Dáil debates

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Afghanistan Crisis: Statements


5:42 pm

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats) | Oireachtas source

I want to thank the wonderful staff at every level of the Department of Foreign Affairs in the strongest terms, be they in the human rights unit, the diplomatic corps or elsewhere. The staff at every level of the Department have worked tirelessly to seek safe passage and sanctuary for those Afghan-Irish citizens needing to flee, for front-line defenders to whom we are providing sanctuary, for those people who are here or who will arrive shortly to our refugee protection programme, or for those in the new special admissions programme for Afghan citizens which was approved at yesterday's Cabinet meeting.

In a parliamentary democracy, I make no apologies for disagreeing with the Government on fundamental issues that pertain to taxation, spending, policy and approach. However, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the words of Hassan Ali Faiz, a member of Front Line Defenders who addressed the foreign affairs committee yesterday, having arrived in Ireland with his wife and daughter following a dangerous and traumatic journey while fleeing from Afghanistan. He told the committee that what the Government did in the current Afghan crisis to protect human rights defenders and journalists rekindled faith and belief in the great cause of human rights. It revived hope in human rights defenders that they are not alone and that there are friends out there who will recognise their noble work when they feel helpless and hopeless. All those involved in aiding Hassan and his family, and others like him, to come here safely should be commended in the strongest terms. Our only purpose now in this Chamber should be to find out how we can help many more people like Hassan and his family here, in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

I started with thanks and now I want to highlight some concerns about the scheme, simply to see where it may be improved. We all received communication from the Irish Refugee Council today. I echo some of its thoughts on the scheme announced yesterday in terms of how we can better aid the Afghan people who may arrive here in the coming months and how more of them could be brought in. There was broad recognition following its announcement that the new special admission programme for Afghan nationals had been improved by the Cabinet. There were some concerns and recommendations regarding the scheme. There was a request that the proposed commencement date be brought forward from December to October to reflect the urgency of the current situation in Afghanistan and the real risk to the lives of individuals there. In addition, it should remain open for a reasonable length of time to allow people to submit applications and gather their documents.

There were concerns that the proposed 500 places would be inadequate to meet the needs of the Irish-Afghan community's family members, who are equally at risk. Members of that community have urged the Department that each application be considered on its merits without a cap on numbers. They have asked that the limit of four family members per sponsor is removed. This arbitrary limitation does not preserve family unity and is not based on the factual position in Afghanistan, where entire family subgroups are at immediate risk of persecution.

While the focus on prioritising these groups of people is laudable, the categorisation must not be operated to limit the possibility of other groups that may qualify as beneficiaries. Others might equally be at risk, whether they are individuals from ethnic minorities, including men from the Hazari ethnic group, or former state employees. It is not possible or advisable to specify every group that may suffer and any such criteria should be applied broadly so as not to exclude individuals at risk. While single female parents and single women and girls are extremely important categories of persons at risk, it must be recognised that many married women are also at risk and it is not appropriate to wait until such time as their husbands have been killed, or forcibly recruited to the Taliban, to enable them and their families to reach safety, where necessary. It is believed to be essential that meaningful operation of the programme means having a broad definition of eligible beneficiary that is operated flexibly and does not result in such arbitrary exclusion of individuals. The new humanitarian admissions programme, HAP, must be adequately resourced and staffed to process applications quickly in recognition of the urgency of the situation. There is a recognition that understaffing may be taking place and this should be addressed as a matter of urgency.

There are concerns that provisions in the new scheme may replicate the documentary requirements of previous schemes. This programme will have to acknowledge the real challenges individuals in Afghanistan face in obtaining their identity documents, especially passports. Many individuals do not have passports, or have passports that have expired, and cannot apply for them at this time. Even if the Taliban resumes the issuing of passports, presentation to apply for a passport may expose individuals to danger. Even those who have held valid passports may not be able to exit their safe hiding places to collect them. It will be necessary to take a flexible approach in respect of documentation in light of the crisis nature of the situation. Canada, for example, is waiving passport requirements for certain categories of Afghans seeking to join family members there. Other possibilities include relying on available documentation or undertaking remote interviews.

There must be discretionary family reunification visas. Under the International Protection Act 2015, people with refugee status or subsidiary protection have a right to family reunification with the spouse to whom they were married when they left their country of origin. Minor children who are still under the age of 18 at the time of application for family reunification also have that right. Children have a right to be reunited with their parents and siblings who are minors. The family reunification policy document provides a policy around applications for visas for persons who fall outside the right to family reunification under the International Protection Act. Generally, the family reunification visa process is highly restrictive, requiring the physical receipt at the Irish embassy in Abu Dhabi of the applicants' passports and other identity and support documents and, very significantly, income and financial proofs on the part of their sponsor. In Ireland, this is €70,000 net in the case of an elderly parent.

Other suggestions have been made on the process and legal pathways that are responsive to the challenges faced by individuals in respect of documentation during the humanitarian crisis. Putting in place an electronic processing system so that electronic copies of passports and other documentation can be uploaded to a secure portal for the processing of applications would make it much safer for Afghan individuals than trying to get their passports out of the country for consideration in visa applications.

There are additional suggestions. We should encourage universities, employers and others to set up and expand student scholarship schemes or work visas that cover Afghans and, where applicants have been identified, to provide that it is an administrative requirement to issue relevant visas swiftly. We should act on expressions of support from individuals, groups, faith-based and diaspora organisations, municipalities, cities and universities to welcome Afghan refugees by setting up and expanding opportunities for community sponsorship and humanitarian corridors.

Other important issues are related to, if slightly outside of, the scope of what we are discussing. We need to believe people when they tell us they are fleeing danger, persecution or the threat of murder in their home countries. There has been a worrying trend of increased levels of leave to remain refusals that were apparent pre-pandemic. In 2017, 3,746 persons were refused entry to the State, 4,795 persons were refused entry in 2018 and 7,455 persons were refused entry in 2019. Not only has there has been an overall increase in refusals, and I fully accept not everyone can be accepted, these have increased from countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen where people's lives are clearly at risk. We know people are coming from unsafe, in-conflict zones, so how can we turn around and say we do not believe them when there is a dearth of information on refusals? Refusals of leave to land also impact on a person's potential future as it is considered to matter for future immigration applications. It echoes through all future visa applications made by a person refused leave to land so there is a heightened responsibility that it is only ever used appropriately and with the knowledge and burden of both the emotional distress and future impact it can have on a person.

When we talk about Afghanistan, we should also talk about complicity and future threats. I will raise a number of issues. The Taliban has profited exponentially from the continuing heroin trade. Over the coming years, that will create a danger for us in the West as the Taliban seeks to flood it with heroin and to maximise the taxation they will accrue on it. There were some suggestions in its first press conference that it would cease to trade. That has proved not to be the case and it will have ramifications not only for the Afghan people but for all of us in the West. That needs to be addressed and looked at. There is also the issue of complicity and the question of what it was all for. America was attacked on 9/11 but it responded by replicating the evil it sought to confront. We should reflect on our role within that and what constitutes true neutrality. It is my firm belief, as it is for many in this Chamber, that Shannon Airport should not support the military incursions of any state if it seeks to attack another. The world is not safe 20 years on. The strong continue to do what they will, while the weak will suffer what they must. We should be a proud and strong republic. Let this be a line in the sand in terms of Ireland's acquiescence in the use of our airports for the purpose of American militarism.


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