Wednesday, 29 September 2021
Afghanistan Crisis: Statements
I welcome the attention that the Dáil is devoting tonight to the situation in Afghanistan and the terrible plight of its people. Like me, Members will have been distressed by the images of men, women and children enduring atrocious conditions outside Kabul Airport over many days just for the simple chance to flee Afghanistan, their home, and to get to a third country.
When we see scenes such as these, hear the pleas of people in Afghanistan whose lives are in immediate danger and reflect on our country's own history of conflict and hunger, it is incumbent on us to do all we can to help. As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, what I heard from the people in Ireland were calls for compassion and solidarity. Irish people wanted the Government to represent the best of them. We have had offers of housing and employment. People have offered their time to befriend and help to integrate those who have come here. These offers came from right across the country, from cities, towns and rural areas. In responding to the crisis in Afghanistan, the Government has sought to live up to those intentions.
My Department has been engaged since July, when it became apparent the Taliban would take over and there would be a serious threat to human rights. Our efforts have been to deliver an effective humanitarian response under the Irish refugee protection programme, IRPP, in this case one focused solely on Afghan nationals. To date, my Department has offered almost 400 people the chance of a new life in Ireland as refugees. I have worked actively with my colleagues, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys and the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, and our respective officials to create a number of pathways to Afghan citizens coming to Ireland and to respond quickly to the magnitude of the crisis in that country.
During this period, my Department has co-operated with a wide range of organisations, including Amnesty International, the Irish Refugee Council, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the UNHCR, to identify individuals and families whom we could welcome to Ireland under the IRPP. We have prioritised human rights defenders, people supporting women’s organisations, LGBTI+ activists, journalists and those most at risk from the Taliban takeover.
A total of 163 people have arrived so far either directly from Afghanistan or from third countries. Exit from Afghanistan was and remains extremely difficult for those fleeing the country. Many of the people we have offered places to as refugees here are still in Afghanistan, many in hiding there, but those offers remain live and valid.
Arrangements for those arriving in Ireland have been made by staff of the Irish refugee protection programme who are also assisting with access to services, accommodation, education and employment. More people will arrive over the coming weeks. Our work continues daily. We continue to identify further individuals and families to whom we will offer access to the Irish refugee protection programme.
Even as media attention on Afghanistan may wane, the threat of the Taliban will remain and our work will continue over the months ahead. While Ireland does not have a presence in Afghanistan or the means to get individuals or families out of that country, we have offered support and advice to those seeking access to a third country and from there to travel to Ireland.
The IRPP has proactively co-operated with organisations and individuals in the interests of helping the widest number of people. From the beginning, we have used community sponsorship as a way of supporting Afghan refugees. Community sponsorship mobilises communities to come together to support refugees and to help them to integrate into their local areas. Many of the Afghan refugees arriving in Ireland already have fluent English and are highly skilled. The local networks will help them quickly to become established in Ireland and access suitable employment.
I thank those community sponsorship groups and other groups which have already reached out with help and who are enabling us to support Afghan families and individuals in need of assistance. Their commitment of time, resources and expertise is giving many Afghans the chance of new lives here in Ireland in peace and safety. The interpersonal relationships, which are at the heart of community sponsorship, offer programme refugees very good outcomes for their integration into our communities in Ireland. My Department is funding regional support organisations which provide information, training and support to communities interested in establishing community sponsorship arrangements. I would like to highlight the important work being done by Amnesty International, Nasc, the Irish Refugee Council, Doras Luimní and the Irish Red Cross to support the community sponsorship programme. My Department can provide information to Deputies on the process if communities in their constituencies are interested in establishing new community support groups or are willing to assist arrivals in other ways.
I acknowledge the work of the IRPP unit in my Department and particularly the leadership shown by Eibhlin Byrne. They have worked tirelessly over recent weeks to respond to the crisis and to find innovative ways of making our resources go further in the interests of supporting as many people as possible. They have demonstrated a strong commitment to helping people in the very greatest need.
The Government has been responsive to the level of need in Afghanistan as the scale of this crisis has grown. We allocated 150 refugee places initially and then revised that number upwards in light of demand and in light of the scale of the tragedy in that country. The programme anticipates there will be ongoing demand from Afghan women, men and children for places in the programme over the months and possibly years ahead. The IRPP will provide further admissions on a humanitarian basis for Afghan refugees in the period ahead.
However, there are constraints as to what we can do immediately. The programme is comprehensive and offers accommodation as well as intensive supports to those admitted to it. Obviously, resources are not unlimited. I make that point because Ireland has existing obligations to resettle citizens from other countries also at risk and in need of our help. We have admitted programme refugees from Myanmar this year, who had been placed at danger because of their opposition to the military coup there. Earlier this month, 50 Syrian refugees arrived in Ireland. They had come from Greece and some of them had been rendered homeless by the fire at the Moria camp on Lesbos last year.
We also have ongoing commitments to bring unaccompanied minors to Ireland from Greece. In the past two months, 28 unaccompanied minor children have arrived in Ireland from Greece. This is on foot of the additional €5 million funding I was able to provide to Tusla in this year’s budget to ensure it can provide proper aftercare support, including residential support to these unaccompanied minors from Greece and Syria. All separated children who arrive in Ireland are received into care. The children are placed with families or in small residential settings of not more than six children. These children have the same entitlements as all other children in the care of the State.
On behalf of Tusla, I recently launched a campaign, Fáilte Care, specifically to recruit foster carers for unaccompanied minor children. There was a very strong response to this. Tusla received more than 500 inquiries from people wanting to learn how to become a carer for a separated child.
In light of our finite resources and the competing demands for places on our programme, we will have to prioritise those most at risk and most in need of our help. That may involve difficult choices depending on the numbers seeking admission to Ireland in the months ahead.
We continue to fulfill our other obligations. Earlier this month there was a mission to Lebanon to engage with our responsibilities under the 2019 UNHCR global compact on refugees. Officials in the Irish refugee protection programme were engaged in a selection mission in Lebanon. They spoke with more than 260 individuals with a view to bringing many of them to Ireland. Of those, 139 are children and many of those children have been engaged in child labour while they have been refugees in Lebanon. Many of the women who were spoken to have been the subject of sexual violence. A similar selection mission is planned for Jordan later this year.
Ireland has a proud record in humanitarian assistance and this year we have maintained that record. Sadly, when the risk involves an entire population, as is the case with the people of Afghanistan, we will not be able to help everyone in the country. Enabling people to come to Ireland as programme refugees is a necessary crisis response. We know that coming to Ireland comes at a significant personal cost to refugees. They have to leave their former lives behind including their family, friends, community, culture and employment. For many these losses mark their lives even when they manage to integrate successfully into their new communities. Enabling people to become programme refugees in Ireland is necessary where a person is at immediate risk. It is not the answer, however, to the wider challenge faced by millions of people in Afghanistan who are now deprived of essential rights and Deputies Duncan Smith and Howlin referred to that.
If we are to support the essential human rights of the Afghan people more broadly, we have to use all available opportunities to remind the Taliban and their backers that human rights matter. We have to reiterate the importance of women’s equality, the rights of LGBTI+ people, the right of girls to education and the rights of all people to democratic representation. I will use all opportunities at my disposal to promote respect for human rights in Afghanistan and to support those working to defend human rights there. We can all play our part in showing solidarity with Afghan human rights and equality activists who have demonstrated such courage in working to protect the rights of the many groups at risk in Afghanistan. It will continue to be important to let the people of Afghanistan know that their rights to equality, safety and self-fulfilment remain legitimate and that such rights should be capable of vindication. The space for change is limited at the moment but we can plant seeds that may grow in the future.
The Government has responded proactively and generously to support Afghan women, men and children who are at risk and it will continue to do so. The generosity of Irish people and communities is enabling the Government to help as many people as possible. Some 400 Afghans have been admitted to Ireland through the Irish refugee protection programme and 500 will be admitted through the Afghan admissions programme announced by the Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys, yesterday. Another 300 Afghans have been admitted through existing family reunification processes. These 1,200 people represent a significant statement by Ireland that we will always be there to help the most vulnerable. As Deputies have mentioned, it is incumbent on other EU countries and other developed countries to likewise step up. Working together, we will be able to offer hope to Afghan women, men and children. We will be able to support more people to create new lives with us in Ireland, safe from harm and secure in the knowledge that their rights are respected.