Dáil debates

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Afghanistan Crisis: Statements


4:32 pm

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I am sharing time with the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy.

It is several weeks now since the Taliban captured Kabul and the attention of the world was drawn to Afghanistan. Although the gaze of the media has shifted somewhat since the middle of August when we were all shocked by the scenes of panic and chaos at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, there is no doubt that the crisis still continues. It continues for Afghans displaced by conflict and violence, Afghan women and girls, those who depend on humanitarian aid or have simply run out of cash, Afghan human rights defenders, minorities and LGBTQI persons.

This is a humanitarian and human rights crisis. I welcome this debate which highlights the importance the House places on the situation in Afghanistan. From the representations made to my office by many Deputies and the public, it is evident that people have been shocked and saddened by the events of recent weeks. People are quite rightly demanding to know what Ireland has done to respond to this international crisis. I will address this question from a consular perspective - how we have assisted Irish citizens and Irish-resident Afghan citizens during the crisis - and from the perspective of Ireland's engagement in the international political and humanitarian reaction to the evolving situation.

Of course, our first concern as the crisis unfolded was to provide assistance to Irish citizens in Afghanistan who wished to leave the country. My Department and the Irish Embassy in Abu Dhabi worked tirelessly through August and into September to that end. This work continues, including with an additional 11 citizens and dependents evacuated last week on a Qatar plane.

The rapid evacuation effort at the airport in Kabul before the end of August was one of the most complex operations of its kind ever managed by the international community. I deployed an emergency civil assistance team, ECAT, to Kabul to support the consular efforts of staff in Dublin and in the embassy in Abu Dhabi. That team, which comprised consular staff from the Department and members of the Defence Forces, was an example of the close partnerships between the two Departments I lead.

The impact of both geopolitical turmoil and climate change will almost inevitably lead to more situations of rapid onset crisis and there is no doubt that we will be required to assist Irish citizens in increasingly complex and insecure environments in the future. The crisis in Afghanistan saw the first deployment of a joint ECAT since the crisis in Libya in 2011. Both Departments and the Defence Forces have gleaned valuable lessons from that successful deployment which we will use to further improve and enhance readiness and interoperability to manage crisis situations in the future. I wish to sincerely thank the members of the ECAT, diplomatic and military, for their efforts in such a challenging and complex environment, as well as all those who have supported the overall consular response, which has been significant. I also wish to thank our international partners, particularly France, Finland, the UK and Germany, for their assistance in our efforts and helping our citizens.

As Deputies will be aware, a number of Irish citizens and residents remain in Afghanistan and wish to return home. We continue to liaise with partners, including EU partners, regarding safe exit options in the period ahead. To date, 58 citizens and their dependents and family members have safely left Afghanistan. A total of 50 Irish citizens and their direct family members remain in Afghanistan and require ongoing support. Of those 50 citizens, 48 have requested to leave. Additionally, there are a number of Afghan citizens with Irish residency who wish to return to Ireland and my Department is also providing support to them. I know there are many people with deep concerns for family members, friends and colleagues who remain in Afghanistan. I can give full assurance that the Government remains strongly committed to assisting those requiring ongoing consular support in Afghanistan.

As the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, will set out in more detail, in excess of 370 Afghan citizens have been offered support through the Irish refugee protection programme. More than 150 people have already arrived in Ireland. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is leading on the arrangements for them once they arrive. Priority for refugee status has been given to those working on human rights issues, as well as those working with independent media, NGOs and European and international organisations. These are people who have been dedicated to improving and safeguarding the lives of others. They are very welcome here in Ireland.

I have been heartened by the many offers of support from the public to those arriving through this programme. Some people have offered space in their own homes. My Department and our diplomatic network are continuing to engage with those accepted into the refugee programme and their families who have not yet reached Ireland. We are liaising with relevant authorities, airlines and individuals, in particular regarding travel routes. In addition, the Department of Justice is reviewing all international protection applications from Afghan nationals, including family reunification visas, with a view to expediting their progress. This is in line with updated advice provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, in recent weeks. Furthermore, I am very pleased that a new humanitarian admission programme was agreed at Cabinet this week, namely, the Afghan admission programme. This is a further concrete demonstration of Ireland's support for and solidarity with the Afghan people.

The programme will allow current or former Afghan nationals living in Ireland to apply to bring their close family members to Ireland to live with them. Applications will open in December, the Department of Justice will administer the new scheme and up to 500 places will be provided. Priority on the programme will be given to those who are especially vulnerable in terms of the risk to their freedom and safety, such as older people, children, single female parents, single women and girls and people with disabilities. People whose previous employment exposes them to greater risk, for example, UN and EU employees and people who worked for civil society organisations, will also be included in this priority group.

I would like to put on record my appreciation for the excellent co-operation and flexibility that I and my Department have witnessed in recent weeks from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and the Department of Justice in responding to the situation in Afghanistan. This collaboration has enabled us to directly assist several hundred people. It is no exaggeration to say that this co-operation has saved lives. I suspect, as the months pass, that well over 1,000 people will be assisted.

It has been both a great responsibility and a great privilege to hold the Presidency of the United Nations Security Council this month, as the international community, faced with recent events, decides how best to manage this crisis. I chaired the Security Council meeting on the situation in Afghanistan on 9 September at the UN. The meeting led, the following week, to the unanimous decision by the Security Council to renew the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, for six months. The adoption of Resolution 2596 by all Security Council members demonstrated firm support for the vital work of that mission. The fact that the resolution was adopted unanimously sends a strong message about our collective support for UNAMA's mandate of peace, equality and inclusivity for all Afghans. It also sends a clear message to the Taliban that the Security Council is united on a number of key principles. The resolution sets out a basis for the Security Council's engagement on Afghanistan over the next six months. It emphasises the importance of the establishment of an inclusive and representative government, including with the full, equal and meaningful participation of women. It underscores the need to uphold human rights, including for women, children and minorities, and the need for full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access for humanitarian agencies. Meetings on Afghanistan will take place every second month, rather than every quarter as was previously the case. This will allow us to monitor what is happening on the ground and ultimately to decide what the next steps will be in terms of future UN engagement in the country.

In the statement that I made to the Security Council on 9 September, I highlighted a number of other issues, including the importance of the new administration adhering to Afghanistan's obligations under international law, including international humanitarian, refugee and human rights law. Of course, the Security Council's heightened engagement on Afghanistan did not start with the debate on 9 September. Ireland pushed for immediate and focused engagement throughout August. We also played a central role in the negotiations on Resolution 2593, adopted on 30 August.

During my visits to New York this month, I had detailed discussions on Afghanistan with the UN Secretary General; the UN's emergency humanitarian co-ordinator, Martin Griffiths; and the UN Under-Secretary General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary di Carlo. All encouraged Ireland to continue to speak out on fundamental human rights and humanitarian issues in Afghanistan, particularly the rights of women and girls. They also urged Ireland, as President of the Security Council, to ensure coherence and unity among Security Council members on Afghanistan. We have worked extremely hard to deliver on that agenda.

I also discussed Afghanistan in a number of bilateral meetings in New York, notably with the Pakistani and Russian foreign ministers. Close engagement with countries of the region, particularly those, like Pakistan, that have a level of influence over the Taliban, will be crucial in the coming months, as will all of their neighbours, in fact. With my EU colleagues, we have also had extensive discussions on Afghanistan, as Members would expect. The EU is committed to supporting the people of Afghanistan. Their needs were significant even before the events of the last six weeks. One of the key themes of discussion at EU level has been how to continue addressing these needs. We are keen to re-establish an EU presence on the ground, once it is safe to do so, to focus on providing humanitarian support to the Afghan people. Believe me, that humanitarian support is an enormous challenge. Even before the Taliban took over, the value of humanitarian supports going into Afghanistan each year was between $5 billion and $6 billion. Members can imagine how difficult it is to get that volume and value of humanitarian supports in under the current circumstances, or even a fraction of it. In particular, we have agreed a set of five key benchmarks to guide future EU engagement in Afghanistan, which set out the context in which we should engage with the de facto administration there. Those benchmarks are to allow the safe, secure and orderly departure of all foreign nationals and Afghans who wish to leave; to promote, protect and respect human rights, in particular those of women and girls and minorities, while respecting the rule of law and freedom of speech and of the media; to allow the implementation of humanitarian operations and respect the independence of humanitarian operations and safety of beneficiaries of humanitarian aid; to prevent Afghanistan serving as a base for terrorism to other countries in the future, as it did in the past; and to establish a negotiated, inclusive and representative government, which includes all ethnic and religious minorities and ensures the meaningful participation of women.

The Taliban reassures us that they are a different organisation from the one ousted from office in 2001. They have sought to portray themselves as more modern and more moderate. They have said that they want peace and prosperity for their country and they want to engage with the international community. However, as Ireland has said consistently since their takeover inAugust, our attention is focused not on what the acting administration says, but what it does.Perhaps it is trite to say that actions speak louder than words. However, some actions are so loud as to be deafening. Actions such as the closure of the women's affairs ministry and its conversion to the ministry for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice; the arrest, summary execution and disappearance of civil servants, journalists and civil society activists, as reported by reliable sources; and the appointment of a largely homogenous, all-male administration drown out any positive messages that the de facto authorities may want the international community to hear. The links between the acting Taliban administration and terrorism give rise to particular concern. It is of note that a number of those appointed to the Taliban cabinet are on UN and EU sanctions lists. A particular focus of the EU will be to ensure the Taliban regime ceases all ties and practices with international terrorism.

I have mentioned already my concerns about human rights and, in particular, the situation of women and girls, as well as minorities, in Afghanistan. It is unacceptable that women are denied their most basic rights. The voices of activists such as Malala Yousafzai and Wazhma Frogh, who addressed the Security Council meeting that I chaired in New York, and human rights defenders such as Hassan Ali Faiz, who addressed the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence yesterday, need to be listened to and heeded. Many are risking their lives and the lives of their families to speak out and make known their expectations to participate in the future of their country. With our fellow EU member states, we will continue to listen to and amplify their messages and promote their right to participate in the political future of their own country.

Sadly, not all Afghans will feel that they can remain in their country following the events of recent weeks. This is why one of the EU benchmarks is that the administration will allow those who wish to leave to do so. The EU will work with international partners on durable solutions for Afghan refugees. We will also look to address the needs of communities in countries where large numbers of these refugees are hosted.

As I said at the outset, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has reached a full-blown crisis. It is a country of 38 million people. There are already approximately 5 million internally displaced people in Afghanistan.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have already crossed the borders into Pakistan, Iran and other neighbouring countries. Almost half the population is in need of humanitarian assistance, and one in three Afghans is food insecure. The Afghan Government previously relied on the support of the international community for the majority of its budget, but many of Afghanistan's traditional donors have frozen development aid until the situation stabilises.

The Minister of State with responsibility for overseas development aid and the diaspora, Deputy Colm Brophy, will now provide further details on the humanitarian situation and how we are responding to it.


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