if necessary, or, alternatively, will be relocated from Italy and Greece. The distribution of the persons to be relocated across member states is set out in the annex to the decision. Ireland has not been included in the annex because we did not opt in to the proposal before it was adopted. It is estimated that Ireland's allocation under this decision will be in the region of 1,850 people.
In response to the crisis the Government agreed three weeks ago to establish an Irish refugee protection programme and to accept up to 4,000 persons overall under the EU resettlement and relocation programmes. Included in the 4,000 people are 520 we have agreed to resettle in Ireland and 600 who are to be relocated under the Council's decision of 14 September. A further 1,850 people are expected to be relocated under the Council's decision of 22 September. The make-up of the balance is yet to be decided. It is important to note that persons accepted here under these programmes will also have an entitlement, once their protection claims are processed, to apply for family reunification if they wish to so do, thereby further increasing the numbers accepted by Ireland. The 4,000 agreed to is in addition to those who reach our shores directly to claim protection.
A task force has been established to co-ordinate and implement the logistical and operational aspects associated with this programme. The Minister for Justice and Equality chaired the first meeting on 16 September which was attended by all of the main Departments, the agencies, the Red Cross and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR. The people have also shown great generosity, offering support and assistance, including accommodation, to those who may be relocated to Ireland under these decisions. The Red Cross has been given the task of drawing together these offers of assistance in a cohesive manner. On Monday, the Red Cross launched its website to enable members of the public to formally register their pledges. On my own behalf and that of the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I express sincere gratitude to the Red Cross for agreeing to take on this substantial role.
The Government also approved the establishment of a network of emergency reception and orientation centres for the initial acceptance and processing of those in need of international protection who are accepted into Ireland under the EU programmes. In view of the profile of the relocation applicants, it is expected their applications for protection will be processed in a matter of weeks and many will be granted refugee status.
We have all been shocked and upset at the scenes witnessed in southern and central Europe and the distressing scenes during rescues in the Mediterranean. Ireland has always lived up to its international humanitarian obligations, as is evidenced by our resettlement programmes which have seen almost 500 people resettled here since 2009, our sending of naval vessels to assist in search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and the introduction of a Syrian humanitarian admission programme last year which involved 114 people being granted permission to come here.
By opting into these decisions we will not only provide a safe haven for families and children who are forced to leave their homes due to war and conflict but will also show solidarity with other EU member states whose protection systems are under enormous pressure due to the large influx of migrants. I reassure the House that from a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade perspective, through Irish Aid, we will continue to work with international and Irish NGOs in the particular geographies affected by the crisis to try to support people in their home countries. I commend the motions to the House.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. We, on this side of the House, will fully support the motions. Their spirit bring us into line with the policy proposed by our European neighbours on the opt-out available not only to Ireland but to the United Kingdom under Part 3 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. I acknowledge the efforts and work of the Minister of State and his colleagues on this issue. In particular, I acknowledge the naval vessels, including the LE Eithne, on which I was aboard when it was docked in County Donegal many years ago, the LE Niamh and the LE Samuel Beckett. We all saw on television the scenes mentioned by the Minister of State which showed the excellent work carried out on a European humanitarian mission by the crews of these vessels on behalf of the State.
With regard to the crisis which has emerged in Syria, we have heard this morning that Russian warplanes are entering Syrian space and bombing the rebels in the southern part of Syria, which is alarming. In the northern part of Syria, US air missiles or warplanes are bombing. One can imagine the fear as this new development emerges and the challenges it will bring to the area and the overall conflict.
The European response in general was very weak and belated. Going back to the banking crisis, the European response was weak, to put it lightly. The European response in this instance was also weak. Europe must play a major role in this area and must step up to the plate. I take my hat off to the German authorities which have viewed this as an opportunity rather than a hindrance by opening Germany's doors to allow migrants fleeing Syria into the country. These migrants are highly educated, skilled and trained. Some of them are university professors and doctors. Germany is seeing the economic benefits of this. While there is a humanitarian side, it is also looking at the economic side.
This issue will not go away. Figures provided for world demographics by the population division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs for the next 50 to 100 years show the world's population is now 7.349 billion and is expected to reach 9.725 billion by 2050 and 11.213 billion by 2100. The population of Europe is 738 million and according to the demographers this figure will reduce to 707 million by 2050 and 646 million by 2100. In contrast, the population of Africa is now at 1.186 billion and will more than double by 2050 and almost quadruple to 4.387 billion by 2100. The population of southern Asia will grow by more than 500 million by 2050. The population of Egypt which is now at 90 million could reach 170 million. The population of Nigeria is now at 182 million and could reach 752 million by 2100. These figures show starkly that the population of Europe's southern neighbours will increase alarmingly in the coming decades. This will create huge pressures on Europe as its population decreases. It will also provide an opportunity, but it must be managed from a public policy perspective throughout the European Union. Europe must radically reform policies and come to the table with policies which will assist migrant people.
I have listened to much of the commentary on this issue. Much of it has been about what we can do for the migrants, but where there is an effect there is always a cause. The effect here is obviously the migrants coming across the borders and fleeing because Russian and US warplanes are bombing the bejesus out of neighbourhoods and people. This is the cause. Unless we deal with the cause, we will not be able to resolve the effect. While we can deal with the migrants coming across the borders, many of the people who are fleeing their homes will never see them or their townlands again and we must also look at the actual cause. Political dialogue with these jurisdictions and governments is required. It is long overdue and needs to occur. I appeal to the Minister of State that part of the solution needs to be this dialogue.
According to the United Nations, the populations of the countries in question will increase in the coming 100 years. We must be able to manage it and support these communities to be self-sufficient and care and look after their own people. That is the challenge from a public policy point of view. I fully support this. We should have another debate on the issue without just talking about the motions, which we fully support. There are issues and shortcomings which need to be addressed and challenged and a debate needs to be held in every member state and every parliament in the European Union. The response of the European Commission and the European Union has been slow.
There is a response on the table now and a plan will be in place from the middle of September, but it took a long time to get to that point. We are trying to deal with the effect of this crisis, but what about the cause? How can we deal with it? We should look at where Syria is located on a map and consider the migrants who are fleeing from Syria. There are 8 million displaced Syrians within the country, another 4 million outside the country and an estimated 2 million waiting to cross the Mediterranean from north Africa. It is a major crisis that needs to be addressed without question.
I wish the Minister well. A fundamental European response is required. Europe needs to examine what other jurisdictions can do, including the Canadians and the Americans, in particular. What can be done from these areas? We have heard what the authorities in Dubai are offering, which is very little. Europe needs to deal with the crisis and put a policy in place for its member states, but it also must enter dialogue with democratically elected governments in other jurisdictions with a view to examining this issue, because it will not disappear. In fact, it will get worse in future decades, given the increasing population. Unless we deal with the cause at this stage, the effects will be much greater in the years to come.
I listened intently to my friend and colleague Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill and find myself in unison with his analysis of the issue and critique of the European response and what is required. I respectfully suggest the dynamic has changed radically in the past year or two. What we saw over the summer has dramatically changed the narrative, the environment and what should be the response. Two years ago we would not have envisaged this.
We have been accepting people into the country for many years. There are 4,000 people in the direct provision system which can only be described as inhumane. Calls for change have been made since the start of this Oireachtas. With Senator TrevorÓ Clochartaigh and others, I have called for the abolition of the direct provision system. The Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, has made a genuine attempt to deal with it. He set up a review and, to be fair, elements of the recommendations have been implemented. It was inhumane to allow a situation to continue where children in direct provision accommodation were doing their leaving certificate and getting As in their subjects, knowing that once they passed their leaving certificate examinations, irrespective of the points they received, they would not be in a position to go to college. However, it was amazing to see the dramatic change in policy last August when a young lady from Limerick was offered a place at the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland. She engaged with media and spoke to the press. Her story touched people; there was a change in policy, and a recommendation made by that particular group was implemented. That was good politics. It was a good day for the country. It was the day we told people coming here that if they want to educate themselves and reach their potential, Ireland will be a partner in that and will equip them to do so.
Parallel to that, we saw the amazing work done by the LE Eithne, LE Niamh and personnel in the Naval Service. I had the great pleasure, as a member of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, to go on a tour of LE Eithne and visit the Naval Service headquarters in Haulbowline, County Cork. I saluted the personnel for the professional manner in which they carried out their duties on behalf of the people of Ireland. As public representatives, all we can do is look on in admiration and pride at what they have done internationally. It was their first such mission abroad. They saved at least 1,000 lives, but probably more. The Minister for Defence, Deputy Simon Coveney, attended the justice committee yesterday and made it clear that the resources would be made available if the Italian Government required them. If it is a question of prioritising fisheries patrol or saving lives in the Mediterranean, the Minister made it clear that his priority was saving lives in the Mediterranean. The priority of all of us is saving lives in the Mediterranean.
Only 150 years ago Ireland saw millions of its people travel on coffin ships to the United States seeking a better life and salvation from the Great Irish Famine. Millions of people died of starvation and millions more lost their lives in transit. Those who did arrive helped build the America we know today. Some of the thousands of people who passed through Ellis Island, many as young as 15 years of age, went on to become captains of industry in the United States. Their descendants went on to lead America, with the poster boy being John F. Kennedy, but many more became leaders and built America.
We have just come through one of the worst economic recessions we will ever see in our lifetimes. The country is reconstructing. Policies are being implemented to help us reconstruct. The capital plan was announced this week to great fanfare, but thousands of people will be required in the construction industry to put that capital plan into action and see the buildings built. We will require thousands of blocklayers, carpenters, electricians and engineers, because we do not have enough of those people. Even if we brought back all the emigrants who left in the past few years, we still would not be able to provide the human resources necessary to deliver our capital plan. The migrants may be seen as an economic necessity in Germany, but that is the case here also. We have the potential, as the Taoiseach has often said, to be the best small country in the world in which to do business. We can also be the best small country in the world to welcome people. This can be the best small country in the world for people to visit. This can be the best small country in the world for controlled construction. The people who find themselves in an unfortunate postion, like our ancestors 150 years ago, have a significant role to play in this country.
I spoke to members of the Restaurants Association of Ireland at their briefing across the road last week. They told me they needed thousands of chefs. I am sure many of the migrants coming here will be well able to cook if they are given the opportunity and will contribute to the tourism industry. Tourism in Ireland is in a pattern of steep growth, but staff, including chefs, cannot be got to fill the kitchens of many hostelries, restaurants and hotels. That is another example of how migrants could play a strong and meaningful role in our society.
We cannot, on the one hand, praise ourselves and say we are doing a great job, as the Naval Service is doing, while, on the other, putting up barriers to prevent people from getting homes here. The Government has done a good deal in accepting more than 4,000 migrants, but we can and should do much more. Ireland has an opportunity to lead on this issue in a similar way to Germany.
I support the motions. I am delighted that there is unanimity in Seanad Éireann, as has always been the case on issues of such importance to the people and our society.
The 24th Seanad is defined by the fact that we can come together and put party politics aside. It is not a political football but a political issue and when it is a political issue that matters, we can unite.
The motion pertains to two council decisions of the EU establishing measures in the area or international protection for the benefit of Italy and Greece of 14 September 2015 and 22 September 2015, also known as the relocation opt-ins. I welcome the relocation plan, a collective response and definitive action from the European Union. It has been a long time coming.
The civil war in Syria in which citizens have been caught between the al-Assad regime, rebel groups and religious extremists, all committing war crimes including the use of chemical weapons, torture and extrajudicial killing, has been ongoing since the Arab Spring of 2011. Some 95% of the 4.3 million Syrians who have fled the civil war have been residing in the refugee camps of neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt, which we have been repeatedly told by the UNHCR and the World Food Programme are underprepared, under-resourced, overcrowded and seriously overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees they are dealing with and due to the lack of food, the spread of disease and the cold of winter setting in. Many of the refugees believe their only option is to seek refuge in Europe, even at the risk of what both we and they know to be a perilous boat journey. The Arab states of the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, the envoy of which to the United Nations in Geneva has just been elected chairperson of the UN human rights panel of experts, have taken in zero refugees, which has been described as especially shameful by Amnesty International.
Despite all our knowledge, the European Union seems to have been taken by surprise in terms of its preparedness to receive refugees when this summer saw the highest influx of refugees into Europe since the Second World War. After the Second World War and the Holocaust we said, "Lest we forget." That was the genesis of the European Union and is the political glue that holds us together. The European Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Oscar Wilde said, "The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it." I agree, because I fear we are in danger of repeating it. In preparing this statement I came across a wonderful animated video from a series called "In a Nutshell" which explains the European refugee crisis in Syria in an extremely accessible way through animation and commentary and I recommend it to everyone. One of the quotes from it really struck me:
We are writing history right now. How do we want to be remembered? As xenophobic, rich cowards behind fences?
Images of fences, barricades and barbed wire on our European borders are reminiscent of a time we swore never to revisit.
This crisis is a shameful example of where the response of the citizens has far outweighed that of us as political representatives. Huge credit goes to the people of Europe for their compassion, empathy and demand for political action. The relocation plan is definitely a step in the right direction. The current programme to relocate 40,000 persons from Italy and Greece, with an agreement in principle to relocate an additional 120,000 over time, needs to be implemented as a matter of urgency. It is limited from the outset compared to the present need. The UNHCR has already given a preliminary estimate that 200,000 relocation places are urgently needed.
I commend Ms Sophie Magennis, head of the UNHCR office in Ireland and the UN designated official to Ireland, for her comprehensive address to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade earlier this week. I share the concerns of the UNHCR in Ireland that, notwithstanding relocation, no further measures have been proposed to create more legal pathways for refugees to reach safety in Europe. The UNHCR urges a substantial and rapid increase in legal opportunities for refugees to access the European Union. This would include enhanced resettlement and humanitarian admission, family reunification, private sponsorship and humanitarian and student visas. In this regard I note that Ireland has established the Syrian humanitarian admission programme and operates a resettlement programme, but I still believe we can do more to promote the flexible use of entry visas by authorities here. I am also proud to note that Ireland has a longstanding history of being one of a very small number of resettlement countries to which vulnerable cases such as families and medical cases are referred by the UNHCR following its registration, assessment and recommendation phases.
We have an important role as parliamentarians to raise awareness about these programmes and Ireland's important role in resettling refugees here. There is no Irish person who would not be horrified and moved to know that, in Syria, 50 families have been displaced every hour of every day since 2011. We have a platform to debunk much of the scaremongering and the untruths circulating about the so-called Islamification of Europe, a possible crime spike and a drain on our resources. None of this is true and it must be challenged as part of assisting and encouraging integration into Ireland and its society.
This is a global issue, but the European Union must ensure all member states uphold its values and look to the treaties of the European Union to look at the possibility of suspension of member states who are putting up barriers. That, for me, is a frightful sight which I thought was only part of our history. We need to ensure there are transparent legal pathways for refuge to safety in Europe. Without hesitation, I support the motions, but we have to and must do more. We must do our duty and we must not repeat history. We must rewrite it to show our humanity and compassion to our fellow global citizens.
I join in the welcome to the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, and congratulate him. I welcome the support expressed across the House for the motion. As I am standing in for Senator Maurice Cummins, I am Acting Leader in proposing the motion. I know that he very much welcomes the support too.
I welcome the commitment shown by the Government undertaking to take 4,000 refugees in the light of the current refugee crisis. I welcome the huge outpouring of compassion and empathy for the appalling plight of the refugees we have seen crossing the Mediterranean Sea and over land through Turkey and Greece and up through Croatia in recent months. My own family came to this country to seek refuge in 1946 when my grandfather arrived with my father as a young child; therefore, we are not very far removed from migration. With our own history we should be particularly mindful of the need to show sympathy to others who make this crossing.
We know that there is a humanitarian crisis for the Syrian families and the hundreds of thousands who have fled Syria, most of whom are living in refugee camps in neighbouring states such as Lebanon, where 1 million out of a population of 4 million are refugees. There are 2 million Syrians in refugee camps in Turkey, all in dire circumstances, and the world community needs to take action to address the humanitarian crisis there. There is now another humanitarian crisis which has been unfolding on a much bigger scale this year than in previous years, with so many people undertaking the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea or across land to reach European countries. Some 3,000 people have died this year alone in the Mediterranean, including the small boy, Aylan Kurdi, whose photograph touched us all so deeply.
The Irish vessels and their crews that have taken part in the relief effort have to be commended. They have done very important work and it is welcome that we have provided support through Irish Aid. Yesterday, at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, we heard in more detail about the planning for the resettlement and relocation of refugees and it is important to distinguish between the two. We have undertaken to resettle 520 refugees from front-line camps in Lebanon whose status will be predetermined as refugees when they come to Ireland. An additional 2,450 are to be relocated over a two-year period from transit across Europe, particularly Italy and Greece. We will then take in approximately 1,000 more on one basis or the other.
The committee heard from Mr. Michael Kirrane, head of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, and the Refugee Applications Commissioner, Mr. David Costello.
They assured us that preparation was ongoing, that the task force had met, as the Minister of State said, and that resources were being put in place. We expressed particular concern about the mechanism for determining the status of the 2,450 people who were to be relocated. As the Minister of State said, it is anticipated that those who come here on a relocation basis will not have their status predetermined and, therefore, will be accommodated in what are to be known as emergency reception and orientation centres. I share the concerns of others, as expressed at the joint committee meeting and again today, that this should not become another form of direct provision. We are all familiar with the significant problems that exist in direct provision centres. We are all extremely anxious that these centres would not house people who are awaiting decisions on status for more than a few weeks at a time.
When I questioned the Refugee Applications Commissioner, I received a personal assurance from him that he was recruiting more staff on a panel basis to ensure applications could be processed swiftly. He said his office would also need enhanced resources for the family reunification applications that would follow. I would like to make two points in that context. The Minister of State mentioned the Syrian humanitarian admission programme, under which 111 vulnerable people from Syria were granted permission to reside in Ireland last year following applications from family members here. I have been told that there were 308 applications, which means that just one third of applications were granted. I know from some of the Syrian families here how distressing that can be. I wonder if we might see a more generous approach to family reunification. The other concern I would like to mention is that family reunification provisions are apparently not included in the international protection Bill, as drafted. We need to ensure we have a generous approach to family reunification.
As I said, there are concerns about housing and accommodation. We have all rightly praised Germany absolutely for its open approach to the admission of refugees. I know from colleagues in Germany that public buildings such as school halls, community halls and barracks have been turned over for these purposes. I suggest this is an appropriate approach to short-term provision if there is no other way of doing it. We all understand that. We need to be sure decisions are made in a matter of weeks in order that families, in particular, are not housed in inappropriate accommodation for long periods.
We were told that the end of the year would see the first arrivals. We asked for a timeframe in that regard because it is clear that this issue is very urgent. That brings me to a very particular issue in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that is of concern. We know that tens of thousands of Syrian people, in particular, are on the move through Greece and Italy. There are also people fleeing wars in Iraq, Eritrea and other countries. We were told yesterday that the EU process and apparatus is really only cranking up now, belatedly, to provide an assurance to those who are currently on the move through Greece and Italy that provision will be made to relocate them if they stay in what are known as "hot spots" in those countries. I understand this will be done in co-operation with the Italian and Greek authorities. There is a major problem for people who are facing such an uncertain future. They must be given an assurance that adequate provision will be made for relocation from these countries.
I agree with Senator Jillian van Turnhout about the need for sanctions against those EU countries that are not showing the compassion and the humanity we are seeing from Germany. I refer particularly to Hungary, which has behaved so appallingly towards refugees. My father's country of origin, the Czech Republic, has not been particularly generous either. It behoves us in Ireland to be strong on this issue and to seek to ensure there is a common humanitarian response from across the European Union.
I wish to raise a couple of other points. In the light of the Minister of State's role in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, it is important to ask him to set out what Ireland is doing to ensure there is strong EU intervention to seek to resolve the cause of the crisis, which is forcing people to have to flee from Syria. What EU interventions are in hand to seek to resolve the war? As others said, we are seeing an escalation in Russia's intervention. Iran is backing the Assad regime. The United States is refusing to countenance any transitional arrangement with Assad in power. Huge numbers of civilians are caught in the middle in cities like Aleppo and Homs. What are the measures being taken? Do the Gulf states have a role to play in this respect? Is any pressure being put on them? Are sanctions being imposed on countries that are exporting arms to the Assad regime or ISIS? We know that civilians are being targeted by both.
I have been asked to raise the plight of a particular group, the Yazidi community, which is being targeted by ISIS in northern Iraq. I am aware that the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, who has spoken on this issue, recognises the plight of this community which has been singled out for genocidal treatment by ISIS. I wonder whether we can see this group being provided with targeted aid through Irish Aid's programmes. Can we see members of this community being prioritised for resettlement?
The enormous bravery, resilience and courage of Syrian families and individuals must be acknowledged in any contribution on the current crisis. I refer to those who have made such incredible and epic journeys from Syria in search of safety for their children and a future for themselves. The positive that has come from this is the immense compassion from ordinary citizens across the European Union who have been showing their support and compassion in such large numbers. In Ireland, we have seen it in the pledges of support made on uplift.ie. I echo the Minister of State's assertion that the Red Cross is to be commended on taking on the co-ordination of pledges from the public through its website, which was just established on Monday. I know that it will be seeking to make sure concrete pledges are being given. It will follow up on these pledges to ensure provision is made. The pupils in the school attended by my children have packed up thousands of packages of toiletries for refugees on the Greek and Italian borders. There is a real political will to help in any way we can the people who are caught in such a terrible situation and are trying to get to refuge in Europe.
I welcome the Minister of State. I have one cavil with the motion and that is the use of the word "benefit" in the phrase "for the benefit of Italy and Greece". This is not being done for the benefit of Greece, which is being crucified by the European Community and economically is in an appalling state. The economic situation in Greece is a catastrophe and social life there is disrupted. Greece is overwhelmed by refugees landing on small tourist islands. The number of refugees is greatly surpassing the number of people in the small tourist villages. It is not really "for the benefit" of Greece. I do not see any "benefit" to Greece, but I agree that there is a case for relief.
Like the Minister of State, I am proud of the work being done by the Irish Naval Service in rescuing people. When I was abroad at my house in Cyprus, I watched the international news and saw how the LE Eithne was being employed to rescue these people. As an Irishman, I felt extremely proud. The Minister of State was quite right to be proud when he spoke about this. He also referred to this country's admission of 500 people since 2009. I remind him that this is fewer than 100 people a year. I do not think it is anything to boast about.
The whole of the Middle East is very volatile and unstable. This is largely due to the intervention of Europe. When Mr. Assad took over from his father, many people were hopeful because they saw him as a kind of sophisticated western-oriented man. He had been educated in London and so on. Very soon, we saw signs of extraordinary repression against human rights activists. People were imprisoned and tortured for their human rights activities. The situation became more and more unsatisfactory. There has been a great deal of indecision in the West. I refer, for example, to the dithering about whether to get the military involved.
Senator Jillian van Turnhout referred to extra-judicial killings. The extra-judicial killings that really worry me are those done by the Americans by means of drone attacks. I find this utterly shocking because we are supposed to be defending western values. What happened to the right of habeas corpus? What happened to the right to a fair trial? What happened to the right to know the accusations being made against one and to defend oneself from them? Much of this is the product of Anglo-American intervention in the Middle East. This is an inevitable result of it. Of course, we cannot turn history back.
I wish to comment on the response of some of the European leaders, particularly people like Mr. Cameron. They initially seemed to see the people on the boats as the target. They intervened to stop their desperate flight across the Mediterranean. They ignored the sources and causes of this war. They did not address those factors at all. Of course, it is a very serious problem. I do not take a simple view of it because I understand the major humanitarian crisis is accompanied by a crisis for the European Union. This is very much like what happened to the Roman Empire. There was a major expansion of the empire. Then the borders became porous and the empire was eaten away from inside, very largely by this penetration.
We need to be very careful that this does not happen again. As I said, the Middle East is very volatile and we can consider the current Russian position in supporting Mr. Assad. Russia has supported him with military supplies for a very long time and was lying through its teeth about it. We intervened but we did not do so decisively. To quote Macbeth, "We have scotch'd the snake, not killed it." There is also the question of the rise of ISIS.
The Russians claim the strikes in recent days have been against ISIS, but we all know perfectly well that they have been against the rebels. Various countries are using this issue as a pretext for hammering their enemies. The Turks, for example, have used it as a pretext for further severe military repression of Kurdish sections of Turkey and intervention against the Kurdish population in neighbouring countries. In tackling ISIS, we must consider not just the humanitarian aspect as there is a cultural element. It has used barbaric methods of beheading people, including an 86-year-old architectural expert who was the curator of the great complex at Palmyra. His beheading was filmed. That must also be taken into account.
We must be very careful in making distinctions between refugees and asylum seekers, on the one hand, and so-called economic migrants, on the other. To be an economic migrant is also to be a kind of refugee. Many people left this country as economic migrants and we must never forget this. We can look at the record of the European Union throughout the African continent. I remember a programme on RTE about a small fishing community in Africa, the livelihood of which had been destroyed by an Irish super trawler, and its members subsequently came to Europe. They were economic migrants, but we had forced them into that position. We must own up and acknowledge our role.
The scale of the problem is absolutely enormous. The figures are fairly fluid. Somebody mentioned there are 2 million refugees in Turkey, but I have a figure before me of 1.7 million refugees. There are 1.5 million refugees in Lebanon, which puts our contribution of 5,000 over five years in a certain context. There are 700,000 refugees in Jordan, 250,000 in Iraq and 120,000 in Egypt. The response of the Irish people has been pretty generous, in the same way as the response of the English people has been generous and undercut Mr. Cameron's position. He had to rethink because of the strong feelings of the English people. In a survey in which people were whether Ireland should accommodate 5,000 refugees, 54% said "Yes", a very large majority.
I will ask the Minister of State a specific question. The Tánaiste stated recently that we would welcome 5,000 refugees and they would not go through the direct provision system. Is that true? Ms Sue Conlan from the Irish Refugee Council has stated quite clearly that it is not true. She states:
I want to debunk the myth that these people will not go into direct provision. If people are being relocated as asylum seekers within the EU, the only provision for them in Ireland at the moment is direct provision, and it is a form of institutionalisation.
Are the people in question going to be placed in direct provision accommodation? If they are being given some enhanced status - I would not begrudge it to them - it would throw into a very sharp perspective the role of those already in the country in the direct provision system. I introduced a Bill to this House with Senator Jillian van Turnhout that would have addressed the question of direct provision comprehensively. We would have got it through this House but Sinn Féin changed sides at the last minute for completely specious reasons.
That is rubbish.
It is not rubbish. I proved it at the time. I have been put in touch with NASC, the Irish immigration support centre, which has formulated a family reunification scheme, about which Senator Ivana Bacik spoke. It is examining a targeted, supported, twin-track migration route for persons in need of protection who have family members in Ireland. Syrian nationals living in Ireland would be eligible to sponsor family groups and they could be supported by community groups, non-governmental organisations and groups of private individuals. The five main elements of the scheme are that it would be immediate and extended to family members living both in Syria and the surrounding territories; all applications would be processed quickly, with visas granted without delay; all Syrian and nationalised Syrians resident in Ireland would be eligible to apply; to alleviate any administrative burden on the State, a coalition of NGOs and legal practitioners would provide assistance for applicants; and Irish citizens, private organisations, NGOs and community groups could provide the financial backing to Syrian residents in Ireland who wish to apply.
I have a final suggestion made by a very valued colleague, Mr. David McCarthy, who contacted both me and Senator Jillian van Turnhout. He has suggested something that goes to everybody's heart and which we would all remember. I did not see the pictures, but I heard the reports about the three year old child washed up on the shore in Turkey and his distraught father. What is suggested is an outline scheme to draft an amendment to the asylum Bill to offer status to orphaned children from the Syrian crisis. This could be formulated with NASC and others to allow foster homes to take the children. In the name of humanity, there must be some idea of cherishing the children, not just the children of this nation but of Europe, the wider world and the Middle East. It would be an appropriate action.
I join in the welcome to the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock. I also welcome the all-party support for the motions. It is only right and fitting that Ireland should play its part in shouldering the major responsibility of trying to deal with this horrific crisis which has shocked and horrified every person in the country. We have seen the misery inflicted on our fellow human beings and we have witnessed the generous outpouring from the Irish people in the immediate aftermath of the crisis in the Mediterranean, which is an indication that the people want to play their part and support the Government in all the actions we are about to take to accommodate as many refugees as we can. I have seen it in my own town of Ballinasloe when a small group of women got together last week and in a few days had filled a 40 ft. container to ship to Calais to assist refugees there. People were exceptionally generous and I know that will be replicated throughout Ireland as we attempt to find suitable accommodation for these unfortunate people.
Others have spoken about the great pride we all had in the Naval Service and the personnel serving on the LE Eithne, LE Niamh and LE Samuel Beckett. They rescued many people in the Mediterranean. Our history has been referred to and it is appropriate for us to remember what our own people suffered before they received a welcome, support and encouragement to have a wonderful future following the Great Famine. It is only right we now treat appropriately people who find themselves in in similar positions. It is right for us to demonstrate solidarity with Italy and Greece and the countries neighbouring Syria that are under pressure trying to cope with the volume of refugees. Shame on those countries that have refused to offer support and play their part in this EU initiative.
It is welcome that Irish Aid will provide €41 million in support for Syrian refugees by the end of the year. I applaud the wonderful work being done by NGOs.
Many speakers referred to the need for a political solution to the crisis. The war in Syria is in its fifth year and has claimed the lives of up to 250,000 people, with thousands of deaths caused by the dropping of barrel bombs in towns, chemical weapons attacks on residential areas, starvation of civilian populations and other barbaric forms of terror. The conflict has resulted in the displacement of more than 11 million people, both internally and beyond Syria's borders. The vast majority of the 4 million refugees who have left Syria have been accepted by neighbouring countries, namely, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. However, these countries are struggling as a result of the extremely difficult conditions. Senator Jillian van Turnhout and other speakers referred to the pressures they face.
Many people are risking life and limb as they try to make their way to Europe and their lives are being placed at further risk by human traffickers. In addition to Syrian refugees, people from other conflict-torn countries, including Eritrea, Sudan and Iraq, are arriving at Europe's borders in increasing numbers. It is estimated that up to 350,000 refugees arrived between January and August 2015.
It is imperative that a political solution be found to the conflict in Syria, the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of our time. I read recently that the country is the most dangerous place on earth to be a child. The role and effectiveness of the United Nations Security Council need to be reviewed. Some 18 months after the adoption of Resolution 2139, which was designed to provide unhindered humanitarian access to the country, it remains unheeded. There has been a catalogue of failed resolutions. It is time to redraw the UN charter to cater for conflict resolution. The European Union's relationship with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia must also be reviewed. Real pressure could be brought to bear on world leaders to come to terms with this appalling crisis. This is a testing time for the European Union and a unified response is needed.
What are wealthy Arab countries doing to help in these appalling circumstances? Every country in the world must play a role. Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey must receive sufficient international aid and support as they seek to deal with this appalling crisis. Actions to resolve the conflict must be given a new urgency. I call on all world leaders to knock heads together to identify how this appalling crisis can be addressed in an effective manner and the circumstances we are witnessing can be impacted in a meaningful manner.
I welcome the efforts being made, including the establishment in recent days of emergency reception and orientation centres, to assist those seeking protection and the decision to grant refugee status within weeks to refugees from Syria and Eritrea. I commend the Red Cross and other organisations which are working with local authorities and other bodies to address the issue. Communities nationwide will also play their part.
I am pleased that Senators from all parties and none have given overwhelming support to the motion. This will be a first step in Ireland welcoming at least 4,000 refugees to our shores and ensuring they have a better life in the future.
Everyone in Europe is overwhelmed by the migration crisis and European political leaders are trying to come together to make the correct decisions on the matter. I am afraid the European Union has been caught up again in a terrible bureaucracy and its leaders have failed to come together and solve problems. I am very proud of the role being played by the LE Niamh, LE Samuel Beckett and LE Eithne in saving people seeking a new life in Europe from the terrible waters of the Mediterranean.
On Wednesday, 23 September, I attended a meeting hosted by the Mount Merrion and Stillorgan churches. Fr. Tony Coote of the Church of St. Theresa, Mount Merrion, chaired the meeting and was assisted by the Reverend Ian Gallagher of St. Brigid's Church, Stillorgan. The overwhelming feeling among the 160 people in attendance was a desire to stretch out their hands to those who were in trouble. One speaker, Ms Brigid Kennedy of Concern, recounted in graphic detail what life was like in the region. She spoke specifically about Syria where people used to enjoy a good standard of living but 75% of the population now live in poverty. The meeting showed that people in Mount Merrion, Kilmacud and Stillorgan would work with the Red Cross and I hope be able to provide accommodation for refugees in suitable apartments in the area. Fr. Coote was anxious that I point out in my contribution that the response of the people attending the meeting was unanimous. There are, however, people in society who are not unlike the President of Hungary who has shown coldness and an extreme communist approach. I remember as a young child being engrossed in conversation with my parents about the Hungarian revolution. We had great sympathy for the people of Hungary when Soviet tanks rolled over the country. The lack of humanity shown by the Hungarian leadership is incomprehensible.
Fr. Coote believes that if people are to maintain their dignity, they should receive money directly in order that they can manage their lives. What is life if there is no hope? Those who attended the meeting have a fervent wish to help and welcome refugees, particularly from Syria, and help them to get apartments. Ideally, these people should be able to use their skills and practise their professions in order that they can participate in society. That this option is not available to people in the direct provision system is unbelievable but that is a matter for another day.
We have all learned that Islamic State is an inhuman organisation. The position in respect of Russia is not so simple. I believe Russia will tackle IS head-on because its leaders have a deep-seated fear of fundamentalist Islamic culture in Russia and this fear will energise President Putin to deal with IS directly. Russia's relationship with President Assad and his father dates back 50 years. We cannot write off Russian involvement in the region.
Personally, I did not agree with sanctions against Russia because I believe in trade and not war. The politicians who brought in the sanctions did not give a damn about the people in eastern Europe who were trading with Russia. They cut off companies that relied on making a livelihood by exporting to Russia. The politicians in the United Kingdom and the United States decided unilaterally to impose sanctions and forgot about the people in the business of trade.
I commend the parish leaders of both Mount Merrion and Stillorgan for their initiative to lead people living in that area to help the migrants whom they will accept into their area.
Last February in a Commencement debate I raised in this House the issue of the Syrian crisis at the request of the Irish Syria Solidarity Campaign. At the time I pointed out that thousands of people had risked their lives on overcrowded boats sailing to Europe. I also urged the Irish and European authorities to do more to help the refugees and address the root causes of the crisis.
As other Members said, the crisis has been unravelling in front of our eyes for years. It is to the great shame of Europe and the international community as a whole that the issue did not become a political priority until photographs of poor Aylan Kurdi emerged in the international media. We could not ignore the image of a small child lying dead on a beach. His image resonated with parents all over the world. People thought that could have been their child, that his family was just like their families and that they were unfortunate to have been born in Syria. It was as a result of a huge public outpouring of anger and upset after those images emerged that we finally started to see some political leadership devoted to the issue. Even then, the response was slow and totally inadequate. In a European Union that is supposed to have been built on the principle of solidarity, the countries on the front line were left on their own. Senator David Norris has mentioned the case of Greece and Italy but other countries were left for a long time to cope with the crisis on their own. Other European countries turned their backs and pretended not to see while saying, "They are not on our borders, so why should we have to do anything about it?"
I, too, am very proud of the incredible work that has been done by the Naval Service. I have no doubt that it has been emotionally difficult for the personnel involved to respond in that environment. The naval personnel have all done us proud by their efforts to rescue families in the Mediterranean. I am concerned about the slow response by the Government to the crisis. We were not one of the first European countries to respond. Our European colleagues, like Angela Merkel and others, criticised countries like Ireland for not stepping up and agreeing to take more refugees at the start. Yes, we sent the Naval Service to rescue people, but we then deposited them in other countries.
Not true. We did more than that, which I shall explain later to the Senator.
For weeks Ministers produced different figures for how many refugees Ireland would take.
It is not just about the number of people we are taking.
Of course, it is not. I recognise that in other areas, particularly the work done by the Naval Service, good work was undertaken.
I am glad to hear it.
I wish to make the following point - it is one that I do not think the Minister of State can refute - about the resettlement of refugees. Initially, our response was very slow and even now the number of people that we have agreed to take is very small. At a European level there has been a collective lack of leadership. One had host countries such as Germany, into which Angela Merkel welcomed people, but other EU countries did not step up. From now on I would like to see the Minister of State and his ministerial counterparts step up and show leadership on this issue. Let us be generous. Let us be mindful of our history and be generous in our response because the Irish response has been too slow.
As has been pointed out, the number of refugees coming to Europe is very small when compared with that of Lebanon and our neighbouring countries. We can and we must have an effective system to receive these refugees.
I would like the Government to push for an effective EU asylum policy because it has become clear that we do not have one. There has been an agreement on some resettlement in this particular case, but we need a proper asylum policy that is fair to each of the 28 EU member states. Such a policy would ensure we would respond in a humane and an efficient manner to an increasing refugee crisis which is happening not just in the Middle East but also in Africa and elsewhere. It is time that the Dublin Convention is looked at again because it is fundamentally flawed and needs to be reviewed.
The response by some European leaders has been pathetic but the generosity of people has been incredible. Irish people are mindful of their history of famine, occupation and emigration. They were horrified at the extent of human suffering in Syria and wanted to help. All over the country communities are responding. Individuals have pledged rooms in their homes. Community groups are collecting donations of clothes, tents and other essential items to send over to the refugees. In my own area of Howth, a small village in north Dublin, a community has collected over 500 packs in a few weeks. The response and generosity of Irish people is something of which we can be deeply proud. There is a need to co-ordinate the response. A couple of weeks ago I met Deputy Denis Naughten, community groups, Oxfam, GOAL, Special Olympics Ireland and other organisations to discuss how we could provide a proper welcome in Ireland for these groups.
Senator David Norris asked a question about accommodation. I, too, would be very concerned if refugees were accommodated in direct provision centres. It is far preferable for families to be located in different villages around the country where they could be integrated from the start and have Irish people look after them. That is far preferable than going into the institutionalised setting in direct provision accommodation.
I reiterate my call on the Government to end the use of direct provision centres as long-term accommodation. That solution was only intended to last a few months and act as a way to receive people into the country while dealing with their applications. It is to our great shame that families have been left to languish in direct provision for years on end. People have been left without proper accommodation, any kind of family environment and no right to work. As I have mentioned previously in the House, there are huge child protection concerns about children having to share bathrooms and other accommodation with unrelated adults. I take the opportunity to request action be taken. I know there is a task force and the matter has been talked about for quite some time. Over the years we have debated the issue on a number of occasions in this House. I ask the Minister of State to talk to his colleagues about making sure action is taken.
I welcome the Minister of State. I saw him and the Minister on television when they were in the main hall in Stormont doing their work of peacekeeping at that level and internally. We have spent a lot of the time of this Oireachtas trying to keep the bailiff from the front door, but the position has been stabilised and now we have a chance for more active and informed policy interventions. What happened in Belfast has been quite successful, a fact which must be emphasised, and the event could act as a pointer. Ireland, because it does not have a colonial past, could take more of these initiatives, particularly now that we have stabilised the financial programme.
Joschka Fischer, in a recent interview, said:
[Europe] will need to focus on stabilizing its Middle Eastern, North African, and Eastern European neighbors with money, commitment, and all its hard and soft power. A united approach will be crucial.
To go to the source of these problems is important, but we have not done so in Europe. There are a lot of questions about some of the interventions that have led to these problems. I am pleased to see Russia's initiative is to hold a peace conference and that the US Secretary of State, Mr. John Kerry, has responded in a positive manner.
In terms of the 4,000 refugees who come here, the major change must be that they are allowed to work. There is evidence that the 4,000 refugees will include people of great skills, training, etc.; therefore, they could be an asset. An inability to work was a fault in the previous ways we have looked after people who sought asylum and refuge in this country. Ireland should also take measures to help refugees who wish to return home. We should implement an independent foreign policy to look after their homesteads in order that they can, if they wish, go back home.
In the first nine months of the year it was estimated that of those who had come to Europe 39% were from Syria, 11% from Afghanistan, 7% from Eritrea and that the rest came from Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan.
We need a whole new approach to foreign policy through the United Nations, through helping people in the United Nations World Food Programme, to the work of NGOs and so on and, particularly, as my colleagues said, in the Lebanon which has borne part of the adjustment. About 7 million people have left Syria and only a fraction of those have landed on Europe's shores. This is a wider problem. There is an interview in the international journal of foreign affairs with President al-Assad. Just to hear, without endorsement, from his angle, it states that the United States has caused problems by getting into Iraq. He mentioned Afghanistan. One wonders what that intervention by both the United States and the United Kingdom was for and the invasions of Libya, the destabilisation of Lebanon and so on. He said also there is terrorist financing by Saudi Arabia, Qatar through Turkey. Therefore, a huge problem is causing what lands on the Minister's desk and the 4,000 he is trying to take in.
Going back to the time of Frank Aiken, as Minister, and Conor Cruise O'Brien, as a major person in the Department of Finance, Ireland should seek again an independent foreign policy on the basis that we are able to assuage people. We do not have the colonial record and perhaps we can assist in bringing peace and co-operation and supporting governance. Governance is complex. We know about it in this House and we know through our tradition of public service and government in this country that it is quite easy to pull one down and extremely difficult to build one up. Sometimes one has to say, "Be careful what you wish for." A country which is destabilised can lose hundreds of thousands and, indeed, millions of refugees. Our help in assisting states where there are disputes between different ethnic groups and different social groups could be brought into play through the undoubted skills in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and through the United Nations. We have such a plethora of problems it has not been the greatest decade for European foreign policy or for US foreign policy or for Russian foreign policy. In view of the dimension which Ireland used to bring to the United Nations in New York, it might be time to reopen all of those old files and assume a more dynamic role, given the high esteem in which Ireland is held. That is endorsed by the conduct of the Naval Service and, of course, the peacekeeping troops and the role they have played in Lebanon. Perhaps out of this awful situation, allowing people to come to this country to work but also developing a more active interventionist foreign policy to bring our undoubted gifts to the wider state to make sure there is no recurrence of these problems, is something at which we should also. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House.
I dtús ba mhaith liom tréaslú leat as ucht do phósadh, a Aire Stáit; go n-éirí sé leat. I congratulate the Minister of State on his recent marriage and wish him the best of luck.
Issues arising from the motion are a source of concern. Let me be clear: I believe absolutely that Ireland should offer a safe haven to those desperate people whose lives have been destroyed. However, I am shocked and dismayed by the appalling lack of transparency by the Government in this entire process. The fact is that we know virtually nothing about what is planned for the people concerned once they get here. The entire process can only be characterised as lacking any form of transparency and is cloaked in secrecy. There has been no meaningful engagement-----
On a point of order, I appreciate the Senator's sentiment, but we did hear from the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality a very clear indication as to the plans being made.
That is not a point of order.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh to continue, without interruption.
There has been no meaningful engagement with the public or communities on the ground. I spoke to our local councillor in Monasterevin where one of the centres is located. The council was only informed about that centre being opened three days in advance of it being made public. I understand also there has been very little engagement with schools in the area on how the 40 children who will come to that centre will be managed in the school system.
More shocking is the fact that not one of the NGOs working with refugees, immigrants and people in direct provision centres has been consulted by the Department or the various State agencies working in the area. What about the Irish Refugee Council, the Immigrant Council of Ireland, Spirasi, Doras Luimní, Crosscare and NASC? The Minister of State mentioned the agencies, but I did not hear much about the NGOs being engaged in the process. With all due respect, the Irish Red Cross may do good work, but it does not have a track record or experience of working with refugees in Ireland. It was not represented on the working group which the Department set up around the direct provision system. As a Senator who has been working on this issue for the past four and half years, I have never been contacted about the issue of direct provision by the Irish Red Cross.
The Council decision that three key dimensions, namely, relocation-resettlement, return-readmission-reintegration and co-operation with countries of origin and transit, should be advanced in parallel is a cause of alarm. What will be the actual status of those who come here? What is the basis of the Irish refugee protection programme in legislation and how will it affect those coming here? For what status will they be allowed to apply and qualify? Is it refugee status or subsidiary protection?
The recent track record of the State in supporting and protecting asylum seekers is, frankly, shameful. Since 2003, Ireland is the only state in the European Union to opt out of EU directives laying down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers. For 15 years the State has placed asylum seekers in the discredited direct provision system, condemning them to many years in limbo, living on a paltry allowance and denying them the right to work. One third of those living in direct provision accommodation today are children. More than half of those living in the system have done so for more than four years. However, in the face of repeated calls from the Opposition and from NGOs working on behalf of migrants and asylum seekers, the Government has failed to end this inhuman and degrading system. The Government has, thus far, also failed to deliver an updated version of the Immigration Residence and Protection Bill 2010.
This history of inaction and indifference to the plight of asylum seekers has been the hallmark of this and previous Governments. What I find alarming is the looming reality that more vulnerable and traumatised people fleeing war and destruction may now find themselves and their children in what can only be described as a form of neo direct provision. I challenge the Minister of State to tell me how it is any different from the system in place already? It is like déjà vu that on the back of two reports, one from the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions and the other from the working group established by the Government to look at improvements to the protection process, including direct provision, we are looking at the real danger that the system is about to grow and expand as part of this resettlement regime. Any right-thinking person should be alarmed at the plans for emergency reception and integration centres.
We should be outraged at the news that people who are already making huge profits from the lucrative direct provision business are about to be awarded contracts to house vulnerable refugees in hotels such as the Hazel Hotel in Monasterevin and in hotels and premises in counties Cork and Kerry. Will the Minister clarify who owns these hotels and what tender process was put in place to contract them? The Government has engaged in no consultation with the public or with local communities and neither has it provided additional resources for already stretched schools, hospitals and other public service providers who will be expected to cater for the people concerned. The growth and extension of direct provision is not acceptable. To date the Minister of State and the Government have not implemented a single recommendation made in either of the reports I mentioned. Frankly, I am alarmed by the plans, inasmuch as we know about them, as I am sure the public will be.
What the Minister of State is planning with the apparent support of the UNHCR is more institutionalised living for vulnerable people, yet we see no additional resources being made available for these traumatised adults and children in terms of mental health and public health provision. An article in The Guardian today outlines the level of torture being inflicted in some of these areas such as Syria, Eritrea and Iraq. The people concerned are coming into a country that leaves people to die on trolleys and that cuts funding for children with special needs, poor children and single mothers. We see no evidence that extra staff resources have been allocated to the services that will be dealing with them when they come. As it stands, if a person claims asylum in Ireland he or she could be waiting up to six months for an interview. How will the services be able to process new applications more quickly? What will be the knock-on effect for those other people who are languishing in the direct provision system? I ask the Minister to consider what message this sends to people who have already spent five, six, seven and ten years in direct provision accommodation, people who are staring at the abyss and desperately hanging on to the tiniest bit of hope in order to survive with some morsel of human dignity. This de facto extension of the direct provision system creates a hierarchy not only of refugees and immigrants but also of desperation and uncertainty.
When I look at the language of the motions, I fear it is more about putting up barbed wire fences around the European Union, keeping out as many as possible and sending people back to where they have come from as soon as possible.
The Senator is over time.
During the delivery of his annual report yesterday at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, the Ombudsman said that at the least he needed to have oversight of the direct provision system and any new system put in place.
The Minister of State is most welcome. I did not realise he was only recently married. I extend my congratulations to him.
We have a problem to solve and it is urgent. Ireland must step up to the plate. It is stepping up to the plate, but Ireland needs to show more leadership on the global stage. One prong of the solution involves solving the war in Syria and that is no joke. As others said, it has been running for four to five years at this point. We really need to play a bigger part. The former Minister of State, Deputy Joe Costello, was in the Minister of State's chair I do not know how many times to discuss this issue in the past. I do not believe the United Nations has done enough in any way. We absolutely need a humanitarian response immediately.
What does the Senator mean by saying the United Nations has not done enough?
It has not.
The Senator should clarify the point.
I am happy to clarify it. What action has been taken against Assad the tyrant and against the growth of ISIS? The United Nations has to get in there. Our goal should be to take Syrians. I agree with the suggestion about 4,000 families. I am keen for the Minister of State to clarify the word "family" as opposed to "individuals". I agree with that much, but our goal should be to recreate their country in order that they can be repatriated. They are a cultured, educated people. Let us face it: the Syrian people took hundreds and thousands of people after the Second World War. They opened their hearts, minds and homes to others then. Now they are in trouble and we have let this war go on. In this Chamber almost two years ago I tabled an Adjournment motion to the then Minister of State, Deputy Joe Costello, in respect of offering to take Syrian children. We had families in Galway willing to do it. I heard a wonderful proposal by Senator Norris for an amendment to the asylum seekers Bill in respect of housing orphaned children first. We must do that. That was the terrible fallout of the genocide in Rwanda. We had widows and orphans left behind. Now we have families headed by orphans there 20 years on. We need to wake up to save us. I have before me a letter which I believe sums up everything that I want to say.
I am on the record as saying we should take up to 10,000 refugees. I presume that is approximately 4,000 families and therefore I am supportive of the Government moves in that regard. I was disappointed that we only committed to 600 initially and then 1,800. However, because of the public outcry we had to move the figures up. We are a small nation and a nation that has been downtrodden in the past. We are a nation that understands conflict and one that, as an emigrant nation, has had to reach out and be helped by other countries. Therefore, we are understood and other nations are open to Ireland showing leadership. Hungary and Britain have been a disgrace on this front, but we can be a beacon of hope.
I fully agree with a process and a systematic approach in this case. I fully agree that there must be proper screening. I spoke to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, three weeks ago. Two families asked me whether I would go to Greece and Hungary with them to bring home two families. I asked the Minister, but she said I could not do that because the people had not been screened. I asked when that was going to happen. She said she expected some of it would happen in front-line countries, but I do not hear her saying that now.
We need two things. First, we need screening done in the front-line countries that are taking the brunt in dealing with the people concerned. Then when they come to this country, we should know who we are taking and whether they are refugees or economic migrants. My preference in the first instance is for refugees; they are seeking refuge. Then we should have an orientation here. However, I do not agree with packing people into institutionalised centres. That has failed us in the case of the direct provision system. We are a disgrace. I do not want any more comment while I am trying to speak to the Minister of State. That is a recipe for segregation and racism and for failing yet again.
We have a great proposal on the table. We have 1,300 parishes in the country. If each parish took three families, that would amount to 4,000 families. This would represent proper integration. I did not get to read my letter in the House. I have a community of 3,000 people looking for them. I have had representatives of schools in my town of Oranmore as well as in Galway ringing me to explain that they have English as an additional language, EAL, teachers and that they have multicultural schools. We now have free general practitioner care for those under six years of age. We are more equipped than we might give ourselves credit for. However, I do not agree with giving housing to Syrian refugees or packing them into centres. I agree with a family-based integration approach. What I am saying is that the role of the Government should be a co-ordinating one. The Government should take the goodwill of the people. Our own people should be given housing first.
The Senator is over time.
A man in Galway who is homeless has contacted me on a number of occasions and asked me to tell those families that he would take their offer of care. Irish families are stretching out to the Syrian refugees. The Government should solve our own housing crisis first. I was glad to hear what Senator Ivana Bacik said.
The Senator is way over time. Senator Paul Bradford is next.
Senator Ivana Bacik referred to news from the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality yesterday. However, it must be put out on the public airwaves. It is bigger than this. We may talk about things in this House but that does not mean the word is getting out.
Will the Senator, please, resume her seat?
The Minister of State should tell us the news. He should tell us when it is happening. He should tell us that we are not going down the road of a segregated "pack em and rack em" approach. That is terrible language but that is what has happened refugees and asylum seekers in the past.
I ask the Senator to resume her seat.
That is the language being used on the street and I agree that it is terrible.
The Senator is not allowing the Minister of State any time in which to respond.
I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words on this important matter. I join in the words of congratulations to the newly married Minister of State. I had better not say it goes downhill from here on.
We are all at one about what needs to be done, although there may be a different emphasis on the speed of the response. Our first priority must be to get as many of these unfortunate refugees as possible onto the safe shores of Ireland. I am keen to know, precisely from A to B, what happens next. I am prepared to get the people into the country first and remove them from the theatre of nightmare and at least allow a fresh start to begin. Much work is required in respect of the processing and provision of support. I hope it will come. Without giving a lengthy oft-repeated lecture on direct provision, we know what not to do. We must try to ensure we do not make the same mistakes again. Even the worst of the direct provision centres in this country are better than the conditions being faced by the people there.
It is still not acceptable.
We know that it is not acceptable. However, rather than waiting for some theoretical or dream response that might never come, let us get people onto the shores of Ireland and try to work from there. I look forward to hearing further from the Minister and the Minister of State about the plans.
I support what has been done to date and believe the people support it, too. Notwithstanding the difficulties we face domestically and the tens of thousands of people awaiting social services and housing in this country, the people coming from Syria have been facing extraordinary challenges. Theirs is a dreadful plight. What we saw some weeks ago on our television screens brought this home to every citizen.
Senators Fidelma Healy Eames and Sean D. Barrett referred to the broader issue. We must attempt to address it as part of the European Union. For better or worse, we have gone beyond the stage of having an individual stand-alone Irish foreign policy. We are working with our European Union partners. Within the European Union and the United Nations the situation in Syria and the broader Middle East needs to be taken more seriously. It is over 12 months since I spoke about the matter in this House.
When one looks at the map of Syria as it is today as opposed to five or six years ago and sees exactly who is in control of what and the complete takeover of such huge tracts of land by ISIS, it shows how weak the international community is. Perhaps because of what happened or did not happen in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a fear of an international response, but we are now getting the worst of all worlds because ISIS is on the march not just in Syria but also beyond bringing the threat of doctrinal terrorism to the shores of Europe, the Russians are now playing games that we do not understand and the United States seems to have been totally sidelined. I have said before that the President of the United States does not seem to serve a political purpose at present. He has removed himself from international thinking. It is very disturbing. Yesterday, the Russian bombers claimed to be bombing ISIS, but apparently they were bombing the Syrian rebels instead and giving the United States one hour's notice of that expansionary development. It is very disturbing.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade met Mr. Putin earlier in the week. I am sure their discussions were wide-ranging but the Minister of State and his Government colleagues should be letting the Russian political representatives in this country know about our deep concern about their recent actions. We need a coherent international response. If we look at what is happening with the regime in Syria and the way the Russians are apparently trying to prop it up, we can see it is very disturbing. That regime is at the heart of the problem and it really cannot be part of the solution. I wish the Minister of State well in his endeavours but our response in conjunction with our EU partners and on to the broader UN stage must stop being neutral, nuanced and about sideline commentary. We must start taking serious, robust action and I would like to hear the Minister of State's views on that issue. I wish him well in respect of what I do not glibly call the refugee problem but we need to see it working. We need to see these people being looked after here as best we can and as quickly as we can.
I welcome the Minister of State. I was present at the meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality yesterday where we heard from the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service and the Refugee Applications Commissioner. It was clear that the people concerned and the officials from the Department of Justice and Equality were very professional people, but it occurred to me at that meeting that Ireland's performance on this issue could be a model of efficiency and at the same time utterly underwhelming from the perspective of social justice and doing justice in this very difficult situation. It could even be a little morally bankrupt.
Why do I say that? I say it because we are taking part in an EU initiative that by its very title, if one looks at the EU decision, is about provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy and Greece. Quite understandably, there is a need to relocate people from Italy and Greece in order that the matter can be processed in an orderly way. However, it seems there has been a complete failure of imagination on Ireland's part given that we are in a situation where we opt in to measures as opposed to being bound by them. It has been a complete failure of imagination on our part in terms of what our obligations are, first and foremost. There has been a complete failure to factor in thinking about the persecuted minorities - Christians and other minorities in the Middle East - in terms of our thinking about the best response at this point in time.
The reason I say it is behind the 160,000 people who will be taken in in the next couple of years there are millions more waiting to get into the European Union and who will seek to get into it, but it will only be able to take so many. As the room fills, there will be very little room left for people who perhaps do not have the means to cross to Europe. They might not have been able to leave refugee camps in Turkey because they might have been frightened to go into refugee camps in the first place, as has been reported about some of the Christian minorities. They might be Yazidis who face particular persecution and torment - not just Christian minorities in the Middle East but others such as Turkmen and some Shia Muslim minorities. There seems to be no thinking on the part of the Government about whether there should be a particular channel for the people concerned in the context of the limited response that Ireland can make.
The Minister for Justice and Equality attended a meeting in Paris on our behalf on 8 September 2015. It was a conference on victims of ethnic and religious violence in the Middle East. As far as I am aware, we heard nothing from the Government either about what she said or what was decided at that conference. As far as I am aware, there was little or no media coverage in Ireland about it. We are not hearing at all from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade about this issue. The entire approach seems to be that the Department of Justice and Equality is heading up a response about how we take in our share but should we not be interested in the question of how we identify our share when there are perhaps people who will be forgotten in all of this and who, as I have said, were terrified to go into camps because they would be persecuted or were not in the position to travel? It is not that I do not feel sympathy for young Muslim men and Muslim families who have left camps and arrived on our shores and it is not that I do not feel sympathy for the EU bureaucracy that must face this problem. However, it is not necessarily the right solution just to start with those people and say these are the people we are going to integrate.
We are told that it will be Italy and Greece that will determine who is sent to each country for processing. If there are security concerns and if Ireland is in a position to identify that a particular person is a security risk, we were informed to a limited degree yesterday that this could be made known to Greece and Italy and that might or might not be taken into account. There is a real missed opportunity here in terms of doing justice and there has been a real shallowness of thinking. We should have a generous but structured policy of bringing people into the country who are fleeing persecution or war - economic migrants also - but there should be a particular vigilance about those who directly face persecution because of their ethnicity or religion. Just as I would disagree with the Christians-only approach as expressed by the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, the response of the Minister for Defence a couple of weeks was just as inadequate when he echoed Donald Tusk when he said religion hae nothing to do with it. That is too shallow an analysis. If one is a member of a minority religious group - if one is a Christian from Mosul - one does not have a future in Iraq and one's community probably does not have a future when all this settles down where we know there will be zones for Shia and Sunni Muslims. Everybody has equal human dignity, but some people are at particular risk because of who and what they are. As far as I can see, the Government is not interested in examining that question in the context of its response. That is appalling.
On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank Senators for what has been an extensive interaction about this issue. If I read the room, so to speak, I imagine that in the main the Seanad supports the opt-in or the protocol that is to be provided in terms of the Council decisions. I acknowledge these messages of support from individual Members of the Seanad. So many points were raised today and I will do my best to address them.
I want to nail the lie that the Government has responded inadequately to this crisis. It and, by extension, the people have been involved in it since 2011. If one factors out Syria, one realises the people, through Irish Aid and Irish and international NGOs, have actually committed over €100 million in funding. This has been achieved through multilateral organisations such as UNHCR, the World Food Programme, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, and international NGOs. In this regard, Ireland has committed a considerable amount of funding, €100 million in total, to seek to ensure there are in-country or in-region solutions and that aid is disbursed in a way in which it reaches those most in need.
Members will know the UN General Assembly was in session last week and has been in session for part of this week. Ireland continues to support a referral by the UN Security Council of the case of Syria to the International Criminal Court. It also seeks accountability for the multiple war crimes committed during the conflict. However, we all have to recognise that Irish foreign policy is absolutely or partly tied into an EU position, as Senator Paul Bradford stated, but we continue to lobby and hold bilateral meetings with other countries on the need to ensure there is a political solution to this crisis within the region. The need for political stability is paramount. Owing to the political instability, there is a humanitarian crisis.
It is sad and shocking that it took the image of a small boy on a beach for a political response to emerge. I acknowledge the points made by Senators on the European Union response. I have stated at development Ministers' meetings that the establishment of an EU trust fund still raises many questions about the response. Sometimes at EU level, there is a legitimate critique of the tardiness of the response and of the potential to create duplication in the pan-European response where there is no need for it.
Last week I had bilateral meetings with Mr. Stephen O'Brien from OCHA and Mr. António Guterres from the UNHCR on the needs of their organisations. With regard to Ireland's foreign affairs response, the scarce resources we have are being deployed increasingly to deal with humanitarian crises and we have to focus on the long-term development goals that actually lead to political stability or enhance political stability in the very regions that we are talking about. Therefore, there is a major challenge for the world. Ireland is seeking to do what it can multilaterally and bilaterally, politically, developmentally and in terms of humanitarian assistance, to bring about greater involvement by the very countries that have been referred to, particularly those in the Middle East, which are not devoid of resources. This is to ensure they assist people within their own regions. A global political response is required. I acknowledge absolutely the points that have been made in that regard.
There is a cross-departmental and agency task force. Its role is to co-ordinate and implement the logistical and operational aspects of the Irish refugee protection programme, which I outlined earlier. I cannot name all 40 stakeholders on the task force because I just do not have that information. However, the Departments of Justice and Equality, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Social Protection, Children and Youth Affairs, Public Expenditure and Reform, Health, Education and Skills and the Environment, Community and Local Government, city and county council managers, the Irish Red Cross, the UNHCR, Tusla and the HSE are all involved in co-ordinating the reception. The Houses of the Oireachtas have not yet passed the actual motion, but we are working as a state with all the stakeholders to try to organise all the dynamics that obtain when 4,000 additional persons are brought into the country. There will be an increase in that number because of the family reunification element-----
That is the point I was making.
I did not hear what the Senator said.
The Department is not engaging with the NGOs dealing with this issue on a day-to-day basis.
The Minister of State to continue, without interruption.
We are engaging with the UNHCR. With regard to the in-country response on the ground, there is daily engagement with the NGOs. This is a republic and I am the Minister of State responsible for North–South co-operation. The Senator represents a party represented on both sides of the Border. We have to think of this in terms of the all-island response also. The Senator's party is part of an Executive-----
It has no foreign affairs capability. It does not have a foreign affairs brief.
I would love to see a greater degree of visibility in regard to the Northern Ireland Executive's response to this very issue.
It does not have a foreign affairs brief, as the Minister of State should know.
The Minister of State to continue, without interruption.
We are doing our best to ensure we have a stakeholder group that will ensure consultation that includes the city and county council managers in order that, at county and city council levels, there will be co-ordination.
At the first meeting of the task force on the Irish refugee protection programme, chaired by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and held on 16 September, it was agreed that the Department of Justice and Equality would take the lead in the process of relocating persons to Ireland and the establishment of emergency relocation and orientation centres. The Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner will be responsible for the processing of the protection applications of those persons being relocated here. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the city and county council management network will lead on providing accommodation for persons granted refugee status. The Department of Justice and Equality, the Office of Public Works and the Department of Defence are currently carrying out an assessment of available State properties. The Irish Red Cross has been given the task of communicating with the public and assessing, profiling and co-ordinating offers of public support and accommodation. This has been referred to by quite a few Senators, especially those from the west. Earlier this week the Irish Red Cross set up a dedicated website to enable members of the public to formally register their pledges. The Departments of Health, Education and Skills and Social Protection and relevant agencies such as the HSE and Tusla will provide health, education and welfare services and other services and supports.
Once the 4,000 people are granted status, they will be able to apply for family reunification. That is one of the issues raised. As I said, Tusla is engaging with the HSE to ensure the well-being of children is protected.
The international protection Bill is expected to be published in the coming weeks and enacted by the end of the year. This new legislation will significantly improve arrangements for the processing of asylum applications and greatly reduce the time persons spend in the direct provision system. Today is about getting permission to opt-in. We have no indication as to whether our arrivals will be single persons or families and, therefore, there is still a way to go on that issue. The task force has a specific committee chaired by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to liaise directly with NGOs to provide support services, on which I can provide further clarification. A total of 180 additional staff have been allocated to support the programme. Those who come here have a strong likelihood of qualifying for status and the Government has approved additional staff resources for processing which should lead to a faster granting of status, possibly weeks after arrival.
The issue of the wording "to the benefit of Italy and Greece" was raised. That is the wording of the Council agreement.
We all acknowledge that there have been serious deficiencies in the direct provision system, but it has not failed to provide accommodation, food and other supports for all asylum seekers who have come to the State in the past 15 years, which should be acknowledged. From a cross-party point of view, we all openly acknowledge that the Government is trying to rectify the position and, by any objective standard, we have done a good job.
By any objective standard, Governments have done a poor job, not just this but the previous Government also.
The Minister of State to conclude.
Seriously - seven to ten years in direct provision accommodation.
I am putting the question.
How is that humane?
How is the system different? The Minister of State has not answered that question.
I have just acknowledged the deficiencies. I understand the need for rhetoric and histrionics also.
That is unfair.
There is a loss of human rights for the people involved.
We will seek to preserve the dignity of the persons who come to this island and make sure matters are expedited, utilising all the stakeholders involved, including Departments, in order that their rights as human beings are protected.
On a point of order, I got no answer from the Minister of State about the concerns I raised about persecuted minorities. That is a massive omission at the heart of the Government's decision.
That is not a point of order. The Minster of State has responded and the Senator should resume his seat.
On a point of order, I did not get responses to my questions either. I simply wanted clarification. Are we talking about 4,000 individuals or 4,000 families?
The Senator should resume her seat.
Seriously, we called for this debate.
There is limited time and I have no choice but to put the question.
I understand that, but if other Members raise points of order that are not points of order, I surely have that right, too.
The Senator should resume her seat.
I would be happy to do so, but the Minister of State did not answer the questions.
That Seanad Éireann approves the exercise by the State of the option or discretion under Protocol No. 21 on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland in respect of the area of freedom, security and justice annexed to the Treaty on European Union and to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, to accept the following measure:
Council Decision (EU) 2015/1601 of 22 September 2015 establishing provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy and Greece
a copy of which was laid before Seanad Éireann on 24th September 2015.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Next Tuesday at 2.30 p.m.