Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 23 September 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
Refugee and Migrant Crisis: Discussion
I welcome everyone to today's public session which is also going out live on Oireachtas TV. We are delighted to have with us Mr. Barry Andrews, chief executive of Goal; and Ms Sophie Magennis, of the UN High Commission for Refugees. Both have been to the forefront of the migrant crisis over the summer period, so we are delighted to have them here this morning. On behalf of all our colleagues here, I extend a warm welcome to them both.
This is the first opportunity for members of the committee to receive reports and reflect on the refugee crisis which escalated mainly in the Mediterranean region in the summer of 2015. I am aware that over the past week the EU has been holding meetings, at ministerial and Heads of State level, to find a way forward, ensure a solution to the crisis and provide further assistance to people seeking to cross into Europe.
The format of today's meeting is to have opening statements from Mr. Andrews and Ms Magennis, before going into a question and answer session with members of the committee. As we know, the interior and justice Ministers met yesterday in Brussels, while today there is a European Council meeting as well, so the timing of our meeting is very appropriate.
Without further ado, I want to remind witnesses, members and those in the Public Gallery to ensure that their mobile phones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as, even in silent mode, they do cause interference with the recording equipment in the committee rooms. As I said, today's meeting is being broadcast live on Oireachtas TV across the various media platforms.
I also wish to remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
We will now start our proceedings immediately. This is a very serious subject and one that has been on our television screens throughout the summer period. It has disturbed many people throughout the world, including in our own country.
I now call on Mr. Barry Andrews to make his opening statement.
Mr. Barry Andrews:
I thank the Chairman and other members of the joint committee. First of all, I wish to introduce Mr. Jonathan Edgar, our chief operations officer in Goal, and Ms Maria McLoughlin who is our advocacy officer in Goal.
Goal has been trying to refocus attention on the necessity of looking at this issue at source. There is obviously an awful lot of debate about the logistical challenges of relocating a number of people in this country in the next two years and elsewhere throughout the European Union. I think Ms Sophie Magennis from the UNHCR is better placed to give her observations on that. Goal's focus is primarily on Syria and also on the border areas around Syria. We are asking leaders to continue to focus on this as the source of the problems we are seeing in Europe. Without addressing that issue at source, those problems will get worse.
I first addressed this committee in April 2013.
At that stage, 70,000 people had died in the war in Syria. I informed the committee that I was afraid that I would come before it again some day and that the figure might have risen above 100,000. What I did not anticipate was that the figure would reach 250,000. I did not anticipate that I would be back here in 2015. I did not anticipate that it would create incredible changes in the region, nor that it would come to visit the shores of the European Union, and certainly not to the extent that has actually proven to be the case.
This matter was raised by members as a Topical Issue in the Dáil in March 2012. There has been very little discussion of it the Dáil. Let me give some of the quotations that were used, one Deputy said this was a crisis of gargantuan proportions. At that time, just 10,000 people had died in the war in Syria. If the number of deaths were of gargantuan proportions in March 2012, what is it now? What have we done? That is my challenge to the joint committee and to anybody who will listen to the testimony that GOAL can give. The Minister of the day said that the worst-case scenario would be if Syria were to slip into open civil war, which would be profoundly destabilising for the entire region. It is not as if people did not know that this was going to happen and that there the likelihood was high that these events would come to pass.
What was very abstract back then is now very real. We know why that is so because we have seen various photographs in newspapers in recent times. GOAL started an advocacy campaign in the middle of August. The basic idea is that we do not want to look back at the conflict in 20 years' time and say "I wish I had known then what I know now". We tried to confront people with the reality of the war in Syria. Inevitably, we have a diminished sense of the reality of war because of where we are. However, we also self-censor all the time. We do not allow our screens to be filled with the realities of war and, therefore, we have a diminished sense of that reality.
The UN Security Council was presented, some four or five months ago, with a video of doctors trying to resuscitate three small children, none of whom survived the resuscitation effort. The UN Security Council was moved to tears by this video but was not moved to action and has done almost nothing about this crisis. Nobody has seen this video. We have tried to raise this advocacy issue as often as possible. What it brings us back to is the ineffectiveness of the United Nations, which I say with all due respect to my colleague. The UN, at its very best, is superb in terms of the work it does in educating children, particularly girls, the work it does with refugees and the work it is doing regarding climate change, with the COP21 meeting coming up in December. It is excellent in those circumstances. What it has been terrible at, for example, is evidenced by the way the World Health Organisation, WHO, dealt with the Ebola epidemic. It can be very bad in terms of bureaucracy but its core fundamental purpose is peace. It was founded in 1945 with the express purpose as stated in the opening lines of its charter, "We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war ...". That is the central plank of the United Nations.
The Security Council was founded for that purpose but, as I have said before, the Security Council is a 1945 answer to a question nobody is asking anymore. There are five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Why so? They won the Second World War. They have a veto over all matters of the Security Council. It would be bad enough if the Security Council just passed resolutions that were ineffective. I have mentioned in my paper that the head of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, of the UN has acknowledged that Security Council resolutions have gone unheeded. What is worse is that the belligerents in the crisis in Syria are actually emboldened by the failure to implement UN Security Council resolutions. There is a direct correlation between the level of violence and the catalogue of failed UN resolutions. We have seen well-documented evidence of the use of chemical weapons.
We have seen well-documented evidence of crimes against humanity, rape as a weapon of war, disappearances and arbitrary arrests, but nothing happens. What we must do, and I have seen this emerge now in commentary among EU leaders, is really look at the UN Charter, the UN Security Council and the basic institutions. It is almost a Bretton Woods system, set up for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, IMF, or something of a similar nature that is required to redraw a completely new paradigm for conflict resolution globally.
It might seem pointless for a small parliament to apply its mind to things such as this but, in fact, Ireland has a tremendous tradition. We have a very significant role in the EU and the EU has incredible influence with some of the major powers that are influencing this war in Syria. In the case of Saudi Arabia, for example, consider the trade relations between that country and the EU. In the case of Iran, we have seen a great improvement in relations between it and the West. Consider that influence and, of course, Russia. While sanctions have been applied to Russia because of what happened in Ukraine, that has not extended to the veto which Russia is constantly using to stop the most basic resolutions that would protect populations in Syria.
In conclusion, back in March 2012, Deputy Ann Phelan, who is now a Minister of State, quoted as follows: "The world is a dangerous place, not because of the evil that men do, but because of those that stand idly by and do nothing." Members of the committee will ask what they can do, but there has not been any Private Members' business applied to this issue in the House. There have been no all-party motions. It is debated in this committee, but nowhere else. There are no meetings held here in this building where external people are brought in and it is not given the priority that it deserves. It is the humanitarian catastrophe of our time. It was gargantuan in March 2012, and now, in September 2015, it is something that requires and deserves all of our attention.
Ms Sophie Magennis:
I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for inviting the UNHCR to meet them today. I am happy to be here with colleagues from GOAL. The UNHCR works in partnership with many international non-governmental organisations based in Ireland in the countries surrounding Syria and, indeed, in Syria. It is a mark of the co-operation that takes place between the UNHCR and international NGOs that representatives of both GOAL and the UNHCR are before the committee today. We are very happy to be here at the committee's invitation.
This crisis is of a huge magnitude, as Barry Andrews has outlined. The High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. António Guterres, has been speaking about this crisis for many years and, indeed, addressed this committee in October 2012 on the occasion of his mission to Ireland. One of the messages he has been promoting recently is that while this crisis is of a very big scale, it is manageable for Europe. I wish to focus on a number of matters with which we would appeal to the committee members to get involved. One is the resolution that will be brought before the Oireachtas, presumably next week, on foot of decisions to be taken in Brussels today. The other relates to funding appeals that are under way at present. The third relates to political support, which refugees and others really need at present. While the crisis is of a huge scale, there are some manageable things with which politicians, UN agencies and NGOs can begin to engage. Ultimately, of course, the solution to this crisis is a resolution of the conflicts that are causing people to flee.
The High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Secretary General, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, have been appealing to members states, through the institutions in the UN, to take action to address this conflict. While we hope that some actions will be taken, in the interim the United Nations agencies such as the UNHCR are doing everything they can to provide humanitarian support. There is no humanitarian solution to this crisis; there must be a political solution to the crisis and to the conflicts that are causing people to flee.
I know that the Secretary General of the United Nations is doing everything he can to try to encourage member states and political entities at the United Nations to take the decisions that need to be taken.
I do not need to labour too much the background to the UNHCR. It is the UN refugee agency and we work under the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. My colleague, Jody Clarke, who works in external relations, and I work in the Irish office and very closely with the Departments of Justice and Equality and Foreign Affairs and Trade on refugee issues.
Since the beginning of 2015, 477,906 people have arrived in Europe by sea. We gave some statistics and a background note to the committee in advance of the meeting. This is double the figure for all of 2014 and seven times the figure recorded in 2013 and represents an increase to almost 500,000 people travelling by sea to Europe. I want to talk about why that is. First, around the world conflicts that have been rolling on for many years have continued and many new conflicts have erupted or been reignited. There are eight in Africa, including those in the Côte d’Ivoire, the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali, conflicts familiar to members of the committee. There is the situation in the Middle East and what is happening in Syria, Iraq and now also in Yemen. There are other reasons for movement within Europe, while there is the prospect of greater movement if we consider what is happening in Ukraine. As a result of all these activities and conflicts, almost 60 million people were displaced in 2014, that is, between internally displaced people and refugees. This compares to a figure of 51.2 million a year ago and 37 million a decade ago. Most of the people in question, almost nine out of ten, live in developing countries. There is a lot of awareness now of what a refugee crisis looks like because we are seeing it in the European Union, but it is still a tiny proportion of the global displacement figure. In 2014, 86% of the world’s refugees were hosted in developing countries. People flee to neighbouring countries and do not move further. We are seeing some movement into the European Union, which is galvanising people’s awareness of what movement looks like, but we need to keep this in perspective. It is a very small movement when we consider the global picture.
A second key issue to explain why we are where we are is that the war in Syria has become the single biggest driver of new displacement. Since the conflict began in 2011, 7.5 million people have been forced out of their homes inside the country. They are internally displaced. They are in a dire position because many are beyond the reach of any assistance from non-governmental organisations, NGOs, or the United Nations, although attempts are made to try to assist them internally. More than 4 million more have been forced to flee Syria and go to other countries. While there is growing awareness in the European Union of people arriving here, Turkey hosts 2 million and Lebanon, approximately 1.3 million. Jordan hosts over 600,000 registered refugees but approximately 1.3 million Syrians are on its territory. The numbers in the European Union are small by comparison with these figures. Many of the people concerned have been hosted in Turkey and Lebanon for many years and are only now beginning to consider whether they should move on.
The preliminary findings of a recent UN study show 70% of Syrian refugee households in Lebanon live below the national poverty line of just over $3 per person per day. People are living in Lebanon where there are no official camps and are quite destitute. Ireland has recently received some resettled refugees who have come from Lebanon. I met them last Friday. They have been living for years without an income; their children have not been in education and having been in that situation for between three and five years, with nothing improving, they are considering whether they should take even very risky journeys to move. There is a lack of safe and legal alternatives for people to move. The UNHCR has been advocating for many years with member states to try to increase legal alternatives for refugees and those who need protection to travel to countries where they could find protection, for example, through the issue of humanitarian visas. The Syrian humanitarian admission programme that the Irish authorities established was a very good initiative. It will I hope enable 114 people to enter Ireland in safety.
We have assisted the Irish authorities with that programme. There is a resettlement programme in Ireland and other countries also have larger scale resettlement programmes. However, more could be done to facilitate access to work visas, student visas and humanitarian visas which would allow Syrians to travel to other countries within the European Union and elsewhere.
Before I conclude, I would like to address what is happening at European level and then I would welcome any questions members may have. At European Union level, as the committee will be aware, there was a further extraordinary meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Ministers yesterday which was attended by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. An outcome document has been published. The leaders are meeting today to, hopefully, endorse and ratify that document and look at broader issues that need to be put in place.
The relocation mechanism agreed on by a vote at the meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Ministers yesterday will facilitate the relocation of 160,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece - people likely in need of protection - to other member states. Ireland and the UNHCR have very much welcomed the measure. Ireland will opt into this measure. We understand the measure will be brought before the Houses of the Oireachtas next week and we encourage it to move quickly to ratify the measure. Once the opt-in is established, Ireland will participate in the relocation mechanism whereby these asylum seekers will be relocated to other European Union member states. UNHCR has greatly welcomed the measure and has welcomed the fact a decision has finally been taken which, hopefully, will be ratified by the leaders tomorrow. However, we have highlighted that this measure alone will not solve the European Union's crisis. The relocation of 160,000 asylum people is a good start. We indicated many weeks ago that a preliminary estimate of the UNHCR of the needs was 200,000 people, so those needs will need to be looked at and kept under review.
Relocation is one measure but many other measures need to accompany it and we have highlighted what those are. For the relocation mechanism to work, Greece and Italy need to be supported to enhance their reception capacity. We have colleagues, and we have been in contact with them in recent days, who are working in Kos and Lesbos. Thousands of people are arriving in Greece every day and the facilities are not there to assist people on arrival. Those facilities need to be put in place in Greece and the facilities in Italy need to be enhanced. The decision allows for Greece and Italy to provide updated roadmaps to the European Commission to set out how those reception arrangements will be improved. That will require the assistance of member states, including Ireland, the European Asylum Support Office and other European institutions.
We need to stabilise the situation in the European Union's neighbouring countries. Much more needs to be done in terms of aid support to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and the countries that are already hosting refugees. The UN has launched a combined appeal for over $4 billion to support activities in that area and the latest estimate shows it is 37% funded. Much more needs to be done in terms of the funding position to assist those neighbouring states.
In terms of the exact position of the European Union's Mediterranean crisis, we have put out what is called our special Mediterranean initiative funding appeal for $50 million to assist the countries receiving refugees and asylum seekers at the moment. That initiative is currently 5% funded. We are continuing to work with states to attract additional funding.
The key lesson from the chaotic scenes in recent days and weeks in the European Union is that piecemeal actions will not work. There needs to be a unified response by the European Union to this crisis which we have termed as "manageable". We hope that Ireland and this committee, through its various parliamentary networks, will do what it can to encourage the European Union to respond in a unified way to this humanitarian crisis.
I thank Ms Magennis. Before I hand over to Deputy Smith, I will ask some questions. Ms Magennis spoke about the countries that have taken in refugees and obviously this is a real humanitarian situation. Why does she think the European Union is not dealing with the issue of smugglers, which is the source of the problem?
Ms Magennis talked about Lebanon and Jordan. We have been there and have seen the camps and the problems. We have also been to the Turkish border with GOAL and have seen what Turkey has done. Why does Ms Magennis think these refugees are not going north towards Russia or towards their neighbours in the more wealthy Arab countries rather than to Europe? Is it more lucrative?
Ms Sophie Magennis:
I thank the Chairman. I wish to make a couple of points on that issue. I will deal first with the issue of smugglers. The issue of smugglers has been dealt with by the European Union in some of its documents. We will have to see what comes out from the leaders' meeting today. Our understanding is that they will be looking at that issue. The Chairman mentioned that the smuggler issue is a source of why people are coming to the European Union. Our position on that is that people are going to come because they have no alternative. We have raised the need to tackle smugglers to make sure people are not subject to this terrible exploitation but in reality people's situation is so desperate that they will take any measures to travel. We have made the point that in order to address this humanitarian crisis - it is a humanitarian crisis - we need to look at the real reasons for the movement. We need to tackle smugglers and criminal gangs, as has been highlighted by the High Commissioner, but that is one of a number of measures and focusing on that alone will not get us to an answer.
In terms of why people are moving to Europe, I stress again that a very small proportion of Syrians are moving to Europe. In fact, the vast majority of Syrian refugees are moving to neighbouring states where they have Arab brothers, sisters or relatives or where there are people of a similar culture, so the vast majority of them are in those countries. The Lebanese authorities-----
Ms Sophie Magennis:
Egypt has a couple of hundred thousand and Iraq is hosting a large number of refugees who are moving between the Iraqi and Syrian border. Refugees are being hosted in the region because that is to where they are able to flee. The issue is that there is no durable solution for those refugees where they are. One in four in the territory of Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. The Lebanese authorities have done what they can but they cannot cope with those numbers. A small proportion of those refugees are coming to Europe. When the Chairman mentions looking at other alternatives, we have to look at what is a durable solution for Syrians. The people need to find residency in the new country to which they go. There is a need to look at the situation of asylum seekers or refugees in the other countries he mentioned. We have to do a lot more to build solidarity with other countries but we also have to recognise that for many years other countries have borne the responsibility of this and European Union countries have not done so directly. Lebanon and Egypt have done so. Turkey has invested massively in providing support and assistance to more than 2 million refugees on its territory. A small proportion are coming to the European Union and our view, as the UNHCR, is that the European Union can do an awful lot more to assist people coming to European Union countries.
Ms Sophie Magennis:
Again, UNHCR is working very closely with all countries and appealing to all donors to provide funding. There are other countries, including the UAE and other Arab states, that have provided funding and we are engaging very closely with those countries. One of the purposes of today's meeting is to try to appeal to European Union countries, in the context of the discussions which are taking place today and tomorrow, to look globally at what other countries are doing but this is a defining moment for the European Union. The European Union is based on treaties which guarantee the right of asylum. The right of an asylum seeker or a person in need of protection to be granted entry to the European Union countries is set out in the 1951 convention and in the treaties and that right is not being guaranteed in all the European Union member states at the moment. We are currently appealing to all European Union countries, including Ireland, to take on board those obligations and to step up at what is a crucial moment and a testing time for the European Union.
Ms Sophie Magennis:
I am not sure that the situation is that they are taking in no refugees. I have seen some information coming from other countries in regard to their intake.
We can come back to the committee with additional information on the intake in other countries, but the primary focus this week, given the crisis in the European Union, with thousands of people arriving at its borders, is on seeing how it can respond. All partners need to step up and the Chairman is correct to say all countries in the world have a role to play. We should promote a response that is as global as possible. It would enhance the advocacy of the European Union vis-à-visall member states if it could demonstrate that it was living up to all of its obligations.
I thank Mr. Andrews and Ms Magennis for their presentations which paint a depressing and appalling picture. I recall an earlier meeting with Mr. Andrews at which he referred to the Syrian crisis as the humanitarian crisis of our generation. We have had considerable exchanges with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and when he reports on EU Foreign Affairs Council meetings, we continually raise the issue of the situation in Syria and refer to the problems in the region. We have also asked parliamentary questions in the Dáil. This is an issue we need to keep on the agenda as much as possible. In every exchange with representatives of the United Nations we refer to the totally outdated architecture of that body and its inadequacy in dealing with such problems throughout the world and draw attention to the totally unsatisfactory situation at the Security Council and the non-implementation of resolutions. From the point of view of my party which is, I am sure, reflective of the views of other members, we need a radical restructuring of the United Nations to reflect the current geopolitical system in the world.
In response to the question put by the Chairman Ms Magennis rightly said only a united European emergency response would address the current refugee migration crisis. The Chairman also referred to the obligation of other members of the international community, be they wealthy Arab states, the United States or other countries, to play their part, which does not in any way excuse the inadequate response, to date, of the European Union. There has to be a response from the entire international community.
The reference by both Mr. Andrews and Ms Magennis to the fact that the civil war in Syria is now in its fifth year paints an appalling vista of this humanitarian crisis. More than 240,000 Syrians have been killed and 7.6 million people displaced within Syria. Over 4 million people have had to leave the country, while approximately 12.2 million - over half of Syria's population - are in need of humanitarian assistance. Every one of these figures points to a bleak and depressing picture and shows the international community has failed to respond to the difficulties in Syria and the attendant pressures in adjoining regions. Mr. Andrews mentioned the need to deal with the issues at source and has, at various points, referred to the need to continue humanitarian assistance to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, countries that have huge numbers of displaced persons from Syria, as well as some from Afghanistan.
The United Nations appealed for $8.4 billion to meet the needs of 18 million people in Syria and across the region, but it is my understanding that it has been totally underfunded to date. Has the recent constant media coverage of the plight of these refugees and a greater awareness of and empathy towards the victims of the humanitarian crisis we see unfolding every day led to an improved financial response from governments, public agencies and the voluntary sector? I compliment NGOs and their personnel who are working in these regions in the most appalling circumstances.
One of the pictures that will always be in our minds is the picture of the three year old child washed up on the shore. One message that GOAL put out during the summer was that we do not remember that eight children a day are being killed in Syria, which is an appalling statistic. I do not mean it only as a statistic, it is an appalling situation occurring daily in Syria. Europe and the international community have a huge obligation to improve dramatically their response to a very difficult conflict in Syria and in adjoining regions.
I thank the Chairman and Mr. Andrews for his presentation. Mr. Andrews was obviously moved by the scale of the problem. I sense a frustration in him that the world has not responded as it should and I think everybody shares that but the movement of people on this scale is a problem the world has not had to tackle before. We should not be terribly surprised that we are not immediately jumping to solutions. I agree with much of what Mr. Andrews has said in regard to Syria, particularly the issue of tackling the problem at source. Ireland can, and should, have an input through the EU and the UN.
There was agreement yesterday to take in 120,000 refugees into Europe. This is a drop in the ocean in terms of addressing the real problem, yet look at how long it took to get even semi-agreement on that. I agree that smugglers are a result of the problem and that they are not the cause. Even if Syria was to be solved in the next number of years, the OECD said today there would be a million refugees this year and a million every year for the remainder of this decade. Given what is happening in sub-Saharan Africa, the population growth and the ongoing wars there, there will be a flow of people into Europe over the coming years. Given this, when Mr. Andrews talks about a durable solution, can we provide that? If we have this ongoing debate about 120,000 people, how are we going to accommodate a million refugees a year? Can we, should we, and would it have a destabilising effect?
I have visited the camps on the Turkish border with Syria. I am in awe of what Turkey has achieved, but it is destabilising Turkey. It is destabilising Lebanon and Jordan. All of those countries are swamped and becoming almost ungovernable at this point. I admit and totally accept that they are taking far more than we are at the moment but, contemplating the future, can Europe provide a durable solution? This is a major issue for the world and for Europe and is the biggest challenge we have faced since the Second World War.
I am not talking about the figure of 120,000, which is a drop in the ocean. I refer to the million migrants per year every year. It has changed two governments already in Europe. Will it destabilise Europe? I accept there is a huge humanitarian crisis and we can do a lot more than we already are, but can we solve the problem?
I wish to congratulate GOAL and the United Nations Refugee Agency in the work they have done so far. I also acknowledge the crews of the LE Eithneand the LE Niamh. They have rescued over 6,300 people in the Mediterranean.
Maybe the committee should send a message of solidarity to those crews and thank them for the work they are doing.
My first experience of refugees was people fleeing the North during the Troubles. I was young at the time but that was the largest movement of a civilian population in Europe since the Second World War. We have experienced the significant movement of people in our lifetime.
It does not seem that long ago when we heard from GOAL on this issue when it was on the border with Turkey and there were difficulties going into Syria. GOAL is now working with 815,000 people in the region. It is one of the few non-governmental organisations that is actually on the ground in Syria. I have seen some figures concerning the numbers of NGO workers killed there. How much of a threat is there to NGO workers? What areas does GOAL operate in? Does it operate only in government or rebel areas or both? What is the breakdown between Irish staff and local staff? What size of an area would be affected by an indiscriminate barrel bomb dropped from a helicopter?
GOAL claims there is no humanitarian solution to the crisis. Will it agree there is also no military solution to the crisis and that, realistically, the only way forward is a political solution? States in the area have fanned the conflict but are not taking in refugees. They have armed groups with weapons, supplied resources and training, so they also have a responsibility. There has been a military response from some European states with calls to deal with those people travelling across the Mediterranean by bombing the fishing boats and so forth. However, there does not seem to be the same immediacy when it comes to saving lives.
The delegation claimed there was a poor response from politicians. Recently, there was an initiative by some Members involved with the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa, AWEPA, where 23 organisations were invited to a meeting on this crisis. We all accept that the public, not only in Ireland but in Europe, is way ahead on this issue and politicians are scrambling to catch up. Several points from the AWEPA meeting were the importance of information for those coming to Ireland, that it is accurate and credible and we tie in with the good will of the people. Does the delegation have any suggestions for mobilising that public support and holding on to it? The danger is that one could have a tsunami or an earthquake in another part of the world which people would concentrate on then.
There is a belief that people just want to escape a war zone and then everything will be fine. We know from GOAL’s work that 85% of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line of $3.20 per day. A colleague, recently returned from Jordan, saw the camps at first hand. Outside the camps, she saw young children basically being sold off to older men.
Is there anything the UNHCR, which runs the camps, can do about that? There were also difficulties concerning attacks on women, so perhaps Ms Magennis could outline some of the work being done about that. Winter is approaching in these camps, so what is the plan to deal with adverse weather conditions?
Lastly, there is the question of promised funding that has not been delivered. Is there a name and shame list for those who commit to funding but do not deliver? Thankfully, when Ireland gives a commitment we actually follow through on it. I am thinking of larger states in that region, but are there particular ones that stand out by giving a funding commitment and yet not following through on it?
I welcome the delegation. This crisis is so vast - Mr. Andrews mentioned comments made in the Dáil in 2012 - that it is difficult for us, as backbenchers, to get our heads around it. It is so vast internationally and has ramifications and implications right across the world. I note with particular interest the reference to the inability of the United Nations to perform. It is interesting that the Prime Minister of India, which is a huge country, is in Dublin today lobbying the Taoiseach to gain support for reform measures India would like to see in the United Nations. One such measure is that it wants a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Leaving that aside, however, it is important that we are now collectively looking at the UN and seeing its weaknesses and strengths, as well as separating the theory and practice concerning its role in the world. Europe is trying to do something in a haphazard way. The UN is out there somewhere in the ether, although I know there are representatives of the UNHCR here today. However, we need a world vision in terms of what is happening.
I would like to ask some rather direct questions. I would praise Ireland's wonderful record in handling programme refugees over the years. Interestingly enough, those who are taking a very negative stance in Europe include the Hungarians. As a child, I remember families welcoming and accommodating Hungarian refugees. It is a pity that the Hungarian Government does not remember the Hungarian migrants and refugees.
Ireland has a wonderful record starting with the Hungarians. We then had the Vietnamese boat people. I know there are also some Rohingya people from Burma in this country as programme refugees. We have had wonderful people from Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Kosovo. Some have settled and integrated and have not been a problem while others have returned to their countries which they had been economically and politically forced to leave. It is a wonderful thing to see them being settled and accommodated here, as well as being afforded the security and protection they need in the short term.
Given GOAL's involvement in a particular region, are we talking today about Syrian refugees alone? I do not want to get emotional about what is happening in the world, including three year old children dead on the beaches and where they might have started out from. We are a small country that has made a contribution in the past. We are continuing to make this contribution, small as it might be in the eyes of NGOs, involving between 3,000 and 5,000 people. Are we talking about accommodating only the Syrians? My information is that large numbers of Eritreans, Somalians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Iraqis and Libyans are also part of that movement of people.
As an Irish politician, therefore, I am seeking direction on how we can pick these poor, unfortunate people for refuge in Ireland. We have heard about the situation. For example, on RTE radio this morning, there was a vivid report from the camps in Lebanon.
Where do we extend our reach of humanity to? Should we go to camps in Jordan and take them out of there because they have been living in misery for two or three years already? Should we go to the Mediterranean and help the Italians because of the big influx? Will the witnesses suggest which 4,000 or 5,000 should be the lucky ones that Ireland will accommodate over the next two years? Is there a priority? My heart goes out to those in the Lebanese and Jordanian camps and in the overflowing camps in Turkey and, more recently, to the hundreds of thousands who are moving up through Europe. I would like to hear how the witnesses suggest that we, as parliamentarians and as a Government, should respond. It is expected that this year alone there will be 3,500 applications for asylum, which are separate to the programmed refugees that we will bring in, so there will be an increase in asylum applications. I feel a sense of hopelessness because the project is so vast. It requires an international response. It requires Russia, China, the United Nation in its reformed structure, the European Union, and the Arab countries, including Iran, which are key players in the conflict, and Saudi Arabia, which is another player in the conflict, to open their coffers. We need the United Nations and all of these agencies and countries to work together to try to create a better world.
It is a sad occasion and I agree entirely with Barry Andrews's assessment of the UN's inability to confront and manage the situation, and to respond in a meaningful way to what is, without a doubt, the greatest crisis since the Second World War and one which will continue. The sad part is that neither the global community nor the European Union seems to be able to speak with one voice on this issue. There are mixed messages coming from them. The vision of children and adults crawling under razor wire to escape from something is a vivid image that will stick with many people. When historians come to write about this in the future, they will write about it in a critical way. History tells us that in the past those who warned of things to come were not listened to. What Barry Andrews has said to the committee is very real and we should take it into account. Not only should we take it into account in Ireland but the European Union and the UN should listen carefully to what has been said. Peter Sutherland has made similar comments about the same issue in recent times.
I do not understand why the UN has not established positions to support the camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, to show what it can do. The authorities there will accept that support. I do not understand why the UN has not done it. It is fine to appeal for aid and to do good. When people do good everyone supports it but when people do evil, and in the course of it create further evil, nobody seems to be able to stand up and confront it in a meaningful way.
I have already referred to mixed messages coming from other European countries. I do not understand why countries have such a short memory. Things that have happened before invariably happen again; history repeats itself all the time. What I worry about most of all is the unfortunate people who are forced into boats, who are drowning on the shores with their children, who are being shot, harassed and faced with razor wire, baton charges and CS gas and all the other things, will remember in the future how they were treated when they were vulnerable. The UN stands challenged now and has to account for itself. So too does the European Union.
There are lessons to be learnt. Interfering with sovereign states in the future should be a no-go area regardless of what evidence exists. The lid has been lifted off a situation that will trundle on unless there is a positive intervention of a serious nature.
I spoke on this subject at the security and defence meeting in Luxembourg a couple of weeks ago which was attended by High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Ms Mogherini. I cannot understand the reason the traffickers have been allowed to drive the situation and are in control. They are feeding into what is happening. The rest of the EU is trying to respond. It would have been simple to establish bridgeheads in the various locations to administer to the refugees, setting out a safe haven for the refugees before they would come across Europe. That would eliminate the need for razor wire and the treatment of refugees in that way. High Representative Ms Mogherini did not agree with my views, but my honest opinion is that the European Union has failed. As time goes by I think the resentment will grow, the humanitarian extent of the problem will grow and the disaster will grow. I cannot understand the reason the European Union and the United Nations cannot come together and do the sensible thing and take control of the situation.
I join in welcoming our visitors this morning. They paint a grim picture, which we have become accustomed to seeing on our televisions over an extended period.
The significant decision made at European level yesterday is to be welcomed. While it is regrettable that not all countries bought into the process and will participate, the onus is on every country in the European Union to shoulder its responsibility and to work to alleviate the pressures on countries which are literally overrun by people fleeing war torn parts of the world. I have no doubt that countries, our own included, will knuckle down and respond generously and that Government and the various agencies will do a good job in accommodating the 4,000 people we will take. As others have said it is only the tip of the iceberg and that the problem will run for years.
Mr. Barry Andrews rightly highlighted the very significant issue of the lack of action by the United Nations. This is a major world crisis but who is pulling all the world leaders together to see what can be done. We hear that G8, G7 and G12 members come together on a regular basis to discuss issues of world significance but I am deeply concerned that nobody seems to be grasping the nettle on this issue and pulling together all the interested parties who can play a key role in solving this major world crisis. There is no urgency in dealing with this crisis.
The barrel bombing in Syria has resulted in innocent children and others being killed on a daily basis. A stop can be put to that if there is the political will in some of the world powers to intervene and put a stop to it. As Barry Andrews said earlier, we need to have much more discussion in the national parliaments throughout the European Union. We need to keep the pressure on the European Union, the United Nations, the superpowers and those who are playing a significant role in providing the armaments and the weaponry that is causing so much destruction. I would like to see world leaders calling an emergency summit to fasttrack significant actions that can put a stop to some of the conflict in these regions. I am sure that many hundreds of thousands of the Syrians who are pouring out of their country want to remain in Syria and have their children educated there. They do not want to put their lives at risk by coming to Europe. With the onset of winter they will face a very uncertain future.
There is an urgency about this that politicians, at all levels, must grasp. We criticise everybody from time to time, but Deputy Seán Crowe paid tribute to members of the Naval Service who have done such good work on LE Niamhin rescuing people in the Mediterranean. We also have to think of all those working with NGOs who are putting their lives at risk every day to bring humanitarian aid to the victims of war. There is an onus on us to support the people concerned by doing everything we can to bring about a political solution and an end to conflict, but this can only be done by the world's most powerful leaders in coming together in emergency session to deal with the issue.
I apologise for being late. I did get the papers, but I am sorry I was not here to hear the presentations.
I join others in complimenting the delegates on the work they are doing in dealing with what is probably the greatest humanitarian crisis for some 70 years. Given the numbers turning up in Europe, how do they think we can best distinguish between genuine refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants who take huge risks to get to the borders of Europe, which is something which needs to be discouraged? How do the delegates think we can do this? In opening the doors we may, to some extent, accelerate the numbers coming across the Mediterranean, leading to more and more tragedies to add to the ones we have already seen. Is there a better approach, perhaps in line with Mr. David Cameron's suggestion that Britain take refugees from camps in neighbouring countries?
Many members of the committee have been to Lebanon and Jordan in the past few years and seen the refugee camps and the horrendous conditions in which people live. I was struck more by the plight of Palestinians. It is shame on the international community and the United Nations that Palestinian camps have been in existence since 1948. People have been living in these camps for that length of time in wholly unsuitable bombed and shelled buildings which would be classified here as dangerous. They would be secured, lest people were injured, but people are actually living in such accommodation. This highlights the inadequacies of the international community when it comes to addressing these situations. Would it be better to try to relieve some of the camps in countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and, in particular, Jordan, the stability and future viability of which are threatened by the influx of migrants?
My third question might perhaps be for the United Nations, but it involves an idea which others believe might have some merit. I do not understand why a secure and sanitised area, free from conflict, within Syria cannot be created by an international peacekeeping force, in which there would be well serviced and well managed refugee camps. This would at least cater for Syrian people within the confines of their own borders and ensure that, until such time as the conflict came to an end, there would be humanitarian aid and security. It would also mean that they would be more likely to go back into the communities of Syria. This point has been made by a number of leaders.
I have attended a couple of international conferences in the past three weeks, at one of which I had lunch with the Patriarch of Antioch.
He echoed what some of those leaders said that many of the young, strong and fit people in Syria, who are well educated, were leaving to go elsewhere and would probably never return home. Appeals have been made for them to stay because in the post-conflict era, Syria will need to be rebuilt. To some extent, the diversity and pluralism which we value will not be evident in countries like Syria and maybe Iraq because of the persecution of Christians being forced to leave. Can the delegation provide suggestions or solutions for same?
To what extent does GOAL consider the risk posed by Daish terrorists infiltrating the ranks of refugees being a problem for Europe and elsewhere in the future? Obviously, if that situation comes to pass, then public opinion will change dramatically. We should try to prevent that from happening and now is the time to do so. What assessment or monitoring procedures need to be put in place to ensure a problem does not arise? Anecdotally, the Gulf States, as the delegation will know, are not taking refugees. It has been stated that they are not taking them because to do so would pose a risk to the stability of their counties in the future. Security is an issue. Daish has said that 1,000 jihadists have deliberately left Syria as part of the exodus. I would welcome the delegates comments on that issue, which might be better informed than mine.
I apologise for not being here for all of the presentation and hope I do not go back over issues that have been covered. The refugee crisis stems from a complete lack of respect and disrespect for human rights in countries, whether Syria, Yemen or Eritrea. Unless we grapple with the human rights issues, then we will have another Syria and other situations will develop in the future.
I refer to children who arrive unaccompanied or end up unaccompanied because they are particularly vulnerable. Have the delegates met many of these children who are a target for traffickers?
I refer to the barrel bomb issue and Syria. Why can there not be political agreement reached on the issue because it is causing so many deaths and injuries? I was part of a group that visited the Turkish-Syrian border with GOAL. The Syrian people we met on that occasion told us they wanted to return home. I was very conscious of how they held on to their culture and language. They had their own teachers and medical people. They wanted to create a Syrian society but the big question is, when will that happen?
As has been mentioned, unless a political solution is found, the crisis will continue and there will be more crises. There are people who have become refugees again. I refer to people who went to Syria as refugees and now they must leave Syria.
Following on from the point made Senator Walsh, we are appalled when a European country says it will not accept refugees but the Gulf States and the Emirates can do so and get away with not contributing. Are they contributing in any way to easing the plight of refugees?
I apologise for being late for the presentation. I happened to be in Italy last year when High Commissioner Mogherini announced that Operation Mare Nostrum would be abandoned. My first response was that she should resign because she had condemned to death all of those people who were going to make that journey and that is exactly what happened. The European Union's response so far has been appalling, to put it mildly. Emergency meetings have taken two weeks to convene, which is not anyone's definition of an emergency. We have seen barrel bombing and heard about the red line in regard to the gas attacks in Syria but they have led to the refugees ending up in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
I know personnel who are working on the very intricate system of biometric payments to refugees all over the Middle East who are from Syria. I have read reports - our guests have confirmed this - that in some instances the money for those people in refugee camps has been stopped - in certain cases in the past couple of weeks. This is basically forcing people to travel to Europe. Mr. Andrews may already have supplied an answer to this question during his presentation but what is the cost of looking after Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey? What is the cost of looking after that same refugee in Europe? I presume it is ten times greater. If European powers and countries do not want to do it - and apparently they do not want to look after these refugees - for compassionate and humanitarian reasons, they might do it because of the purely economic argument that it is easier and cheaper to look after them in the displacement camps on the borders of Syria than it is to look at the scenes we are seeing on our TV screens. This is only a crisis for Europe because it is not on our doorstep; it is now inside the borders of Europe. It is simply an economic argument because Europe, as we know, does not really care about a humanitarian crisis. It is only because it is now a political crisis in Europe.
Mr. Barry Andrews:
I thank the Chairman and the members for their interest in and continuing work on this issue. There is a strong chance that the situation in Syria will get worse. There have been some minor changes in the complexion of the conflict that could see millions of people moving over the border. Mr. Edgar was in Turkey and Greece recently and was able to identify the people who are leaving Syria, going straight to Greece and trying to get straight through Turkey. They are not stopping there anymore. They never wanted to come to Europe and I think Ms Magennis agreed with me on this. That has been very well documented at this stage. They have been gathering on that border for four years and had it been about pull factors, they would have left a long time ago but they love their country, have ambitions for it and want to go back to networks of family and property and their home, which is something we all take for granted but which is a very powerful thing and that is what they wanted to do. They are real refugees. They are fleeing persecution. They have a well-grounded fear of persecution so under our obligations under UN membership and the Geneva Convention, we must offer asylum to people who are genuine refugees in those circumstances.
In response to Deputy Crowe, our operations are in north-western Syria. We will reach 850,000 people this year through our programmes. It is the largest operation in our history. No Irish people go over the border. We have 650 Syrian staff but no international individuals go over the border now. They operate out of Turkey in terms of remote management with the support of our donors. It is effective up to a point but the Chairman and Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan will recall that when we went there in February, we visited an orphanage where we met children. I referred to one of them in my paper. Many of those children experienced incredible trauma and some of them had not regained the power of speech at the age of three or four as a result of that trauma. The GOAL staff we were with were Syrians. They introduced us to these children and were themselves very moved by the testimony of the workers in the orphanage. That is the reality and Deputy Smith made reference to the fact that eight children per day were killed in May. Another incident occurred in the Mediterranean a week ago where 15 children were drowned, so this is now a daily reality. As we sit here today, more people are getting on to boats. There are people in the middle of the Mediterranean. This is happening right now and it has the potential to get much worse.
I will now deal quickly with a couple of the questions that were posed.
I have referred to the effect of the barrel bombs in the paper. We call them indiscriminate but they are not really indiscriminate; that would suggest that civilians are collateral to some military objective but the civilians are the target. The Assad government has chosen to terrorise civilians into submission through the bombing of market places, bakeries, hospitals, schools and all sorts of civilian infrastructure. It is quite discriminate and the effect of it is unbelievable. That is why GOAL has reluctantly been one of a number of NGOs calling for a no-fly zone to take them out of the air and to decommission the bombs. That is very much a measure of last resort in circumstances where there is absolutely no other political initiative. If there was, it could be left to exhaust itself to see if it could come to some conclusion but there is none. It is a measure of absolute last resort. Will a military intervention solve it? No. Could it be a component or a threat that would bring other belligerents to their senses? It has to be enforced in some way. If there is going to be a safe area to protect civilians and guarantee access of humanitarian aid, that is something that has been done in the past but always in parallel with a political initiative.
Syria, Iraq and Eritrea are the source of the refugees who will come here under the programme but any other refugee who qualifies under the criteria of the Geneva Convention is entitled to asylum in this country because Ireland has signed it.
Senator Walsh raised the issue of ISIS infiltrating the refugee movements. That statement has come from ISIS, which is a terrorist organisation and is deliberately trying to generate fear. In June, the EU anti-terrorism chief said that 4,000 Europeans had joined ISIS so if 1,000 are coming back, there is an issue in Europe that has to be tackled.
Ms Sophie Magennis:
Much was raised in questions and comments by members. A common theme was very heavy criticism of the lack of global leadership, of the United Nations and of the Security Council and of the failure to act. There has been a lot of criticism of the global and European response. When the High Commissioner for Refugees came to Ireland in 2012, he spoke many times about the lack of a coherent global governance framework. I am the head of office with the UNHCR in Ireland. It is not my role to defend the United Nations. The criticisms that have been made today are valid. What we have been trying to do at the level of the High Commissioner and also the United Nations Secretary General is to see what solutions and ideas there might be. We are at a stage where there does not seem to be a possibility of political consensus in the Security Council to try to address what is happening in terms of conflicts in the world. We hope that there will be some movement on that but we are in the hands of the member states when it comes to political leadership in solving these problems. We hope that should Ireland take a seat on the Security Council in future years, or through its influence there, it will seek to advance the kind of reforms that are necessary. The criticisms are valid but I would appreciate an opportunity today to look at what Irish parliamentarians and the Irish State can do to try to do something constructive in the midst of all of this mayhem and lack of global leadership, because children and vulnerable people are suffering and there are things that can be done.
I want to address some of the specific questions raised by members.
Deputy Durkan asked some questions on what was happening in Turkey and Lebanon. The UNHCR is on the ground in Turkey and is working directly with the Turkish authorities to provide support to the refugees who are there. The Turkish authorities have spent nearly $5 billion in providing support to refugees and our colleagues are involved in registering refugees and providing all the assistance we can provide. Our colleagues are also in Lebanon. A couple of Irish people working with the UNHCR are in the field providing support in the shape of access to medical care, access to funds and, where possible, education. However, we simply cannot cope with the numbers and more support needs to be given by other states where Syrian nationals on the ground do not amount to one in four of its population.
There were a couple of questions about how the resettlement and relocation programmes would work, particularly from Deputy Eric Byrne. Ireland will take 520 refugees on resettlement before the end of 2016 and those refugees will come from Jordan and Lebanon. The UNHCR will register refugees in the area by looking at their vulnerability and their needs and we will then recommend them to countries for resettlement. Ireland has a long-standing history of being one of a very small number of resettlement countries and we refer vulnerable cases, such as families and medical cases, here. The Irish authorities come out to meet the refugees in the camps and they then come to Ireland. I have met with some of the recent intake here. It would be very helpful if parliamentarians could assist in raising awareness about these programmes and why people are coming here so that we can assist with their integration into Ireland. We would be happy to provide more information about these programmes for this purpose.
A question was asked about the relocation of the 4,000 who will be coming to Ireland this year and next year. These are asylum seekers who have come into the European Union seeking protection. Nationalities that have 75% refugee recognition rate will be eligible for relocation. This will mean that nationalities who, when assessed for refugee protection within the European Union, have a very high rate of being recognised as refugees will be eligible for the relocation programme. In practice, this means Syrian and Eritrean refugees. They will be selected in Italy and Greece and invited to Ireland. It is likely they will come into the State in groups of 100 every three months or so.
As regards national preparations, the Minister for Justice and Equality has established a task force and, while this veers into the domestic domain, there is a foreign affairs element to this and a member of the Department of Foreign Affairs sits on the task force. The task force co-ordinates all the arrangements in Ireland for the arrival of the 4,000 relocated asylum seekers, their speedy assessment as refugees and their accommodation within the country.
Senator Walsh asked about the issue of security assessment, which is crucial and is a big risk factor for the UNHCR when we undertake resettlement or relocation arrangements. We have to be very careful about how these procedures are rolled out so they are all conducted in close collaboration with the gardaí and with FRONTEX. Security screening happens both pre-departure and on arrival and exclusion assessments are also conducted to make sure anybody who may have involved in conflict or war crimes is not included in an intake. I can assure the Senator on those points.
Deputy Mitchell raised the issue of what the European Union could do. These are global problems and not for Germany alone to solve through the excellent leadership the Chancellor has provided nor is it for the European Union alone, as a bloc, to provide a solution. However, the European Union is uniquely placed at the moment to provide an example. The UNHCR advocates with other African and Asian countries and appeals to them to keep their borders open, to admit people who need protection and to provide humanitarian assistance.
This is also something the Irish authorities, through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade among others, will be involved in when there is a conflict. We appeal to countries to keep their borders open, to admit people who need protection and to provide humanitarian assistance.
Irish Aid has an excellent programme that provides assistance and aid to people. We appeal to nations in other very poor, very unstable parts of the world to assist. We would appeal now to the European Union and to countries like Ireland, and parliamentarians like the members, to be part of mapping out solutions and ideas to see how we can positively respond to this crisis. If the European Union can provide a positive example, starting off today with the leaders' decision on the relocation programme, we are then in a stronger position to advance our advocacy.
Also within the European Union, solidarity should be demonstrated with countries in the south such as Italy, Greece and Malta, where there has been some solidarity extended, particularly by the Irish Naval Service and Defence Forces, which have done wonderful work in the Mediterranean. These are good examples that can be built on.
I thank both witnesses. Mr. Andrews and Ms Magennis have asked what we can do. While there will be a formal invitation from the Minister for Justice and Equality next week to get permission in respect of the numbers, I propose that we write to the Government and Opposition Whips to request a broader debate in the Dáil Chamber on the migrant and refugee crisis. Is that agreed? Agreed. We should set aside a substantial amount of time for Members to air their views on this and to get both Opposition and Government responses.
I have a vivid memory of a young boy we met in the Syrian orphanage. Both Deputy O'Sullivan and myself met him. He was almost lifeless and, as Mr. Andrews said, he went through terrible trauma. Obviously the children were being well looked after by the caretakers in the refugee camp. He left me with a memory of what can happen. A father with his wife and two children were fleeing the city of Aleppo and they ran in to a barrel bomb. The father and daughter were blown to bits, the mother survived and the little boy was found two days later in the branches of a tree. He never spoke for a number of weeks after the incident. He was coming around in that refugee camp but I still remember hugging that child and how almost lifeless he was. Hopefully he is doing better in the tender loving care of the carers in that refugee centre.
I thank the witnesses for coming before us this morning. We will keep in touch with them both to stay updated on what is happening. We will certainly keep this issue to the forefront of our agenda as things develop. We look forward to having a debate in the Chamber on the crisis.