Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 6 July 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
Humanitarian Crisis in the Mediterranean: Médecins Sans Frontières
In part B of today's meeting, we will receive presentations from representatives of Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF. I welcome Mr. Sam Taylor, director of MSF in Ireland, Dr. Conor Kenny, who has recently returned from vital fieldwork aboard a rescue vessel in the Mediterranean, and Mr. Alex Dunne. It is essential for the committee to hear first-hand accounts of the ongoing crisis, affecting migrants who risk their lives by perilously crossing the Mediterranean from north Africa to reach Europe. The format of the meeting is that we will hear the witnesses' opening statements before going into a question-and-answer session with the members of the committee. I welcome the witnesses.
I remind members, witnesses and those in the Public Gallery to ensure that their mobile phones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference, even on silent mode, with the recording equipment in this room.
Members are reminded 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, her or it 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. 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 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 that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I call on Mr. Sam Taylor to make an opening presentation.
Mr. Sam Taylor:
I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for affording us this opportunity to speak to them today about the search and rescue missions in the central Mediterranean. My name is Sam Taylor and I am the director of Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors Without Borders, in Ireland. I am joined by Dr. Conor Kenny, who has recently returned from one of our vessels in the central Mediterranean. Médecins Sans Frontières is an independent, medical, humanitarian organisation that delivers emergency aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural disasters and exclusion from health care. We offer assistance based on need, irrespective of race, religion, ideology or political affiliations and our actions are guided by medical ethics and the principles of neutrality and impartiality. We are 96% funded by private donors and do not rely on government funds for our activities. We opened our office in Ireland in 2006 and to date have placed more than 150 Irish staff in MSF projects all around the world, from Afghanistan to Uganda. We go where we are needed, to where the patients are. Unfortunately, that now includes the Mediterranean Sea.
MSF started its search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean in April 2015, following the decision of the European Union and Italy to discontinue Mare Nostrum, the joint large-scale search and rescue mission led by the Italian Navy. At the time, it appeared that Europe was prepared to let many people fleeing war, poverty and oppression die at sea. We in MSF took the difficult decision that we could not stand back and watch from the shore as thousands of men, women and children drowned while trying to reach Europe. Death at sea continues at an alarming rate and the numbers of deaths are comparable to what Médecins Sans Frontières is used to seeing in the war zones in which we operate.
Our work, responding to displacement in Europe over the past two years, has led us to set up projects in the south of the continent as well as along what became known as the Balkan route. From reception centres to refugee camps, we have established projects to respond to the health and medical needs of people on the move. While the recent EU-Turkey deal has meant that fewer people are attempting the journey along the Balkan route, the journey has only become more dangerous for people still attempting to cross. To date, MSF teams in the central Mediterranean have rescued or assisted over 30,000 people in distress on over 200 operations. In 2017 alone, we have rescued and assisted more than 9,000 individuals.
According to data from the International Organization for Migration, IOM, the number of people who died trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean has reached an all-time high with over 5,000 reported deaths in 2016. This year is shaping up to be another deadly year, with more than 2,170 deaths so far, according to the IOM. However, these figures betray the reality of this crisis as the actual number of deaths is likely to be much worse. We have no idea how many dinghies overloaded with terrified passengers set sail from Libya in the direction of Italy each day and sink without trace. This morning, Dr. Conor Kenny, an MSF Ireland field worker who spent three months on board our vessel, the MV Aquarius, in the central Mediterranean, will outline his very difficult and challenging first-hand experiences of providing medical care to those rescued aboard the vessel.
Last week, the Italian Government signalled to the European Commission that it may move to block foreign-flagged vessels from docking in Italian ports due to the strain on their systems coping with the rescues. Search and rescue is a desperately needed emergency response but our work at sea is just a sticking plaster on a gaping wound. Our search and rescue operation is not the solution to this ongoing crisis, nor is it the cause, as some have claimed. After Dr. Kenny’s testimony, we will briefly conclude by outlining a number of our key concerns related to search and rescue operations for this committee to take into consideration, before we open the floor to any questions members may have.
Once again, I thank the committee for this timely opportunity and I ask Dr. Kenny to speak.
Dr. Conor Kenny:
My name is Dr. Conor Kenny and I come from County Sligo. I have been qualified as a medical doctor for four years with interests mainly in general medicine. From February to May 2017, I was part of the Médecins Sans Frontières medical team on board the MV Aquarius, located in international waters, patrolling at 25 nautical miles from the coast of Libya. I served as the ship’s medical doctor, alongside a small medical team comprised of one midwife and two nurses. I will speak about my work and experience on this MSF assignment, detailing how we conduct rescues in the central Mediterranean, the medical care we provide and the recent developments and areas of concern.
We existed in a world of two extremes aboard the ship. My team and I would spend days at a time diligently watching the seas and running near-daily medical drills, ensuring that we were fully prepared for the next emergency rescue. Then, upon receiving instruction from the Italian maritime rescue co-ordination centre, MRCC, we would enter an intense 72-hour period involving rescue, provision of care and safe disembarkation. I would repeat this process many times during my three and a half month assignment in the central Mediterranean.
Images of my experience there can be found at the end of the document distributed.
Typically, as the ship’s medic, my initial role in a rescue was that of first response. That means that I would go with a rigid hull inflatable boat, RHIB, to the vessel in distress. Next to the boat in distress and from the RHIB, I would survey the scene and prioritise the people we rescue first, focusing on those who are seriously unwell, as well as children and women. Sadly, the sickest are usually the ones one cannot see, often lying on the floor of the overfilled boat. Retrieving these people from their boat may often be complicated because they may be panicked, for example, if their boat is sinking. This may lead to crush situations or even capsizing. Throughout this process I was in constant contact with the rest of the team aboard the MV Aquariuswhich allowed us to prepare the necessary medical response back on boat based on their health needs. This could include a mass casualty response or a multiple casualty response. From the point of rescue to disembarkation, we responded to whatever medical needs arose from emergency care to outpatient consultations. As one can imagine, demand was high and we got very little sleep over the usual 72-hour period between rescue and disembarkation. During this time in the MSF clinic, I treated wounds, broken bones were set, and we provided psychological first aid. Sometimes babies were born.
The majority of our rescued patients were suffering from hypothermia, dehydration and exhaustion when they reached us and often had been severely burned by the gasoline used to power these boats' engines. It is important to note that when the fuel powering the engines mixes with the seawater, it turns into a highly corrosive and hazardous substance. Many of those who ended up in my clinic had been forced to sit in this substance, often resulting in severe burns to their genitalia. Many had also swallowed and inhaled the toxic liquid mix into their lungs during a drowning process. One occasion that sticks in my mind is the attempt my team and I made to resuscitate an unconscious young women who had been brought on deck by staff on one of our RHIBs. As I approached her the toxic smell of the gasoline fumes emerged from the patient as I noticed that the skin on the right side of her face had dissolved in the fuel. Tragically, resuscitation attempts were unsuccessful and this young woman died. On closer examination this facial burn extended the length of her thorax to the bottom of her chest. Clearly she had been face down in the fuel lining the base of the rubber boat she was in. This is an horrific way to drown.
The other types of medical conditions we were faced with in the medical clinic include respiratory tract disease, gastrointestinal tract disease and trauma. The greater part of people on board the boat had been subject to, or had witnessed, physical, and in some cases sexual, violence while in Libya and presented with the marks and scars of those abuses. They often spoke to us about this abuse, which they had suffered at the hands of smugglers, armed groups and private individuals in Libya when they were on the boat. Here, many told us stories of how they were bought and sold on trade markets as a commodity, working in hellish conditions as labourers without payment. I have heard testimony from many patients who were duped into working in Libya, seemingly offered good jobs there where they would have the opportunity to send money to their families at home. However, in reality, Libya is not a functioning state. With three competing governments and virtually no rule of law, many people whose final destination was to be Libya and not Europe, are rounded up by the state security forces and other armed groups and forced into detention centres and asked to work off unreasonable sums for their freedom. Some are then forced onto boats and into the sea, while others view it as their only chance of escape from what they told us is a slavery-type situation and the violence they face if they stay in Libya.
One such story that sticks with me is that of three boys we rescued in April. Incredibly, once taken on board, two of the boys recognised a medical nurse on the ship who had treated them as small children in the Darfur region back in 2003. Fourteen years later they told us the harrowing story of how they had ended up in the Mediterranean Sea. Two of the boys, Samir and Abbas - which is not his real name - had at the age of 17 left the conflict in Darfur to seek out a better life working in the Libyan economy. They told us about how they had left Darfur with many others, travelling through Sudan and into Libya. Things began to go wrong when after a number of days on the road, their Libyan driver shot dead a fellow passenger following an argument. Furthermore, their driver was overheard making numerous phone calls, auctioning them and their fellow travellers to prospective buyers in Libya. After a number of hours they heard that they were to be sold for €70 each based on their physical attributes such as their height and muscle mass. After reaching Libya they were sold on to different owners many times in the coming months, enduring regular beatings and abuse at the hands of their captors. It was when they were auctioned for the third time that they met the third boy, Ahmed. After 50 days together and again facing severe abuse, the three boys, along with others, found an opportunity to escape from where they were being held. However, as they made their dash to freedom a neighbour of their captor spotted the attempted escape and fired at them as they fled, hitting Ahmed in the leg. Samir and Abbas, who had now evaded capture, reached a market in Tripoli. Adamant that they would not leave Ahmed behind, they found a Sudanese man who helped them by raising enough money within the Sudanese community in Tripoli to buy both the freedom of Ahmed, as well as their escape into the central Mediterranean.
There have been worrying recent developments at sea involving unsafe behaviour of those identified as the Libyan Coast Guard. On 23 May this year, my colleagues aboard theMV Aquariusreported that while we had a rescue operation under way a boat with men identifying themselves as Libyan Coast Guard approached one the boats in distress we were assisting, intimidating the passengers and firing their guns in the air. Armed and in uniform, members of the Libyan Coast Guard then proceeded to board one of the rubber boats. They took phones, money and other belongings from the passengers. They attached a line to one rubber dinghy and towed it back towards Libyan waters. The testimony of the survivors of this encounter paints a worrying picture. According to one of the people on board one of these boats:
When the Libyans pointed their weapons at us, asking us to give them all our money and cell phones and telling us to jump in the water, we did what they said and many of us jumped in. I was not afraid. I preferred to die at sea rather than being repressed and to die in Libya.
Fortunately many had already received their life jackets from the MSF rescue team before they jumped into the sea out of fear that the Libyan Coast Guard would again fire into the air. Our teams pulled 67 people from the water. The behaviour of the Libyan Coast Guard was reckless, if not directly threatening to the people on the boats, and it is a miracle no one drowned or was injured. We know that predominantly, those returned to Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard are taken to detention centres where they are held in inhumane conditions. The fact that the Libyan Coast Guard has been in receipt of training and support to build its capacity from the European Union makes the incident all the more disturbing and casts a shadow on the training provided by the European Union. While countries have a right to have a coast guard and to engage in their missions, we would flag this recent worrying incident that put people in great danger.
From my testimony as outlined this morning, it is clear to see why people are looking to flee Libya. They need help and safety regardless of where they come from or what took them to Libya in the first place. It appears to be a place of extreme danger with no rule of law. We must make every effort to make it clear. Ireland needs to know that returning people to Libya, within this context and in this way, is simply not an option. This humanitarian crisis will continue in the central Mediterranean. There needs to be some solution found, and NGOs and we in MSF are not it.
Mr. Sam Taylor:
On the basis on Dr. Kenny’s testimony this morning and MSF’s continued search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean, we wish to conclude by highlighting our key concerns and conclusions for the committee’s consideration. MSF is concerned about the humanitarian consequences of some elements of European Union-funded capacity-building initiatives in Libya to which Ireland is contributing, namely, that of the Libyan Coast Guard and conditions within centres. We suggest that a thorough assessment of the impact of such initiatives, both positive and negative, be conducted by the European Union.
MSF believes that European member states should be focusing on implementing a dedicated search and rescue operation in the central Mediterranean. We caution against any significant shift that would see the priority move away from a rescue operation to predominantly that of an anti-smuggling one, including Ireland’s naval response.
Finally, MSF calls once again for the urgent establishment of adequate, safe and legal alternatives to the dangerous sea crossings in to prevent more deaths at sea.
I sincerely thank both of you for your graphic presentations. Mr. Taylor said the deaths at sea in the Mediterranean now are comparable to those in war zones. That is graphic and demonstrates the huge, needless loss of life. It is a gruesome picture of the horrors being inflicted on innocent people every day, unfortunately. The first group of questioners is Deputies Crowe, Maureen O'Sullivan and McLoughlin.
I welcome the witnesses and thank them for the brave and selfless lifesaving work they carry out each day. Yesterday morning, I listened to the Italian ambassador on the radio. He spoke about the difficulty facing the Italian people due to the number of refugees coming from Libya directly to Sicily and Italy. The Italians are threatening to refuse entry to NGO charity boats to ports in Italy. Will this include the MSF boats and what will that mean for its work?
Italy is rightly angry about the EU countries' lack of solidarity and so forth. I have mentioned that at other meetings, including at yesterday's meeting of the European affairs committee when this matter arose. The Italians are saying that some of the charity boats are acting as a pull factor and some of them are going into Libyan waters and so forth. The witness says that MSF's boat is 25 miles off the coast. When these boats are seen by people on the Libyan coast, do they act as a type of beacon or attraction? How do the witnesses respond to the Italian concerns in that regard? The Italians say that the majority of the people are not coming from areas of conflict but are economic migrants. In some cases they are not co-operating with other EU countries with regard to moving forward. What should Ireland be doing about those refugees? Should we increase the number we are taking? I believe we took three from Italy last year. Clearly, the system is flawed and is not working.
Witnesses appeared before the committee earlier to discuss organ transplants. One of the doctors from Ireland spoke about the link between stealing organs and refugees. Have the witnesses encountered that in their work? The doctor said there is a clear link between people from Libya going to Egypt and then being allowed on the boats. Have the witnesses seen that?
I saw photographs of the so-called detention centres run by the Libyans, basically armed militias. The witness said there are three disputed powers, but they are effectively armed militias on the ground. Hundreds of people are crammed into overcrowded centres. What is MSF's view of the European response of sending people back to Libya?
The witness mentioned the work of the Libyan coastguard. What is its official role? Is it its role to bring people back or to stop people leaving the coast? Part of its role appears to be to rob people. Members of the coastguard are on very bad pay. Do the witnesses believe EU member states should be supporting the Libyan coast guard in any way considering its record of abuse?
With regard to the military response, there is talk that EU ships will move away from search and rescue missions to carrying out military missions. What is the witness's view on that? I recall David Cameron talking about going in to take out the traffickers, boats and so forth. How do the witnesses think that will impact on the refugees who are vulnerable?
The witness referred to a legal and safe pathway. Should that be in Libya or in some of the countries where the refugees come from?
I welcome the witnesses. The representatives of the earlier group painted a picture of people arriving after giving all their money to get on the boat and then being asked for more money, and the way they could pay this was through donating a kidney or whatever. It is opportune, therefore, that MSF is appearing before us now.
I was fortunate to be able to watch the film last night. I saw in that what the witnesses spoke about today. The witnesses spoke about the range of injuries. Obviously, the physical injuries are dealt with on the spot but there are also psychological effects. There are people who were tortured, sexually violated and raped. Is MSF able to do follow-up work? I realise that must be difficult, but it is aware of the people who need the psychological and mental health care afterwards. It was interesting to see the party after 72 hours and how MSF presented it. When they had gone through the initial trauma they were able to sing and dance on the boat. Human resilience is something else. It appears that these migrants are just left on the boats to drift and that there is nobody in charge of the boats. That is another extremely dangerous situation. When the film showed the middle of the boat beginning to sink one can imagine people's terror that they were going to drown.
Perhaps the witnesses would outline their knowledge of the slave markets in Libya. I raised this as a Topical Issue some time ago. It is incredible that we are relying on Libya to deal with this when the country is in turmoil. It does not have basic necessities for its citizens and its economy is in danger of collapse, yet we have turned to it to deal with it.
Another issue is that when Libya was a very rich country a number of people came to that country to work in the oilfields. We mention them but we need to know more about them. They are mainly from other African countries but at some point they would have had a quite decent standard of living in Libya. They are part of the migrant issue now.
I have a general question about co-ordination of services. The work of Médicins San Frontières is amazing, but there are other organisations in place. Are the organisations coming together on that and on where we go from here? The awful question must be asked: why are people being rescued? I have heard some of them say that they would prefer to die by drowning in the Mediterranean than deal with what some of them are going to face.
The Malta Declaration has great sounding principles regarding building capacity and having adequate reception centres, but there is no doubt that it is a complete failure. To date I have counted €120 million and €90 million going to it and I am sure there is a great deal more, but it is not addressing the needs it should be addressing. I believe the money could be given to MSF because it would be done in a more humane way. We wrote to the previous Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade asking that this be raised, as he was attending that foreign affairs Council meeting in Europe. We do not hear concerns at European level that funding is going into the abuse and torture of people and making life much worse for them. We know the root causes of many people leaving their countries but they are ending up in a much worse situation. The coastguards need training but I am also sure there are rogue coastguards who have no interest in training and who are using this situation for themselves.
I welcome the witnesses and thank them for their presentation. I congratulate my Sligo colleague, Dr. Conor Kenny, on all the work he has been doing. He has been involved with MSF for a number of years and has carried out many tours of duty. Hopefully, he will be returning to it again.
I wish to put on record the work he has done over the years as a young medical doctor from County Sligo.
Reference was made to the relationship with the Italian authorities. The authorities in Italy provide briefings on what they can and cannot do in terms of their work. Reference was also made to the fact that the organisation does not accept Government funding. Dr. Kenny has outlined in great detail the work in which he has been involved in recent months. The Irish Naval Service has a boat working in close proximity with MSF. Could he provide some details in that regard?
Mr. Sam Taylor:
I will start and I will hand over to Dr. Kenny for the eyewitness information. In response to Deputy Crowe's question about the potential closure of Italian ports, that is obviously very concerning. We run missions of approximately 72 hours in order to get people back to disembark with them in Italy but if that time is increased it will mean more deaths at sea because we will be spending less time looking for people and picking them up. As Deputy Crowe said, Italy has been absorbing a huge burden. We are quite concerned about the discussion in terms of the code of conduct around NGOs. We have not received any official notification on this matter yet but preventing NGOs from disembarking in the closest safe harbours will increase the danger.
In terms of the other EU countries, we believe very strongly that people should follow Ireland's lead and provide humanitarian maritime assistance, which is what this country has been doing. It is the only EU country to do so. We very much respect and admire that, but we are concerned that this activity is moving more towards prevention of people getting into Europe and returning them back to Libya. The conditions in those detention centres are completely appalling. As Dr. Kenny outlined, we are seeing victims of torture, trauma and all kinds of things. At MSF we believe very strongly that what is needed is more search and rescue capacity, not turning people back. As Dr. Kenny outlined as well, we have seen smugglers firing into the air and stealing from the people that are on their boats so it is an extremely challenging situation.
In terms of NGOs being a pull factor, they are not. An academic study was done by Goldsmiths college two weeks ago that showed that irrespective of whether there are ships there people are going to go to sea. In terms of responding to Deputy O'Sullivan's question about why we rescue people, if 5,000 people were dying of Ebola we would feel the need to respond. That is an unacceptable amount of people to be dying because they want to cross a border, which is not a particularly good reason. From a humanitarian medical perspective that is why we feel we have to put those three boats into the water there, but we are not the solution. The solution lies with individual European states. We do not know what the solution is. Compared to the weight of the European Union we are a relatively small organisation. We know that sending people back is not the correct response. We do not differentiate between whether people are economic migrants or they are fleeing Darfur, Somalia or Eritrea. People do not get on those boats lightly. I have Syrian friends who have made the journey. They know what they are getting into. They are fully informed of the risks in Libya and on the way. That is not something we would necessarily differentiate.
In terms of co-ordination of services, all the activities are co-ordinated by the Maritime Security Council, MSC, out of Rome. We are not cowboys. We run watches on deck where we look for people but we are told where to go, as is the Irish Naval Service and the other NGO boats. All the rescues are co-ordinated by Rome. Dr. Kelly can provide more details about this. We follow the instructions.
In terms of the distance, on five occasions over the past three years we have entered into Libyan territorial waters up to 1 nautical mile, but that was to save lives. We could see people drowning in front of us and we felt obliged to save them. We were told to go there by Rome, so we went. Just to make it very clear; there is no contact whatsoever between Médecins Sans Frontières and any smuggler. All the activities are co-ordinated out of Rome. We are directed in terms of what to do.
There is a legal obligation on any vessel to go to the aid of another vessel in distress. That is not something we made up. What we are doing is adding capacity. The commercial vessels that were previously taking a lot of the slack on this, aftermare nostrumfinished, complained to the European Union, saying the volume was too high. It is not that we are providing an ambulance service or a taxi service. There is a legal obligation based on the laws of the sea which dictate that vessels in distress must be attended to by other vessels in the area.
In terms of funding, Médecins Sans Frontières stopped taking European Union funding in June, because of the EU-Turkey deal to which Ireland was a party. We stopped taking Irish Aid money at the same time. The boats are another illustration of that, as is sending people back to Libya. There is a very dangerous movement now to prevent people from seeking asylum. People have the right to seek asylum, to flee war, to flee persecution and natural disaster. We believe that putting borders and barriers up, whether they be in Libya or on the Balkan route, is a worrying development of outsourcing European borders. We understand that Europe has a massive problem with this but we feel that people should have the right to flee Syria and Eritrea. We feel quite strongly on that.
The work of the Irish Naval Service is something that is very respected both by Médecins Sans Frontières and by the other people doing this work but we remain concerned that the work should stick, as it has for the past three years, to humanitarian search and rescue, rather than looking to go on border control missions, which we feel sends a very concerning message.
Dr. Conor Kenny:
In response to the rest of the questions, I will return to what Mr. Taylor said about NGOs being a pull factor. It is very frustrating to work in that environment and for the narrative to be there focusing on the pull factor instead of the fact that people are dying at sea and that has been the case for many years. We should bear in mind that NGOs only got involved in the water in 2014 and 2015. There were naval vessels well before that. The majority of rescues still continue to be done by Government vessels. NGOs serve to take the burden off merchant navy oil tankers and other people who are ill-equipped to deal with the situation. It is frustrating to hear that when the narrative should be on the number of deaths at sea. Regarding organ donation and migration, I have never heard of anything like that and I have not come across it in the medical clinic at all.
In terms of the medical care provided when people reach Italy, the night before disembarkation I draw up my list of people whom I need to refer to the Italian Ministry of health. The number of people on the list is directly proportional to the poor quality of detention centres from which they have come. Often, many people suffer from the same infection as a result of horrific sanitation. I then refer those people to the Italian Ministry of health. I also refer people whom we could deem to be vulnerable cases. They may be unaccompanied minors or people who have suffered serious psychological distress after being tortured for many months or witnessing people being killed. The problem I face is that I could refer everyone on the boat, all 600 or 900, but I cannot. I have to think of an arbitrary threshold to make the referrals on psycho-social issues people have. It is very difficult to do that. There is a strain on what the Italian health care system can do. One has to be selective in whom one can refer on. MSF does work in Italy. It is doing new projects in Sicily to manage the psycho-social issues on land and to help support the Italian health care system that way.
As Mr. Taylor said, the co-ordination of rescues is done through the MRC in Rome. Very often we work with naval vessels and other NGOs to support them doing a rescue. We may provide the life jackets and they may take the people on board their boats or vice versa. If a naval vessel needs to go back to port we disembark people onto the naval vessel or vice versa.
My experience is that the co-operation has been positive. The problem is that often there are not enough assets in the water. More often than not, our boat has been overloaded by almost double its capacity. Going into port in Catania or Sicily, we have been found to be listing to one side because we were well over double our capacity. That is an insanely and incredibly dangerous situation but we have no other support. We do not even have a merchant navy vessel to assist us in rescues. This is a major issue.
Mr. Alex Dunne:
On Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan’s question as to whether this is being spoken about at European level, the answer, in a sense, is "Yes". Migration is always on the agenda for the Foreign Affairs Council. We commend the Deputy on her work and questions on Ireland's participation in the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa and how much money goes into that. We do not know where that trust fund money is going but we know it is potentially earmarked, as the Minister of State, Deputy McHugh, said, for the Horn of Africa region. We call on committee members to find out exactly where Ireland’s contribution is going in that regard.
On the Chairman’s question on whether the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade asked whether Ireland brought up conditions in Libyan detention centres at European level, he did raise it at a recent Foreign Affairs Council meeting. Again, we call upon all members of the committee to raise this issue in their national and European parliamentary parties, let their colleagues know what information they are receiving and continue to push these agendas at European level, namely, at the Foreign Affairs Council, as Ireland can and should.
With regard to Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan's Topical Issue debate, I had some contact from some interested parties on the Saturday and Sunday prior to the Council of Ministers meeting held on the Monday morning. Through Marylee Wall, policy adviser to the committee, interacting with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that Sunday, it was raised at the meeting of the Council of Ministers by Ireland. Belgium or Germany might have indicated that they had some interest. It was raised and the request came from us at that particular time.
I apologise for missing the first session. I was at a meeting with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed.
I welcome the representatives from MSF and I thank them for outlining the experiences the organisation is undergoing with refugees in the Mediterranean. I compliment MSF on the tremendous work it is doing in this regard. What is happening there is horrendous. In 2016, there were 5,000 deaths of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean and already this year there have been 2,700. We must do something to tackle this.
What is the average age of migrants trying to reach Europe? More importantly, how do we stop it? This cannot continue. Does MSF feel enough is being done? What more can be done in these various countries? The West has much to answer for what it did in Libya. It deposed the former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, and then ran away leaving a lawless state behind. We did not have an issue with this when Gaddafi was in power. I do not agree with what he did, but he exercised some sort of control.
These are human beings we are dealing with. They are the same as ourselves and breathe the same air we breathe. Some of them are genuine migrants trying to get away from war. Will MSF outline from what countries most migrants are coming and why? Some of them are financial migrants coming to better themselves and to travel. I was in Berlin recently and I saw many of them begging. I walked up Shop Street in Galway quite late one night recently and noted that the majority of those sleeping rough on the street were non-Irish. This shows that they are getting to the cities and that many of them are, unfortunately, sleeping rough.
Who are the people providing the service to bring migrants across the Mediterranean? What are they charging? Why have they not been taken out? Money has been given to the Libyan Government to stop this activity at source. I presume these people are on the take from these guys. I am sure they are paid on the double by the European Union to stop it and from the other crowd to let the migrants come across.
I compliment our Naval Service on the tremendous work it has done in the Mediterranean. I have spoken to several sailors who were traumatised by their experiences there. Some will need counselling. They pull people on board who can die in their arms. I compliment Dr. Conor Kenny on the tremendous work he has done, as well as others involved. Could we do more? What are other EU countries doing to support MSF in its work? Are some doing more than others? Could some others do more? We have to stop this at source. I do not know how we do that but I compliment MSF on what it has done.
I do not want to repeat the questions that have already asked. At this point, the situation is so severe that what is being done is plugging a hole but not answering a question. How long this can go on just plugging holes is a major issue. To the best of my knowledge, this issue is not high on the agenda of the European Parliament. This is a European issue. In fairness to the Italian authorities, one can understand their difficulties being the drop-off place. When the Italian economy goes bad, they come under pressure. That is not solving the problem.
The problem, as I understand it, is the breakdown on the African continent. Many countries there seem to be in bits on a regular basis. We have to take this issue to the floor of the European Parliament, to the European Commission and to the Council of Ministers. We can do our little bit, but it is like a drop in the ocean. Listening to Dr. Conor Kenny and those risking their lives, it is obvious that the level of frustration they experience must be horrific. They are picking up people - dragging them out of the sea - bringing them to Italy, going back again to do the same, yet nobody seems to be grasping the major problems. We have conferences around the world about issues, but this has to be brought to a European level. Has MSF had the opportunity of addressing Members of the European Parliament? If not, has it any proposals to do so? It is unfair to expect MSF to carry a heavy can on behalf of all of us. The only solution - and in order to feel that we are getting somewhere - is to outline a programme in which we all have to participate and which we all support.
That is the only question I am asking the deputation. They are the experts. They have been on the ground. We can give money or send our ships, but it is like a drop in the ocean. I feel so bad about the whole African continent, especially the northern part of it. I was in Somalia 20 years ago when I was Minister for Defence. The place is as bad, if not worse, now as it was then. These places are not making any progress. It is only when we go there and see with our own eyes the way these people are not even existing that we realise it. Children were in orphanages and the only things they had were the vests they wore and a bowl of rice per day. We look around the world and ask how this can go on. That was 20 years ago but it is still happening. I am searching the brains of the deputation for opinions on whether we can do something to bring this a step further. It has to be brought by a co-ordinated European approach whereby all member states have obligations.
At issue is the process by which migrants are sent to these detention centres in Libya. Countries like Malta are knowingly, I believe, sending people to these detention centres, which are prison camps to all intents and purposes. The call should go out that there should be a ban on any country sending migrants to the detention centres while these human rights abuses are going on.
Dr. Conor Kenny:
I thank the committee members for outlining the clear urgency that this issue needs to be given. I thank everyone for outlining that this is clearly a complex situation as well. I know the committee members appreciate that.
We were asked about solutions. Médecins sans Frontières is a humanitarian organisation. We are in the water to save lives. That is our agenda. The solution from an Irish Government point of view is to continue. The Government has a humanitarian mission there with the Naval Service and it should continue to save lives. A European dedicated search and rescue response in the area is crucial to stop people dying.
The importance of safe and legal channels is vital, as Mr. Taylor has outlined. Many people are entitled to asylum but they have to get on these flimsy boats to claim asylum. Putting them in that situation is reckless. Is there a possible alternative or more creative way by which these people do not have to fuel the smuggling industry in Libya? Is there some way they can go through appropriate channels to seek asylum in the appropriate fashion?
I will come back to what I see in the medical clinics. I do not have the exact number of the average ages but I figure it is around 24 years plus or minus three years. We were asked where they are from. It really depends. We have seen various trends. Last year, Eritrea would have been one of the countries with the highest numbers. Now, we probably see more west Africans, for example, people from northern Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal and the Ivory Coast. We also see a large number of people from south-east Asia, such as Bangladesh. There is a real mixture of people. Many of them are fleeing poverty and many are fleeing violence as well.
There was a question about what is being charged to get on these boats. I can only go on what we hear in the medical clinics and the conversations we have. People suggest €250, €500 or €1,000 depending on the smuggler and the quality of the boat or even where the person getting on the boat is from. Again, this is very much hearsay.
Mr. Sam Taylor:
Dr. Kenny addressed most of the questions. We were asked who is providing the services. It is a mixture of NGOs and different navies, including the Naval Service, contributing services there.
I will repeat what can be done. We do not have the solution. Although Médecins sans Frontières has been active in this area for several years, we do not have the solution. We ask ourselves what we would recommend. The simplest and clearest message we can transmit is that there have to be alternative channels. There have to be safe and legal channels for this process to happen. As we have mentioned, the NGOs are not a pull factor. People would continue to come even if the NGOs were not there and more people would die. No one takes these risks unaware of what they are, whether they are from Egypt, Syria or Sudan. People talk to each other through social media. People know there is a high risk of dying but they are prepared to take it until or unless there are safer and legal channels.
We have mentioned the European Union. Ireland can do more in raising these issues at European level. Ireland has leading positions in some of the bodies in Europe. As a nation that has a deep and admirable humanitarian history, it behoves Ireland to raise these issues in whatever fora are available, as my colleague, Mr. Dunne, said. All we can do is tell committee members what we are seeing. All Médecins sans Frontières can do is explain what it is our people there are seeing on the ground. It is the responsibility of policymakers to turn that into policy. Of course, ending the war in Syria would be great and stabilising Somalia would be fantastic. However, it is not within our remit to do this. These are political issues. The part of Médecins sans Frontières is to save lives. As Dr. Kenny said, we are a sticking plaster on a sucking chest wound. We will continue to do that work because we believe it is our humanitarian imperative to do so. Solutions are with politicians.
Mr. Alex Dunne:
We call on members of the committee to write in a formal capacity to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy McEntee, to ask to be updated regularly on the representations Ireland is making at a European level on these issues. First and foremost, Ireland should push for a detailed analysis of the EU capacity building measures in Libya for good and bad, in other words, what is working and what is not. We need an honest assessment of how that procedure is working at the moment.
Mr. Taylor will address Deputy O'Sullivan's question about Libya and the process in respect of those being detained in Libya.
Mr. Sam Taylor:
I have not been there myself, but many of my colleagues have been. We are eating up time now so I will finish up quickly by saying that Médecins sans Frontières has been into more or less every war zone in the past 25 years. I have witnessed natural disasters, the Ebola outbreak and I have seen conflict with MSF. Hardened MSF professionals are traumatised by what they are seeing in these Libyan detention centres.
A friend told me one story about a man from Mali who was a painter and decorator. He had lived in Libya as a migrant with his papers for many years. He was brought into a detention centre to do painting and decorating. Once he had finished his work, he was detained by the smugglers and had to ransom his way out of the detention centre. He ended up on a boat. He did not want to leave Libya. He had no intention of leaving Libya. This is something that I had not appreciated before my colleague came to brief some of the committee members and their assistants on what we are seeing there. Some people are being forced onto these boats. The extremely negative and inaccurate narrative that we see in the media is not correct at all. This is an industry that makes vast sums of money. It is not regulated in any way, shape or form. It is too early for us to try to build capacity at the moment. What we need to do is save lives and stop more people drowning.
I thank the witnesses very sincerely for their presentation. The committee secretariat became aware that Dr. Kenny would be back in Dublin. He mentioned that an opportunity to engage with the committee would be useful in a private capacity. It was my firm opinion that we should meet in a formal capacity because there may be some chance of people listening or watching these proceedings. Every effort should be made to get a greater awareness of the ongoing awful tragedy in that refugee route between Libya and Italy and the extraordinary loss of life.
I compliment Dr. Kenny and his colleagues who have been there on working in extremely dangerous and perilous conditions. They are working with the most deprived people. Some time ago, we heard from a colleague of theirs.
She was a midwife who had returned from Syria. Like today's presentations, hers was very graphic and very useful for getting out the message of the horrors being inflicted on innocent people. As all my colleagues have said, the response at European and global levels has been inadequate.
In respect of contact, I am informed that the next EU foreign affairs Council is on 17 July. We will ensure that the Department and the Minister have the transcript of this meeting well in advance of the Council meeting. We will specifically refer to the conclusions drawn by Mr. Taylor in his initial contribution. We will ask the officials and the Minister to take cognisance of all the issues raised today. We will write formally to the Minister, Deputy Coveney after this meeting asking him to raise them again on 17 July.
At the outset, Mr. Taylor stated that the deaths at sea are comparable to war zones and that there is only a sticking plaster being applied to a gaping wound. They are powerful statements of the desperate tragedy afflicting so many innocent people. We commend all the witnesses' colleagues, those in other non-governmental organisations and everybody who is working to try to ease the plight of those innocent people in very dangerous circumstances. We wish to record our appreciation of their work.
Would it be an idea to invite our MEPs to visit with us at the committee and discuss these issues? Broadening the pressure by way of the European Parliament might be effective. I found today's meeting very informative.
I suggest that we send the transcript to our MEPs. Waiting for a meeting could take some time. If they have the transcript within a few days, they will then know the issues and concerns. In support of what the witnesses suggested, we could ask for an analysis of EU funding and involvement in Libya. Although there may be examples of good practice, we know there is an a lot of bad practice.
We will follow up all those proposals and suggestions.
Our thanks to the witnesses again. I remind members that we are meeting as a select committee on Thursday, 13 July at 12.15 p.m. to deal with legislation. As the first half of the year is gone, I thank members for their co-operation. I also wish to record our appreciation of the many groups with whom we have had the opportunity to engage. I thank our own secretariat which does an excellent job of providing the necessary support to us to enable the committee to function.