Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence

Search and Rescue Missions in Mediterranean and Migration Crisis: Médecins Sans Frontières

10:00 am

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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We welcome Mr. Sam Taylor, director of Doctors Without Borders-Médecins Sans Frontières in Ireland and Ms Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, humanitarian affairs adviser on migration, who joins us from Geneva, to discuss search and rescue in the Mediterranean and the migration crisis in general. As the number of migrants continues to increase and with the recent proposals made at the European Council only last week, it is timely that this committee discusses this issue and hears first-hand witness testimony of what is happening in the Mediterranean and in Libya. I am glad representatives from the witnesses' organisation have come in to discuss this hugely important issue with us.

Before we begin, 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 the committee room. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members 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 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 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 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 our witnesses to make their opening statements.

Mr. Sam Taylor:

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee. I am the director of Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF, in Ireland. I am joined by Ms Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, who is a humanitarian affairs adviser on migration. I thank the committee for affording MSF this timely opportunity to share an update on our lifesaving work in the central Mediterranean Sea and on the ground in Libya.

Médecins Sans Frontières is in an international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation that delivers emergency aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural disasters and exclusion from healthcare. Our teams offer assistance to people based solely on need, irrespective of religion, gender or political affiliation, and our actions are guided by medical ethics and the principles of neutrality and impartiality. Simply put, we go where we are needed, regardless of who and where our patients may be.

To put this into perspective, we currently have around 40,000 staff working in more than 70 countries worldwide. Importantly, more than 95% of our funding comes from private individuals, including some in Ireland, which means we are financially independent from state power, religious groups and multilateral organisations.

As has been seen in this committee previously, Irish medical staff are providing life-saving care to communities caught up in some of the world's most severe humanitarian crises. The Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen are just a few of the places where field workers from Ireland are working.

MSF also provides medical care to refugees, migrants and asylum seekers around the world. Wars, persecution, conflict and poverty are pushing record numbers of people from their homes. The United Nations estimates there are 68.5 million displaced people worldwide and today, with 85% of displaced people hosted in developing countries, looking after people on the move is a necessity worldwide and not something that is only relevant in Europe.

We appear before the committee today following what was the deadliest seven-day period so far this year, during which at least 200 people lost their lives, 170 of whom died since last Friday when European leaders agreed to blame search and rescue missions and non-governmental organisations, NGOs, and obstruct their work. This is a critical time for people embarking on these crossings but NGO search and rescue is being blocked and demonised by European governments.

We commend the Taoiseach's offer to welcome 25 vulnerable people from the humanitarian search and rescue ship, MV Lifeline,which was turned away from a number of European ports last week. It is a truly humanitarian gesture which sends out a positive message when Europe is in dire need of such acts of solidarity and compassion. Speaking at the conclusion of the EU summit last Friday, An Taoiseach quite rightly made the comment that this "is not so much a migrant crisis as it is a political crisis." Unfortunately, however, he also made some more unhelpful comments about NGOs saving lives at sea, saying that some were not up to much good in the Mediterranean. These were unfair comments. NGOs engaged in search and rescue have saved tens of thousands of lives in the past three years. In Europe it is becoming popular to seek scapegoats, rather than acknowledging Europe's failure to respond to migration in a way in keeping with Europe's stated values of solidarity and humanity. NGOs have provided the only dedicated search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean as European policies support efforts by the Libyan coast guard to intercept and return people to Libya. Demonising NGOs or the refugees and migrants they assist will not help this situation. Search and rescue is a response to, and not the cause of, the crisis.

We note that Ireland is using its strong identity as a neutral, humanitarian player on the world stage to pitch for a non-permanent member status on the UN Security Council. It is important to exercise this same consistency of voice and approach on behalf of the people attempting to flee violence and abuse in Libya, especially in a moment when the politics of populism threatens to take away the human element of the response to migration. It is crucial that we put the lives of the men, women and children we assist every day at sea above politics.

MSF appeared before the committee one year ago, before the decision was made to end the humanitarian Operation Pontus. The men and women of the Irish Naval Service have shown great professionalism and compassion saving lives as part of Operation Sophia. It should be noted, however, that a main focus of that mission is to support the Libyan coast guard’s efforts to intercept migrant dinghies and boats leaving the shore and return them to Libya, where many face horrific treatment and abuse. European migration strategy prioritises preventing people from reaching our shores above the lives of people. The aim is to keep human suffering out of sight and out of mind for the European public.

We again thank members for giving us an opportunity to address the committee today. I hand over to Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, humanitarian affairs adviser on migration with MSF.

Ms Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui:

I have spent time in Libya in detention centres for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers and on the MV Aquarius, the ship which MSF operates with SOS Méditerranée doing search and rescue at sea. MSF began its search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea in May 2015, after Italy discontinued Operation Mare Nostrum. At the time, it appeared that Europe was willing to allow people to die at sea in large numbers. We fear that is the case again today. Since then, MSF has rescued and assisted more than 76,000 people in peril and provided emergency healthcare to people on board our rescue ships. Time after time on board, we hear the stories of refugees and migrants who come through Libya. I would like to share a testimony that our nurse from Ireland collected on the Aquariusten days ago:

When they beat people and they saw the UN was coming, they would hide the beaten people in another room and they said to us: "Don't tell the UN anything that happens here, if you say that, we are going to kill you." They will threaten to kill us so nobody would say anything.

Unfortunately, this is one experience we have heard many times.

Last week’s European Council conclusions fall short of the humanitarian obligations of Europe. The only thing European countries seem to have agreed on is to block people at the doorstep of Europe regardless of how vulnerable they are or the horror they are escaping, and to demonise non-governmental search and rescue operations. This is a distraction. The real issue is that EU member states are putting migrants and refugees in a position where they have a choice between risking their lives at sea or being trapped and abused in Libya.

For a summit that was supposed to be the defining moment for the EU, governments appear to have only agreed on the lowest common denominator, hardening their stance on search and rescue and further dehumanising people in need, and turning migrants, refugees and asylum seekers into little more than commodities. The same governments that were just a few months ago condemning reports of slave markets in Libya seem today to have no hesitation in escalating policies that may increase the suffering of people trapped there, whose only crime is to have fled conflict, violence and poverty.

The European Council stated:

[it] will step up its support for the Sahel region, the Libyan Coastguard, coastal and southern communities, humane reception conditions, voluntary humanitarian returns, cooperation with other countries of origin and transit, as well as voluntary resettlement. All vessels operating in the Mediterranean must respect the applicable laws and not obstruct operations of the Libyan Coastguard.

It may sound innocuous but make no mistake, behind this wording there is a deliberate policy from EU member states to trap some of the most vulnerable people in Libya. MSF is directly witnessing the human cost of this policy at sea and in Libya.

We all agree that Libya is not a safe place, especially not for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Whether those who risk their lives at sea in overcrowded and unsafe dinghies are fleeing conflict, persecution or poverty, or are on the move for other reasons, what they all have in common is their experience of Libya, which is marked with physical and sexual violence, torture, forced labour, beatings, exploitation and all forms of abuse. Most of the people we assist at sea will have spent time in places of detention or in captivity, where they suffer and witness extreme levels of violence. Under the pretence of saving lives and disrupting the business model of smugglers and traffickers, the Libyan coast guard is supported and empowered by EU states to intercept people at sea and send them back to the very conditions they were seeking to escape.

I would like to share another testimony that our colleague from Ireland heard on the Aquarius:

When the Libyans caught me in the sea they took me to a place, a deportation camp. When they took me there was no deporting. There were so many things happening there. In the middle of the night they would wake up some ladies to sleep with them. Some of the women got pregnant in that situation. They would inject them to take away the pregnancy because the guards didn’t want the baby in that place. They would beat the women and inject them to take away the baby. One pregnant woman lost her life. They covered her with black lino. She had no good treatment, no hot water to clean her womb. Her baby was bleeding and the baby died. I stayed there for six months.

A rescue should conclude with a disembarkation of rescued people in a place of safety.

The Libyan coastguard intercepts people at the behest of European Union member states and forcibly returns them to land. People will end up back in these situations if they are brought back to Libya. This is a policy supported by European Governments.

The presence at sea of NGOs doing search and rescue is being questioned. We are seen as being up to no good. The reality is that at present, no NGO is doing search and rescue at sea. The four remaining NGOs are either banned and not allowed to operate or face criminal prosecution. Today the Lifelineteam is in front of a court in Malta for refusing to hand over to the Libyan coastguard the people it rescued. They are refusing because they believe that torture is wrong and because international law bans torture and refoulementto places of torture. However, they are the ones in court.

People are taken back to extreme levels of abuse in Libya. The kidnapping of migrants and refugees, holding them captive and using torture to obtain ransom is common. In one area, Bani Walid, where places of captivity are operated by traffickers, we donate 50 body bags a week, such as the mortality rate of the people held there. No one fleeing Libya should be intercepted at sea by the Libyan coastguard and forcibly returned. Libya is not a safe place and we all know this, so when the European Council states we should upgrade or step up our support to the Libyan coastguard, we need to be fully aware of what it means in concrete terms. People are intercepted in reckless operations by the Libyan coastguard and taken to these places of detention.

The European response to addressing the high number of drownings in the Mediterranean Sea is to seal off the coast of Libya and contain refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in a country where they are exposed to extreme and widespread violence and exploitation. Even if Irish and other European navies are not directly transferring rescued people to the Libyan coastguard, greater numbers of people are being forcibly returned to Libya as a result of European policies with the help of European money. The fingerprints of European states are everywhere.

For almost a year, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre has been putting our rescue ships on standby as the Libyan coastguard is directed to the scene to intercept those fleeing the country. The standby can last for up to several hours. This further endangers vulnerable people. Saving lives is not a crime. Destroying search and rescue capacity will lead to more unnecessary deaths at sea and further entrap people. I want to share the latest figures from this morning. Since 8 June, when most of the NGOs were squeezed out of the Mediterranean, more than 500 people have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy, with the total for the year being 1,000. We are reaching a rate that one in ten people who try to cross the sea might drown or go missing. It used to be one in 60 people. We have been told the NGOs are a pull factor and that they are not doing good. NGOs are not present at sea today and people are dying in numbers we have never seen before.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Ms Hadj-Sahraoui. Her contribution and that of Mr. Taylor depict a very frightening and depressing picture of what is happening to people. We have heard outlines from the colleagues of the witnesses and from other NGOs about the terrible situation in so many crises throughout the world in recent years but I have never previously heard the phrase used by Mr. Taylor. He stated, "We appear before the committee today following what was the deadliest seven-day period so far this year, during which at least 200 people lost their lives". To say the least, it is a desperate situation. Obviously it is getting worse and policies are not having the desired effect we all want to see. I compliment the witnesses on the great passion in their contributions, reflecting the views of their organisation and their colleagues who are out there trying to assist people in the most difficult of circumstances.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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As the Chairman has done, it is important to acknowledge the work done by Médecins Sans Frontières. It is extremely difficult and harrowing. I have met doctors and nurses, most recently Aoife who was on the MS Aquarius. Words fail me with regard to comprehending how they keep going in such difficult circumstances. It is opportune that the witnesses are here today because yesterday we had post-European Council statements in the Dáil. One point I made was the word used about the EU approach is "comprehensive". We do not hear the word "caring" and we are dealing with extremely vulnerable people. The other very disturbing point is that while I acknowledge the EU is a major donor for development aid, we also know there will be increases in the European defence budget. There have to be alarm bells as to where all the money will come from and whether one budget will compete with the other. We know from what we hear which budget will be most at risk in that scenario. It is also disturbing when we see the words "migration" and "security" together. Part of me can understand the political situation in some European countries and the way in which they are trying to find a compromise to prevent the increase in far-right politics but we possibly are going too far bending over to them.

I acknowledge the work of the Naval Service and I hope its fine work in the Mediterranean is never compromised. Smugglers are making money through their disregard for human life. Are any of them being brought to justice? Where are the guards in the detention centres from? Are they Libyan nationals? Are they forced into being guards? What is the situation? I presume it is somewhat lucrative for them. Perhaps they are also coming out of very difficult situations.

We know that EU states say one of the ways to deal with migration is to tackle the root causes. I keep asking where do we see this actually happening. Where are they getting to those root causes with regard to conflict, famine, poverty and the abuse of human rights that cause people to take all of these risks? What would the witnesses have wanted to have heard from the European Council meeting? I know we are here to talk about Libya but I ask the witnesses to refer to Yemen because we do not hear very much about the humanitarian crisis there.

Ms Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui:

I will speak about the situation in Libya, which I have experienced for many years. We need to contextualise what is happening there to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. There is a breakdown in law and order. There are weak institutions, if there are any, and they are not necessarily in control. There are a lot of armed groups, militias and criminal gangs and a lot of the migrants, refugees and asylum seekers fall prey to these groups. The detention centres are formally under control of the Ministry of the interior, more specifically the department for combatting illegal migration. The guards are Libyan and only men, and it is a huge issue that we have vulnerable women and girls being detained by men. However, much of the work is also done by other detainees, depending on whether they speak Arabic.

The conditions in the detention centres are inhumane compared to recommended international standards. People are held arbitrarily for long periods. When one visits these detention centres, those held there describe the anguish of not knowing what is going to happen to them, not knowing why they have been captured or why they have been jailed, not knowing how they can get out or if they can get out.

There is also a lucrative business around this. The best way to get out is to try to bribe one's way out or work one's way out. When one has been considered to have contributed enough or generated enough income, one can be released. For some women, it could be that they are forced into prostitution. In addition to the thousands held in detention centres, there are tens of thousands of people held in the hands of traffickers and smugglers. These traffickers are reckless and ruthless. They are now seeing that reaching Europe is increasingly difficult. Accordingly, the best way to make money is to extort the people. They hold them for longer periods, torturing them and trying to get as much money as possible from their families and their diasporas abroad.

MSF tries to support survivors of trafficking. They present with multiple fractures and torture burns. They are released because the traffickers know they can make no more money from them anymore. To be accused as a NGO to be colluding with traffickers is extremely hurtful. We are dealing with the consequences of the treatment of these people by the traffickers. We are also dealing with young Nigerian girls who we fear are being trafficked for prostitution in Europe. What we try to do is flag their cases to the authorities and to the UN agencies. We try to provide awareness on the boat. We have a system where every woman and girl will have an individual consultation with a nurse or a midwife in order to be able to speak. We have signs everywhere on the boat that there is a risk of trafficking and there can be a way out. To be accused of colluding with traffickers is hurtful. It is certainly incorrect.

Facts seem to no longer matter in the US but also in Europe. This is why we welcome this opportunity to present to the committee so much. We must have policies based on facts.

Mr. Sam Taylor:

We would have liked to have heard a humane response with some humane policies from the European Council meeting which treat these issues in a way that takes into consideration the sheer numbers of people involved. We have had discussions about this in the past. Unfortunately, what we hear is the continued outsourcing of EU borders, whether that is the EU-Turkey deal or similar proposals, which look to further push the borders of Europe out of sight and out of mind. This is not out of MSF's sight or mind. We would hope for a political solution which is humane, however naive that may sound.

Photo of Noel GrealishNoel Grealish (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank the witnesses for coming in and for their presentations. I also heard them earlier on "Morning Ireland". It is a significant issue and we have all seen the horrendous pictures and newsreels of what has happened with migration over the years in the Mediterranean. However, there are major challenges coming in Europe. There is a new Government in Italy against migration. Recently in Germany, the issue nearly brought down Angela Merkel and Britain is leaving the EU. There is going to be a significant clampdown in Europe on taking in immigrants. With the population of Africa to double in the next 20 years, this is going to get worse. It will come to a stage where Europe will say it can take no more. What do we do?

This committee has been in Africa and has met the most beautiful people one could ever meet. The traffickers charge an exorbitant fee to bring people across the Mediterranean. When we go to Malawi and Mozambique, we see how much can be done for a family with the €6 in the cash transfer scheme. Where do these migrants get the money to pay these exorbitant costs to the traffickers? These are people not just from Libya but from all over Africa. Can the EU do more within Africa to keep people there? Something will have to be done because there will be a clampdown. Unless we dealing with the problem at source, there will be larger issues in a few years from now.

I acknowledge the tremendous work MSF does.

Ms Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui:

The whole family will contribute and people will get into huge debt. That is one of the difficulties because there is no way out for these people. The minute they embark on the journey, they already owe a lot of money. The only way for them to pay back that money is to make it to Europe to work and to reimburse the traffickers.

Some of them are also misled. They are told they do not have to pay anything. Those are mainly the victims of traffickers. Most of the Nigerian girls I have interviewed will say they have not paid anything but have been promised jobs. Once they arrive in Europe, they are given the bill that they need to pay. Then it becomes forced labour or sexual exploitation.

For some refugees, such as those from Eritrea or Somalia, they have diasporas abroad. These people are fleeing conflicts and persecution and rely much on their diaspora. For that very reason, traffickers know there is money to be made. They are the ones who are the most abused.

Arrivals of migrants to Italy have dropped by 80% this year, yet the political crisis has never been as big as this year. It is not based on facts but fearmongering. Up to 80% fewer people are reaching Italian shores.

We also need to agree that we want to maintain an asylum system which works and protects people from persecution and conflict. On the Aquariuswhen we were stranded at sea for several days with no port to disembark at, we had people from Darfur, South Sudan and Eritrea. We need to agree that these people need our protection. They would not need to come to Libya to get the protection. They could get that protection in refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia, if there were proper refugee camps there with real opportunities and possibilities for them to make a living. However, we are forcing these people, with the lack of any opportunity or hope, to undertake a dangerous journey to Europe.

Looking at the complex issue of migration, we need to have long-term policies. We do not address inequalities, lack of development or the lack of rule of law in a week, a month or a year. However, our politicians and policies are all based on the next electoral deadline. There are very quick fixes with fearmongering which will get a politician votes rather than well thought through policies. This is all we ask for. Of course states have a right to regulate entry and stay. They also have international obligations. In Europe we have values. We believe life is important, that we need to preserve it and that people should not die at sea. We must have these discussions, but they must be based on proper information.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I thank both witnesses for their presentation.

It is important that it is made at this stage and that members hear exactly how horrific the conditions are. We have heard it before. We have supported Médecins Sans Frontières's actions. I wish Mr. Taylor well.

Hopefully, NGOs will be allowed to be back at sea to rescue people. That is the genuine feeling of most Irish people. Whether they agree or disagree with the European Union, there was a presumption before Ireland signed up to Operation Sophia that we were involved in a humanitarian mission in the Mediterranean. I have become increasingly concerned, on questioning the Minister of State at the Department of Defence and even with some of the briefings, that the concentration has shifted totally from an Irish point of view to other actions under Operation Sophia and that, as we warned, it is neither a search and rescue mission nor a humanitarian mission any more. If so, what is it other than the security of Europe?

Only yesterday, I received answers back from the Minister of State in respect of future funding on defence in Europe where he outlined an extra €13 billion to be spent between now and 2027 on the European Defence Fund. In the middle of it, there was an extra €6.5 billion on transport to make the roads and transport networks in the European Union better for military transport or mobility. This is in contrast with what we spend on what MSF referred to - refugee camps in areas of conflict that can protect people and then try to rebuild their lives in their own countries. From having spoken to a number of refugees over the years who managed to come as far as Ireland and make good here, I know they never wanted to be in Ireland. They did not know half of the time whether they were coming here. They still do not like the weather, even if it is gorgeous at present. They would prefer to be at home in their own community.

What is it that makes people take this arduous journey? I presume at this stage word is filtering back of the dangers that are faced and that those taken at sea will be sent back to torture camps in Tripoli. Is Tripoli or any other port regarded by the NGOs as a safe port in any way? We have had testimony previously about what is ongoing in some of those camps. Is there much information other than that from the refugees one meets coming from Libya? What are we hearing back? Mr. Taylor gave a number of examples and what is going on is quite obscene. Ireland or the European Union can be seen to be facilitating that by returning refugees to those dangers.

I read in The Guardianthe figures on the number of people who have lost their lives recently and Mr. Taylor repeated them. Does Mr. Taylor believe the absence of NGO ships at sea contributes to the increased deaths? Mr. Taylor stated the death toll has gone up substantially in recent times. Is it that refugees are taking a more arduous journey or are at sea longer? Are the boats in which they set out in worse condition? If the NGO ships that were there previously were at sea, would they have the capacity to help in any way beyond what they have done previously?

Finally, given what happened in recent weeks, if NGOs get to take to sea again and if the Italians and the European Union continue their policy, I presume it would be much more costly, or probably more dangerous for MSF ships to have to go to other ports in Europe if they are sitting in the middle of the Mediterranean on low supplies trying to figure out where the hell they will go with these refugees to give them some type of comfort and humanity and to avoid facing the torture they fear they would face, were they to get caught and brought back to the Libyan coastguard.

Ms Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui:

MSF, together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, do not consider that Libya is currently a safe place of disembarkation. This has been said and repeated by a number of UN bodies. The High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed his concerns about people being returned to Libya. We do not even want to open that discussion. The guidance from the UNHCR is extremely clear. One who would suggest that Libya is a safe place for migrant refugees and asylum seekers is either not reading the news or completely delusional.

I will give some more figures. The situation at sea is changing. NGOs currently are not present. There are other factors and it is difficult to attribute the cause of the increasing mortality rate to the presence or the lack of presence of NGOs. However, we have all been pushed out. This has been a campaign of more than a year that started with snide comments in the media about us colluding with traffickers, and then prosecutors in Italy announcing in the media that they were investigating us. It got to a point where MSF approached the various prosecutors mentioned in the media to tell them we were available to talk and to ask whether they had any questions but that is not the way to conduct an investigation.

Then there was the code of conduct that the Italians tried to push last year. After that, a few NGOs stopped being at sea. We had also a lot of judicial proceedings against different NGOs and boats being seized. There were four remaining. Today, none of us is there and we see an increase in the mortality rate.

We also see that the Libyan coastguard has intercepted at sea and returned to Libya 10,000 people this year. That may explain also the drop in 80% of arrivals to Italy. These people end up in the detention centres where we intervene and we see them. They end up with that cycle of abuse.

The UN, which is present in Libya, has a very limited capacity. Libya is not a state with strong institutions. The UNHCR is not necessarily welcome and the few evacuations that were mentioned that we were able to secure to Niger are a drop in the ocean. Those have been done after much negotiations.

The cost for NGOs, and certainly for MSF, is not about not being able to disembark in Italy and having to go to Valencia. It is about the fact that those are days when we will not be at sea conducting search and rescue. We can take the financial cost. This is not the issue. There is also the cost for the people who have been rescued. When the MS Aquariuswas stranded in the Mediterranean, we had people who had hardly escaped drowning at sea who had pulmonary problems and they were waiting on that boat not knowing whether they would be able to disembark. The weather conditions were really bad and a lady was trying to breast-feed her baby while throwing up. This is what not allowing us to disembark meant. For the people who have just been rescued, they should be able to disembark in the nearest safe port. This, until now, has been Italy. It is not only Italy's responsibility. We are not dogmatic about it. What we want to see is a place where the rights of people are upheld. We are not going to disembark people in a place where asylum seekers will not be able to seek asylum and where there will be no guarantees they will not be sent back to their country of origin.

This is the yardstick we apply.

I hope I have answered the Deputy's questions.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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Senator Higgins has some questions.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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I thank the witnesses both for their powerful testimony and their ongoing work. The information they have provided is stark. What is also stark is that we were warned about these things and they have been signalled for a long time. As Deputy Ó Snodaigh said, they were signalled when Ireland decided to change its approach. We ask whether ships with these goals make a difference. We have previous evidence in this regard. During the period of a number of years in which Ireland operated on its own and in accordance with the Pontus deal with Italy, which focused on humanitarian search and rescue, just one Irish ship was in operation and Ireland saved 17,500 lives in the Mediterranean, and I think people were so proud of that. In the same number of years, the subsequent incarnation of Operation Pontus, Operation Sophia, which had - the witnesses may correct me if I am wrong - on average five or six ships, sometimes more and sometimes slightly less, rescued 34,000. That is five times the number of ships and only twice as many people rescued because the priority of the operation was not humanitarian search and rescue. The ships are in the same waters and their crew sees the same things. There are concerns about a shift. The Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, was very clear when Ireland joined Operation Sophia. He said in July last year, exactly one year ago, "Transferring to Operation Sophia will result in the redeployment of Irish Naval Service vessels from primarily humanitarian search and rescue operations to primarily security and interception operations." That is a quote from the Minister of State at the Department of Defence. It is a very clear statement, and that is the decision that was made and which left a space into which NGOs moved. We have moved from a situation whereby our newspapers in Ireland celebrate and show the search and rescue operations and what our Naval Service has done - and I share the pride in our Naval Service that everyone has expressed - to one whereby we have flipped to concerns, worries and insinuations about operations in respect of which NGOs are perhaps taking the place of the Naval Service. We need to be very clear: this is bad for Europe because when we start militarising our borders in this way, we see the ripple effects in the militarisation of borders within Europe because that is the next step, and it is bad for our humanitarian reputation. The idea of the pull factor is really concerning because it is very similar to what we have seen with the Mexican-American border. The US Administration is not pulling certain families apart and taking children away and interning them because it is concerned about those families; it wants to send an example and a signal. The idea that we would let people drown as an example or signal to others is the same kind of message and it is not the way to tackle the traffickers. We have heard about the root causes. The root causes are not boats.

I will be brief in asking my questions. A family reunification Bill introduced by my group is before the Houses at present. Regarding the question of tackling trafficking, do the witnesses agree that the financial model and the financial incentives is where this can be tackled by providing safe passage and alternative legal routes for those whose loved ones are living here in Europe to reach them? This is one reason people take desperate journeys. Are any of those routes operating out of Libya? Are people interned in Libya being permitted to make claims or seek reunification or granted access to any of these measures of safe passage? This is a key question. Do the witnesses have concerns about EU money financially incentivising the warehousing of people? Is there a concern that the money may be provided on a per-head basis and that there may be a drive to bring people into Libya and then store them in these detention centres in order that payments be made per head? We know from private prisons in the US and even from direct provision here that any incentivising of the warehousing of people creates a perverse incentive. The witnesses might touch on similar migration control agreements that Europe has signed with Sudan.

Do the witnesses have concerns about tied aid? Ireland has had a very strong tradition of untied aid, but increasingly there seems to be a blurring of the line between EU defence spending and what we are told we are investing. Deputy Ó Snodaigh commented very eloquently on what we put in as actual support as opposed to support to governments. Again, Sudan comes into this concern.

I also have a very quick question about the UN concerns. What other pressures can Ireland, as a country which is bidding for a Security Council seat at present, bring to bear to show we are very serious about these UN laws? We mentioned our mass migration in our bid just last week, which is somewhat ironic, given that we have not hit our target of 4,000 refugees and that we have sent 200,000 people abroad ourselves in the past decade.

I know these are more statements than anything else, but I ask the witnesses to touch on the financial model, the perverse incentives, the real shift in policy and what it means on the ground for search and rescue and so on, the witnesses' concerns about the militarisation of borders, and perhaps Sudan.

Ms Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui:

I thank the Senator in general for all her questions. They are so to the point and really hit where it hurts.

I will be very honest about the money. MSF has tried for a long time to understand exactly the financial movements but they are very unclear. There is a staggering lack of transparency. Many countries put money into the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa of the European Union-----

Mr. Sam Taylor:

Including Ireland.

Ms Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui:

-----including Ireland. Some of this money is then assigned to Italy, Italy uses it, and this is where we lose track. It is very easy to say the EU as such - the Commission, for example - does not finance detention centres. However, there is also this organised system or lack of transparency in order to support that. For example, the Italian Minister of the Interior, Mr. Salvini, has just announced that ten or 12 more assets will be provided to the Libyan coastguard. Where is the money coming from? We ask these questions; we do not get answers. Perhaps as Members of Parliament, the members will get the answers. As a European citizen, I also want to ensure that my taxes do not fuel human rights violations.

The discourse of some politicians is very much to focus on the pull factor, never to mention the push factors or the complexity of the situation, including the lack of safe and legal routes. Of Eritreans who make it to Europe, 90% will get asylum there, yet not a single resettlement of an Eritrean to Kenya, Ethiopia or Sudan has taken place. Family reunification is extremely difficult. The seriousness of the violations in Libya and the CNN video created some sense of urgency, and then the UNHCR was able to secure a deal with Niger to evacuate to Niger the most vulnerable people. That was the promise, that these people would be resettled in Europe. How many have been resettled? The centre opened in November. About 200 people have been resettled. Niger had to suspend the programme because it saw the most vulnerable ones arriving, the unaccompanied minors, the women and the children from Eritrea and Somalia, and they would not be resettled. When we say "comprehensive", we are actually only looking to pass the buck to someone else and to ensure that it becomes someone else's problem while promising we will help, yet we never help. We have the example of the EU-Turkey deal. How many people have been resettled from Turkey? How many people are currently stuck in Greece? My impression from working on these issues is that there is an extremely perverse discourse that is all about bypassing the law. For example, Italy has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for breaching the prohibition of torture and the principle of non-refoulementfor its co-operation with the Libyan coastguard.

What do we do now?

We now train and equip the Libyan coastguard to set up a search and rescue region. We get it to do the dirty business for us and to say it is not us. However, our marks all over this. We cannot simply say we are doing this in the name of saving lives. We hear all of the time that we are supporting the Libyan coastguard because it is saving lives. Of course, no one wants anyone to drown at sea but saving lives means disembarking them in a place of safety, not taking them to detention centres where they might end up in the same cycle of abuse.

On Sudan, I work for MSF Amsterdam. We do not have an operation in Sudan but other centres do. I will speak from a non-specialist point of view. The EU is supporting the rapid intervention force formerly known as the Janjaweed, which says it all.

Mr. Sam Taylor:

Senator Higgins asked what Ireland can do. Ireland, as we all know, punches above its weight at EU and international level. The bid for the UN Security Council is an opportunity for policymakers to ensure that the voices of humanitarianism and humanity that Ireland, as a post colonial nation and with its history of migration, holds so dear are heard at Dáil, EU and international levels.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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I asked two questions that were not answered, one in regard to Yemen and the other in regard to smugglers. Who can take them on and bring them to justice? Have any been brought to court anywhere?

Ms Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui:

Most recently some of the smugglers and traffickers were put on the Security Council list for sanctions. This is a welcome development. There also have been attempts to prosecute in Italy but these were not necessarily successful. We also had an arrest warrant issued in Libya. It is difficult to understand smuggling. First, I would like to distinguish between smuggling and trafficking. Traffickers are committing crimes against people. They are torturing and abusing them. Of course, we want them to be held responsible, but as a humanitarian organisation what we really want is for the survivors of trafficking to be cared for. We want them to be granted protection and to have access to the medical care they need, but this is not happening.

The EU is trumpeting the fight against trafficking. Recently, a group of approximately 130 people in Bani Walid escaped from the hands of traffickers during Ramadan. The went to a mosque and the community in Bani Walid protected them. The response of the authorities was to send the survivors to detention centres in Tripoli. This shows how humanitarian messages are being corrupted. States are paying lip service to saving lives and to humanitarian assistance. This is very problematic. Also, NGOs are being corrupted in trying to humanise detention centres so that it becomes more palatable for us to accept that people are sent to detention centres. NGOs should intervene based on the needs of people and not on the political will of a country, but this is what is happening, unfortunately.

I am unable to respond to the question on Yemen.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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Will Mr. Taylor forward a note to the committee on Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan's question on Yemen?

Mr. Sam Taylor:


Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I accept the cogent points made in regard to the deficiencies of the different programmes in Operation Sofia. We are told that through the work of Operation Sofia, boats were removed from the criminal organisations involved in smuggling and trafficking people. Do the witnesses accept as a positive element of the work of Operation Sofia the removal of vessels from criminals who were in the process of smuggling and trafficking people?

Ms Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui:

It is very difficult to assess. I would not want to reach any conclusion in this regard. Unlike Operation Sophia, MSF was keen to reach a conclusion about the negative role of NGOs. We all participate in destroying these boats. If we do a rescue, we try to destroy the boat. Once the people have been rescued, we destroy the boat because we do not want the smugglers or traffickers to use it again and further endanger the lives of people. We also play a role in this. The question regarding the work of Operation Sofia might best be answered by Operation Sofia. From where we sit, at sea we do not see that necessarily. What we see are people who, if unable to flee Libya on these dinghies that are not seaworthy, will be trapped in abuse in Libya. This cannot be only about fighting smugglers and traffickers. It must also be about evacuating people from Libya.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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The information we were given shows that 545 boats belonging to criminal organisations were destroyed. I assume that doing away with their means for evil activity is positive to some extent. Ms Hadj Sahraoui said that the NGOs are involved in work of a similar type to that of the naval services of different countries.

Ms Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui:

Yes, for security reasons. For the well-being of the people, we do not want these ships to be reused and people to risk their lives again.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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Ireland has considerably increased its funding to the trust fund. I thank the witnesses for their attendance. This is the third time we have invited Médecins sans Frontières, MSF, to appear before the committee. In previous discussions with Mr. Taylor we indicated our appreciation for people who are working in very difficult circumstances, in particular the Irish doctors and nurses who are working in the Mediterranean who have come here to outline their experiences to us. I represent the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan. I know people, including friends, who are medics and nurses and other support staff working in those very difficult circumstances. Migration is once again a topical issue in terms of the many different crises throughout the world. I was anxious, with the support of the committee, to invite MSF to make a presentation to us today. We are glad that the witnesses took the opportunity to do so. As a committee, we do not have an executive role. All we can do is try to get a message across to the Government and create an awareness among the public in regard to the need to support organisations such as MSF and the good effect to which they put Irish Aid money.

A year and a half ago we would probably have been speaking at committees like this about 65 million people being displaced, which was the UN figure at that time. Today, the witnesses quoted the figure of 68.5 million people displaced, 85% of them in developing countries, which shows the huge pressure on the least advantaged countries. The point made by Ms Hadj Sahraoui that facts no longer matter in the US or in Europe has to be a huge concern for all of us who value truth and democracy. There is a coarsening, unfortunately, of public debate, not just about crises but about general politics on a day-to-day basis as well, and this is unfortunate for society.

I thank MSF and the other NGOs and our Naval Service for the Trojan work they do in very difficult circumstances. As a committee, we continually afford this forum as a place where people can come and outline to us the issues that they see every day in the places most affected.

I thank the witnesses for their presentation and wish them and their colleagues the best while working in extremely difficult circumstances.

Our policy adviser for the past year and a half, Ms Marylee Wall, has been promoted and is going back to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade unfortunately. I record our appreciation for her help, advice and assistance to us a committee. She did exceptionally good work with the committee and her work on our Irish Aid report was extremely beneficial to us and to the sector. We will have an informal meeting next week and the members will be notified of the informal meetings that we have for the rest of this month. The meeting now stands adjourned.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.21 a.m. sine die.