Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence

Refugee Situation in Syria: Discussion

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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With us for session A are Mr. Niall O'Keefe of Trócaire, Ms Brid Kennedy of Concern and Ms Mary Van Lieshout and Mr. Mustafa Al Manla of GOAL. They are here discuss the refugee situation in Syria and related matters and they are all very welcome, as are our guests in the Gallery.

Before we begin, I remind members, witnesses and persons in the Gallery to turn off their mobile phones. Members are requested to ensure that, for the duration of the meeting, their mobile phones are completely turned off or switched to aeroplane, safe or flight mode depending on the device. It is not sufficient for members just to put their phones on silent mode as this will maintain a level of interference with the broadcasting system.

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 Chair to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter to only 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 long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person, official or body outside the Houses by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Ms Brid Kennedy:

I thank the Chair and the committee for inviting Concern, GOAL and Trócaire here today to present on the humanitarian impact of the Syrian crisis and for taking the time to focus on this critical issue. Each organisation has shared a briefing paper in advance. We will each talk about the situation from the perspective of our own organisations.

I will begin with Concern's experience in this regard. Concern is working in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. Concern was here briefing the same committee four and a half years ago. It is unfortunate that we are still talking about the crisis in Syria. Since then, the war has raged on. Some 500,000 people have been killed and 6.5 million Syrians are living in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Many families have been torn apart and many lives have been shattered as a result of this crisis. While the bombing has stopped in many parts of Syria, there is no sign of peace. Active conflict continues and even as we speak people are fleeing for their lives. The regime has regained control of a large part of the country but a few areas such as Idlib and the north east are still controlled by other groups.

Normality in Syria today is barely tolerable for many of the people. Thousands have been displaced on numerous occasions and the conditions are appalling. The past winter has been extremely hard. Thanks to Irish Aid support, Concern has been providing tents, stoves and blankets to help keep people warm and survive the bitter winter. Throughout 2018, Concern supported 1 million people in Syria, most of whom were fleeing the conflict.

On a more positive note, we are also supporting people who are living in more stable conditions with agriculture inputs and vocational training. This offers them hope, bolsters their courage and gives them confidence to rebuild their lives. If stability was maintained and Concern had more funding, we would like to spend much more of our effort and time on helping people to recover from the war.

At the end of January and in early February, I visited Lebanon. It was just after the third flood of 2019 had hit. I met several families from Syria who were living in below-basic standards. It was freezing cold. I was freezing and could not get warm. The refugees described their misery and their deepening levels of poverty. One woman, Aisha, outlined how her husband was tortured while they were in Syria, and is now in ill health and unable to work. She was taking her 13 year old son from school to try to earn a meagre living for herself, her husband and their boy's other three siblings. This, as I learned, is what many other families are doing. Rates of child labour are increasing enormously. The incidence of child marriage has also increased greatly.

Of all the women and families I met, when I inquired if they would like to return to Syria, not one was willing to do so. Among the reasons are that their homes have been blasted and they have nothing to return to. They are too fearful to go back as they risk conscription or being detained again. The clear message is that while the bombing has stopped, there is no peace there.

Lebanon is the size of Munster. It has a population of 4 million but now hosts 1 million Syrian refugees, thus making one in four of the population a Syrian refugee. Neighbouring Turkey hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees and it has brought in legislation that allows many of those refugees to access basic services such as education and healthcare.

There are many tragedies from the Syrian crisis but one of the biggest is that more than 1 million babies have been born to Syrians living in exile. These babies, along with hundreds of thousands of other children, have very little access to education. I urge that we ensure there is no lost generation. Education is a right for everybody and offers hope for the future. Unfortunately for Concern, our education program in Lebanon is at risk due to funding constraints.

The scale, severity and complexity of the humanitarian needs of people in Syria remain extensive. I thank Irish Aid and the Irish public for all the support they have given to Concern and other organisations that helps us to alleviate the sufferings of Syrians, whether in Syria or neighbouring countries. I call on the Government, despite all of the support it has given, to do a lot more.

There are three asks. The first is that we develop new energetic initiatives in continuing to use the voice and influence it has where it can bring to long-lasting peace. In this process it should call on women and promote women's leadership so they can be involved in the peace process that will lead to lasting peace. The second is to honour the commitments the Government has already made, including in the context of the global compact for refugees, as mentioned in the White Paper launched last week by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and Minister Foreign Affairs and Trade. That commitment supports refugees who want to return to Syria and host governments in the region.

Our final ask of the Government is that at minimum the level of funding Irish Aid has been providing towards the Syrian crisis is sustained. Ideally, we would like it to be increased so more can be done to help through the emergency response and to help people recover in the longer term.

Ms Mary Van Lieshout:

I thank the Chairman and committee members for providing GOAL with this opportunity to discuss our work and concerns regarding the ongoing conflict in Syria, now reaching its ninth year. GOAL has been operational in Syria since 2013, with offices in Idlib governorate in north-west Syria. Our programme in Syria is the largest humanitarian intervention in GOAL's history. In 2018, we supported almost 1 million conflict-affected people with services in the areas of food, water, sanitation and hygiene and emergency response.

GOAL has more than 400 staff on the ground in Syria. Our colleagues in Syria work in arguably the most dangerous and complex environment in the world. Since the conflict began, we have lost four colleagues in brutal attacks. It is an enormous privilege for us that my colleague, Mustafa Al Manla, our emergency programme co-ordinator in Syria, can be with us today to tell his story and describe GOAL's lifesaving interventions in the region.

Mr. Mustafa Al Manla:

I thank committee members for giving me their time today. I am from Kafr Karmin, a village outside Aleppo in north-west Syria. Until 2012, I was an English language teacher, responsible for more than 80 students. The year 2012 was very difficult for me because that was when I left Syria and left behind my family, including my mother, father, sisters and brothers. I left my land and house and the students whom I used to teach. In 2012, I walked through the border to Turkey. I had decided to do something important to support those suffering from the conflict on a daily basis and reduce their suffering. I am here today to tell the committee how Syrian people suffer what I have also experienced. The majority of them have lost their homes and land. They have been living in camps and tents for nine years without any opportunity to have a livelihood. They have lost everything. They used to be teachers like me or doctors, farmers or nurses.

As Ms Van Lieshout mentioned, I work as the emergency programme co-ordinator. My main area of responsibility is north Syria. I have been in this role for more than three years and in that time I have seen the infrastructure of the area destroyed and millions of people lose their homes, jobs, schools and livelihoods and their lives.

What we do at GOAL is very practical. We give cash, food items such as sugar, olive oil and rice, and non-food items such as tents, mattresses, blankets and even toothpaste. Imagine, the people being served by GOAL do not even have toothpaste. Our services are keeping people alive. In addition, through our lifesaving WASH programme, we pump 1 million litres of water every week, supporting 750,000 people through piped water. As committee members may know, in Syria piped water is very rare. We also support 32 bakeries through providing yeast and flour. This ensures that 600,000 people have proper access to fresh bread every day. This package of three vital humanitarian services is lifesaving for these people.

I know how important this work is. Thousands of people have had their lives destroyed. We have doctors pleading for any type of job just to have something in their pockets to cover their urgent needs. We need to look at the livelihoods of all of these displaced people.

As members heard, there is a huge number, amounting to 6.2 million. We need to consider their livelihoods. It is a big problem.

What we are doing is vital. It is also very dangerous. Four of my colleagues have lost their lives in air strikes. My colleagues work in a war zone every day. They are always thinking about what will happen to their families if they die. I see the worry they carry every day. Every day the children hear bombs and see air strikes. This has become the norm but, as members know, it is not normal.

It is important to air the view that children are the next generation. It is the responsibility of us all to take care of them. We should not forget the humanitarian worker. We must recognise the courage of the humanitarian workers who are risking their lives every day to support those in great need of humanitarian services. GOAL provides the basics - food, tents and cash - but it is still not enough to cover what is needed to survive. As a result of this conflict, 6.2 million people have been internally displaced. Every one of these has a story like mine. Two million of them have been displaced to north-west Syria, where GOAL is fully operational. Those are the people directly benefiting from the GOAL programme.

I thank all our donors and the members for listening to my story. This is the greatest humanitarian crisis in decades. I thank the Irish Government and Irish Aid for supporting us. Please stay with us. We need your support more than ever.

Mr. Niall O'Keeffe:

I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it today on this important issue. The Syrian crisis, now in its ninth year, continues to be one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. Of a population of 22 million people originally, nearly six million have been forced out of Syria as refugees and over six million have been displaced inside the country. An estimated 500,000 have been killed in the conflict.

Trócaire, working with local organisations, is providing humanitarian assistance in both Lebanon and Syria. It includes the provision of food, shelter, basic household commodities, especially during the recent harsh winter months, and support with counselling and psychosocial assistance to deal with the traumas of conflict. We support people with skills and vocational training so their years in asylum are not completed wasted. We are very grateful for the funding we have received from the Irish Government and EU and the significant contributions we have received from the public in Ireland.

When it comes to the questions of whether Syrian refugees are displaced people and would like to go home, the answer is certainly that they would.

If one is a Syrian living in Lebanon, one most likely lives on less than US $2.90 per day, the minimum required to live in Lebanon. Over half of all Syrians in Lebanon live below this threshold. One probably does not work, and only 43% have informal work. The proportion is only 16% among women. One depends on borrowing money. Nearly nine out of every ten households are heavily in debt. One is at least partially dependent on humanitarian assistance, but that assistance is not dependable. According to the UN, in 2018 only 44% of overall humanitarian funding was received. It is possible that one lives in a building but approximately one third of households, or nearly half if they are female-only households, live in tents or other unsuitable conditions, in a climate where temperatures can rise to the high thirties in summer and drop to sub-zero in the winter. One's children are unlikely to go to school, and more than half of refugee children aged between three and 17 are still out of school in Lebanon. One is unlikely to have a legal permit allowing one to stay in Lebanon, and 73% of Syrians do not have one, so one will spend one's time avoiding roads with checkpoints, work in the black economy, often under exploitative conditions, and hope one's employer does not report one, all in fear of being arrested and taken to the Syrian border.

With all of this, one's focus is on surviving day to day. A person who ever thinks about the future has no idea what it holds for him, her or their family and they are very dependent on others, leaders in the region and in the international community, to determine their future.

Faced with these hardships as refugees, of course these people would consider returning home to Syria. The UN agency for refugees, the UNHCR, states that over 16,000 Syrians returned from Lebanon to Syria in 2018. However, there are still over 1 million Syrians living in Lebanon. They make up one quarter of the country’s population and, of course, the Government of Lebanon is encouraging people to return. There are lots of push factors. A Syrian living in Lebanon and thinking of returning to Syria has to consider the following matters. They are likely to be unemployed and over half the population of Syria are unemployed. Over 50% of the social services infrastructure has either been destroyed or is not operational, so they are likely to be without water, healthcare and other social services. It is likely that a person's home has either been destroyed during the conflict or is occupied, and in a recent survey over 65% of people said this was the case.

What really makes the decision very difficult, if people are thinking about returning, is the fear for their own security. Conscription exists for 18 to 42 year olds and avoidance is punishable by five years' imprisonment or being forcibly conscripted upon return. They face harassment based on sectarian or assumed political views. They face various forms of violence, up to and including rape, at the hands of various militia groups, Government and anti-Government. They risk being disappeared or killed in extrajudicial killings and they are going back into a country where over 500,000 people were killed during the past eight years, the majority by Syrian Government forces. Faced with these considerations, would you go back? There is no longer a push for democratic principles that we all saw on televisions nine years ago, and those aspirations are long forgotten about. People's focus now is simply on survival and security.

Trócaire, along with our local partners, have identified the following priorities. Any discussion on return for Syrian refugees must have the minimum threshold of being voluntary, dignified and safe. The UNHCR has provided clear principles for return and Ireland and the EU should ensure that these are paramount. As we have seen, displacement is a multi-annual situation and, therefore, the Government of Ireland, working with the EU and through its influence in the UN, should ensure there is multi-annual humanitarian funding. The Government of Ireland should encourage a renewed emphasis on the UN-backed peace process, in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 which requires a Syrian-owned peace process. There must be accountability for the war crimes and countless human rights violations committed over the past eight years. Without these, it is very difficult to see the 12 million people displaced by the conflict having sufficient assurances to return home and bring this humanitarian crisis to an end.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the contributors. They painted a very grim picture of what is a very difficult situation. Due to the time constraints, I will group the questions. I will take the Vice Chairman, Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, first and she will be followed by Deputy Niall Collins.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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There are massive issues arising, including death, destruction and displacement. I have made three visits to the area. The first was pre-politics and pre-conflict and Damascus struck me as an amazing, cultured, cultural and inclusive city and society, which was very proud of its history and its place in the area. The second visit was in the company of a predecessor of the GOAL representatives. We went to the Turkish-Syrian border and met GOAL staff who were coming in and out of Syria at that stage. We met Syrians who were living in the south of Turkey. Some were with organisations and they did much better than those who were trying to forage for themselves. The way they were being exploited and mistreated by the Turkish population was appalling.

The third visit was a few months ago with three other Deputies. We came into Damascus from Lebanon and stayed in Damascus. We went by bus north towards Aleppo stopping in Maaloula on the way. We got a different picture of that part of Syria. Certainly the destruction was extremely obvious but what came across was the resilience and the spirit of the Syrian people we met on that journey. They were not all a certain type provided for us to hear what they had to say. They were casual encounters we had when we were on the street, out eating or whatever. What came across to us was that they were getting on with the rebuilding work and re-establishing their schools and businesses. Certainly more had been done in Damascus. The work was only starting in Aleppo. We met some of the Syrians who had returned and we heard their stories as well.

We were in Yarmouk and met the Palestinians who had stayed. We also met the Palestinian group with UNRWA who were providing education and so on. We got a different sense of what is happening from what the witnesses have provided today. I know their work is in a certain part of Syria but certainly I came home last July with a more positive view of Syria getting back on its feet, like other countries, post conflict, have been able to do. The issue is about how to support that. The witnesses' organisations are working in a certain part of Syria, which is extremely difficult, and they are working with refugees, but do they envisage their organisations supporting other parts of Syria in that rebuilding programme?

Some of the group had visited the Palestinian camp in Lebanon. They came away absolutely horrified by the conditions in which the Palestinian people were living in Lebanon. The Palestinians whom we met in both Palestine and Syria would say their lives in Syria health-wise and education-wise were much better than in other countries where they have been living. Certainly those Palestinians were staying. They wanted to start rebuilding in Yarmouk. Reference was made to 1 million Syrians in Lebanon. Are they other Syrians besides the Palestinian Syrians?

Safe return is vital. As I said, we met some people who had returned. What can we do to ensure that? I read some of the witnesses' briefings which refer to Syrian-owned, Syrian-led processes on that rebuilding work, but are the organisations willing to engage with those on the government side because as far as we could see, they are there to stay and they have started the rebuilding. We saw the extent of the destruction and that was very difficult, particularly in Yarmouk. Did all Yarmouk have to be destroyed in the way it was? The officials we met would say they are assured that they will start that rebuilding work and that they can do it.

Conflict resolution will be a key element to how people can come back together and work in that society. We have seen in other conflict situations where that has happened. We have been driven by a certain agenda and that is not to take from the horror, destruction, displacement and everything that has happened, and I am thinking particularly of the children. When we talk about this being Syrian-led and Syrian-owned, that is another conversation and I am not sure that people are willing to have that at the moment. Obviously, there is the big question of accountability for the war crimes on every side. There are no winners in a war situation; there are only losers.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I thank our guests for their insightful presentations. I do not have the benefit of the experience of the previous speaker and, therefore, I will ask a few questions. What our guests highlighted in their informative presentations are issues which we will continue to articulate and advocate on their behalf. Has Ireland and the European Union done enough to accept refugees or people who either cannot or will never return to Syria? What struck me in each of their presentations is the scale of the issue and the fallout in terms of the numbers of people who are impacted. Are we doing enough? Is the European Union doing enough? I presume they will say the answers to both those questions is "No". How much more can we conceivably do?

We must be practical about it too.

Will the witnesses comment on the follow-through from the United States when Mr. Trump signed the famous executive order banning all sorts of immigrants from entering the country, which was targeted at people from a Muslim background? Has that also caused a knock-on problem down the road in terms of allowing a release valve for other developed nations to try to share the burden of the humanitarian crisis?

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy. I ask our guests to respond to the questions and comments from Deputies Maureen O'Sullivan and Deputy Niall Collins.

Ms Brid Kennedy:

I will take one or two in order to start the ball rolling. I thank the Deputies for their questions. Syria is the size of Spain, so it is a very large country and there are different experiences in different areas. As mentioned in my brief, in some areas, the conflict has stopped and that is allowing people to rebuild their lives. Concern is planning to do a lot more to support Syrians who are returning and even those people who never moved to rebuild their lives through agricultural production, vocational training and business development. Concern is looking at the conflict through a very gendered lens as well because it has been very gendered. Many women who never worked outside the home no longer have husbands or adult males in the family and find themselves cast in the role of breadwinner. We are supporting men and women with appropriate skill sets and skill building to recover themselves. This is definitely an area on which Concern wants to focus a lot more.

Ms Mary Van Lieshout:

I thank Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan. I echo her concerns and recognition that what stands out when meeting the people of Syria is their resilience. That is often the case in many humanitarian interventions and we certainly see it in Syria. Right now, GOAL is looking on a weekly basis at how the needs are changing. Where we are working in the Idlib governorate, we are still experiencing regular air strikes and we are still very deeply concerned about the safety and security not only of our staff but of the populations we serve.

As Mr. Al Manla mentioned, we are looking at building sustainable livelihoods and at what we can do on a practical basis to help people living in very precarious conditions so there is a glimmer of recovery even in those very difficult circumstances. We have recently moved into a new territory, where we are supporting people who are moving from the Idlib governorate. There is innovation in our programme but we have not yet decided to work in other parts of the country.

Mr. Niall O'Keeffe:

I thank members for their questions. Like Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, I have been to Syria and Damascus in recent years and I echo her comments about the resilience of people in coping with the conflict. Our presentations have been focused on the perception of people outside of Syria and those who are displaced within the country and what they consider makes it safe for them to return.

In terms of the organisations engaging with the Government, or the international community engaging with the Government in Syria, we have referred to the UN-backed peace process in the presentations, which is the only game in town in terms of an international peace process. In January 2018, it was agreed to establish a constitutional committee and the UN special envoy has been leading that along with the various countries which are supporting it. There were meant to be 150 members. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the UN special envoy issued a statement in which they were negative in their opinions about the engagement of the Government of Syria. The latter has not put forward members to the committee and has not endorsed its UN members. The international community has tried to engage with the Syrian Government.

There is a need for a lot more engagement because the peace process has to happen. If the conflict is to end, there needs to be a sustained peace process. All the parties need to engage on that.

With regard to Deputy Niall Collins's questions on refugees in Europe, the latter should take on a bigger burden in some ways. Ireland previously set a target of accepting 4,000 Syrian refugees. The number is currently fewer than 2,000. If the target of 4,000 could be achieved, it would be very positive.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I thank our guests for the important life-saving and life-changing work they carry out. Their organisations are great ambassadors for Ireland. I do not believe we thank them enough. Our guests have attended meetings of various committees before but we need to thank them much more often. The work they are carrying out is making such a huge difference to people's lives. The Irish are really proud of the work in which they are engaged.

I listened to the comments on getting a peace process up and running. I do not know enough about the circumstances on the ground. We rely on news coming in and various organisations and we do not really know how accurate the news is. I accept our guests' point that there has to be a locally owned political resolution to the conflict. They have referred to a Syria-led and Syria-owned process but there are international actors involved. The call is for them to use their influence to bring about an immediate ceasefire and an inclusive peace process. Part of the difficulty is that many of the actors or those involved in the conflict believe there can be a military solution. The witnesses are saying the bombing has started. GOAL has stated that, in the area in which it operates, the air strikes are still happening. That is another part of the difficulty.

Our guests are asking that the Government uses whatever influence it has. What influence could we have on those international actors that are involved in the conflict? Included are the Syrian Government, the United States, the Russians, the Iranians and the Turks. Given that Ireland is a small country, what influence could it have? We should bear in mind that support and so on are given. Many of the actors do not see us as having a private agenda in regard to the work. How can Ireland champion the cause in question and work hard on bringing the organisations together?

Reference was made to refugees returning home. While the Lebanese Government had previously maintained an official position of neutrality toward Syrian refugees and that the policy should be implemented with the support of the UN, that policy has shifted considerably over the course of 2018. Our guests might expand on that. Those who wish to return are facing rape in some cases and conscription is ongoing. If the ideal is to have people return to safety, what needs to be done to ensure their protection? I suppose the Assad regime will be reluctant to allow people to go back. It will be seeking to scrutinise where people are coming from and their position. I presume all the refugees in the neighbouring countries want to return. What are they returning to? Reference was made to the lack of water and heating.

Reference was made to funding under the 2019 Syria regional refugee and resilience plan.

How much is the financial shortfall for this plan? I presume Ireland is meeting its pledges of funding and international commitments. The Minister said it was. I never understand the reasons that countries make pledges to that funding and do not honour them. What is that about? Is it a day of glory and then they return to their own countries and do not give the money. I would be interested in learning which countries make a pledge but do not live up to the commitment.

The United States made a decision to withdraw aid. Will the witnesses elaborate on how that is impacting on the people on the ground? In respect of the Syria regional refugee and resilience plan, they say money should not be spent on reconstruction, but how important is that reconstruction within Syria in encouraging people to return? If there is ongoing reconstruction, it will create jobs in building hospitals, homes and water installations. How important is that funding as part of the overall solution? We started by talking about the peace process, but if the armed groups involved in the conflict are not committed to the process, it will go nowhere. How important is it that groups involved in the peace process have a voice? I refer in particular to the Kurds. Kurdish political representatives have repeatedly called for their own separate seat at peace talks. I believe they should have one but they are very much part of the answers that are needed in the region. The Kurds have a significant role to play, they played a significant role in the fight against ISIS. How important is it that the indigenous people such as the Kurds have a say at the table?

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I thank the witnesses for the helpful and valuable update they have given us. I thank them for the great front-line work they and their organisations are doing. It is important that we hear about the practical issues for the civilian people in Syria, how conditions are both for Syrians living in Syria and for those who are displaced in refugee camps and internally displaced as well.

Following up on the point made by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan on the different prevailing conditions, depending on the region in which the organisations are working, are they witnessing the more severe issues relating security and people's safety? What is stopping refugees from returning?

I refer to the list of requests that the witnesses have provided us with and the headings "Peace", "Refugee Return" and "Aid Funding". Under the latter two headings relating to the return of refugees and the sustained commitment to aid, the question for our committee is how best we can support the asks of the witnesses. Brussels is hosting a third conference on supporting the future of Syria on 13 and 14 March and Ireland will be represented. Should the committee write to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade seeking commitments that Ireland will push to ensure that support to refugee returns is in line with the EU's commitment to their voluntary, dignified and safe return and that the Government will push to ensure funding is provided on a multi-annual basis to meet the needs of Syrians both in and outside Syria who require support? As part of those two requests, all the witnesses emphasised the need to ensure protection for humanitarian workers on the ground.

I have been working for some time in support of the work of Irish Syrian groups who have brought over members of the White Helmets. I am told that, even this week, the White Helmets - those civilian workers who are so bravely trying to support their fellow Syrians during air strikes from the Assad regime - are under ongoing threat within Syria. How we can ensure better protection for humanitarian workers is something that Ireland should be pushing for at the third Brussels conference. We have clearly heard the witnesses on the need for multi-annual funding. What can the committee do to support those asks?

The final point is on the bigger ask relating to peace and seeking support for a shared, comprehensive diplomatic strategy. The witnesses all referred in their submissions and again today to UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of 2015. I went back and read the resolution again and, of course, it now reads very sadly and tragically as being totally out of date, given what has happened since then. It looks for an inclusive and Syrian-led political process that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people but the Assad regime has won the de factovictory. It seems to me, as an outsider, from looking at the various reports, that the support provided to Assad and his regime by Russia, in particular, and Iran has meant that many of the aspirations in that resolution are no longer tenable.

Mr. O'Keeffe spoke about the UN efforts to establish a constitutional committee but they seem to have reached a stalemate because of the lack of co-operation from the regime. How can we on this committee, noting Ireland's role, seek to continue to push the aspirations in that UN resolution while recognising that the situation on the ground has moved on, and recognising the real tragedy of that, given there was a genuine democratic revolution being proposed in Syria at one point? I posted a film by Irish film-makers who have been in Syria and who have been seeking to spread support internationally for the democratic movement that had been in place in Syria but which now, it seems, has been defeated. In the context of the realpolitik of what is happening in Syria now, how can we promote that resolution and how can we support the organisations represented here in promoting it in the important work they are doing on the ground?

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I will not prolong the meeting as I arrived late, for which I apologise. I sent earlier word that I was at a meeting of the House of the Oireachtas Commission, which was discussing important legal matters and which overran. Nonetheless, I have taken the opportunity to read the presentations online and I have been briefed by Deputy Niall Collins, who has a particular interest in this.

I welcome and compliment all the voluntary bodies present. I am full of admiration for the work they are doing, not just in Syria but all over the world in difficult circumstances and on limited budgets. They deserve all the support we can give them. Is there any particular measure they would urge Oireachtas Members, particularly members of the foreign affairs committee, to implement - something we could put our teeth into and work on? I have studied the issue as best I can and I am afraid I agree with Senator Bacik that it is a battle that seems to have been won by the Russian-Iranian set-up.

The main emphasis of the voluntary organisations is on peace and normality, and on people having food, safety and security. Unfortunately, there has to be a political end to everything and I agree with Deputy Crowe, who talked about what level of commitment to engage has been evident from the major players. He was very involved in the peace settlement in the North, where some group had to dream up a blueprint and get everybody on board with it. It was a long struggle but, to a great extent, it was a success. I wonder if that level of commitment is evident in this regard.

I have one query. I picked up with interest the fact that we had agreed to take in 4,000 refugees but only 2,000 made it here.

Is that because a block was put into the system or because Ireland was not a preferred destination?

Mr. Niall O'Keeffe:

On the last point raised by the Senator, I am unsure of the reason for it. The process is managed by the Department of Justice and Equality.

Reference was made to the peace process. The constitutional committee has been established. It has run into difficult territory as its progress is very slow. It requires the active involvement of and continuous pushing by the international community. It has the support of Turkey, Russia, Iran and other countries which are strong supporters of and have significant influence with the Syrian Government. It is to be hoped that they will continue to be able to apply pressure.

On the role of the European Union in supporting that peace process, the EU must realise the kind of influence it has and use that influence to bring people around the table. The blueprint for the peace process is there in terms of the constitutional committee which was established last year by all the main parties, including those in opposition, in government and others. It is the only blueprint that exists, so all members of the European Union, including Ireland, must use their influence to bring the various parties around the table to participate in the committee.

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked about the safe environment existing in Syria and the significant amount of construction necessary in the country over the coming years. Obviously, the country has been devastated by the conflict. The support that Trócaire, GOAL and Concern provide to refugees and displaced people very much considers their safety and security in the context of a potential return to their homes. It is not just about whether they have food, water and so on; it is very much about their safety and security when they return home. They should not have to return to a particular part of the country but, rather, should be entitled to return to the area from which they originally came. They need safety and security, but those are very difficult to achieve in the current environment. Indeed, it is difficult to see how they will be achieved in the future. Presumably, those issues must be addressed at a very high level in the peace process. It will be necessary to establish an inclusive peace process that will eventually create a safe environment for people to return home in a voluntary, dignified and safe way. The international community must apply pressure where it can in order to ensure we arrive at some sort of peace process.

Ms Mary Van Lieshout:

Members asked what specific steps can be taken by the committee. We have articulated three particular asks. Deputy Crowe asked about our level of confidence in Ireland's ability to influence some of the players involved in the conflict. This is the largest single focus humanitarian support project in which Ireland has been involved. Per capita, Ireland is one of the top 20 donors in the world to the alleviation of the Syria crisis, which places us in a very strong leadership position and gives us the ability to use the Brussels conference to advocate for continued multi-year annual funding that allows humanitarian partners to plan and support people over a considerable period of time. It is very important that the Brussels conference next week be used to demonstrate Ireland's leadership and to use that voice to encourage others to call for the political settlement that is required.

Ms Brid Kennedy:

To add to my colleagues' comments on what more can be done, Ireland has punched above its weight in many cases. We have huge respect globally. We must continue to use that respect at whatever fora we can, whether with the European Union or the UN or through our embassies, to further the cause of peace. We must encourage our colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or other Departments such as the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that provide direct or indirect support to the Middle East region to continue to so do. We must avail of every opportunity to promote and encourage peace.

Mr. Mustafa Al Manla:

I wish to address the very important issues of returnees and the protection of humanitarian workers. Of course, refugees would like to go back to Syria but three main elements which must be borne in mind are that the process of return must be voluntary, dignified and safe. Many areas of Syria are not safe for return.

On the protection of humanitarian workers, we want to encourage those workers and recognise their courage. They are the bridge linking us with the affected population. They are always there to support those who have been affected and badly need humanitarian services. The protection of humanitarian workers should be a priority in order to ensure that we can access the affected population who benefit from the services provided.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all of the representatives for what Deputy Niall Collins termed a very insightful overview of the very difficult situation in Syria and adjoining countries. It was very welcome to have Mr. Al Manla, as a programme director in that region, in attendance. The committee was anxious that Concern, GOAL and Trócaire have the opportunity to present to the committee and this meeting in public session was specially arranged in advance of the Brussels III conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region which is to take place next week. As the representatives are aware, the committee does not have an executive role but with the agreement of members, we will write to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, to outline the concerns raised by the delegates regarding the ongoing humanitarian issues and other longer term issues in regard to infrastructure, the security of those who wish to return to Syria and the obvious pressures in adjoining countries where there are many displaced people and refugees. I was struck by Ms Kennedy's reference to the need to ensure that women's leadership is encouraged and supported in this area, as well as the emphasis on education and the very real danger of a lost generation due to a lack of access to education. The committee was anxious to hold this meeting in advance of the conference in Brussels next week in order to get an up-to-date presentation from the delegates in public session. We do not have an executive role but we will communicate promptly with the Tánaiste. It is important to provide taxpayers and the members of the public who support the work of Concern, GOAL, Trócaire and other organisations with an opportunity through Oireachtas TV or other media coverage to hear of the plight of many millions of people in that area and to know that the money donated by taxpayers and the public through public appeals is put to very good use. On its behalf and that of the Oireachtas, the committee wishes to commend the work of the delegates' colleagues who are working on the ground in extremely difficult conditions. Mr. Al Mansa referred to the courage of humanitarian workers on the ground and the very serious safety and security issues they face on a daily basis.

The committee has had much engagement with these and other organisations on this issue over the more than eight years that, unfortunately, the conflict has continued. I refer to the death toll of more than 500,000 and the 16 million people who need humanitarian aid. It goes without saying that the committee will be totally supportive of the cause espoused by the representatives. We will encourage the Government and the European Union to continue to provide financial support and encourage other members of the international community which have not been as generous or thoughtful in respect of this tragedy to do likewise.

Sitting suspended at 1.45 p.m. and resumed at 1.50 p.m.