Wednesday, 29 September 2021
Afghanistan Crisis: Statements
Okay. I acknowledge and thank the emergency consular aid team, made up of Irish diplomats in the Army Ranger Wing, who travelled to Afghanistan in the initial days of conflict, a little over a month ago. The contribution they made in getting Irish citizens and their families out safely was crucial.
I have parliamentary questions in with the Minister about family reunification and humanitarian visas. I am a patron, as are some other Deputies, of Front Line Defenders and I know they have requested additional support on the matter. I look forward to getting the opportunity to discuss that further during the Minister's questions tomorrow morning in the Dáil.
My initial direct engagement with those affected by the situation in Afghanistan was with Ascend Athletics, a group in Afghanistan which trains and works with girls to become community leaders and role models through the medium of sport, specifically mountain climbing. There was an immediate concern for the well-being of the co-ordinators of the programme, as well as the safety of the girls who had taken part. After extensive engagement with a range of Deputies, including me, and with different Departments, 20 visas were granted under the humanitarian admissions programme. I mention Ascend Athletics, their volunteers and their advocates to acknowledge the work that went into the process by so many Irish citizens and people concerned about the well-being of girls in every walk of life and the support they will provide to those 20 girls resettling in Dublin and Galway. It is a good news story, driven by citizen engagement and the responsiveness of the political system to that.
I welcome yesterday's announcement about the Afghan admission programme. It is a sign of how effective government can be when there is cross-departmental engagement and swift action across the board. The programme has come not a minute too soon and I look forward to further information on it and details on how the most vulnerable, such as refugees and asylum seekers, may apply.
I note that the Irish Refugee Council, whom I work with as do others, has requested that the opening of applications be brought forward to October. I know there will be a lot to configure but I fully support that request and ask that it be facilitated to reflect how urgent the family reunification process is in relation to Afghanistan.
I appreciate the Minister said yesterday this is a tailor-made programme. That is deeply appreciated by all who will apply, I imagine. I highlight that considerable support needs to be in place for people and families making the applications. We know as public representatives that, at the best of times, filling out applications can be overwhelming, but those applications carry extra weight and there are practical issues such as the inability to access required documentation in time, or at all, and language barriers. There are also people in a position where they have to choose which family members to nominate on applications, which is an unimaginably difficult situation. I will speak in a moment on a few cases which highlight how difficult those decisions will be. Some applicants may have five, ten or 15 family members while others have two or three. If it were possible to review them on a case-by-case basis, I believe it would be worth the additional resources required to make it happen.
Since I was appointed as Fine Gael's equality spokesperson last year, I have linked in again and again with charity and advocacy groups for refugees, asylum seekers and those in direct provision. I have spoken and engaged directly with people in direct provision many times. Some have been there for many years. That includes, as of today, 211 Afghan refugees.
A number of weeks ago, I had the privilege of virtually meeting a few Afghan families living across the country in direct provision centres. Brought into that Zoom call were their family members, at that time in Afghanistan. It was a deeply moving experience to be speaking at that point with Afghan families in Ireland and in Afghanistan. The pressure that placed was visible on the children's faces, knowing where they were and not knowing the risks they faced.
With their permission, I will give details of some of the families. Telling a story always brings the issue to life. One family I am in touch with constitutes a couple and their three children who left Afghanistan in 2008. They have moved twice since being forced to leave their home country before arriving in Ireland in summer 2020.
This family has lived a life of uncertainty for more than 12 years. They cannot make long-term plans. They encounter difficulties in their daily lives due to their status, as do many. The family is eager to have some stability and not to live in fear. They are all feeling the psychological impacts of being unsettled for so many years. Obviously, it is not an option for them to return to Afghanistan for a number of social and security reasons. As for family reunification, one parent has 12 family members stuck in Kabul: their mother, three brothers, two sisters-in-law and six children between them. Some have made it across the border to Pakistan, which brings its own challenges, but others remain in Afghanistan.
I have been in contact with another gentleman who is doing a part-time master's in international human rights law. He has worked on the front line in a hospital throughout the pandemic and has made a huge contribution to our country throughout these past 18 months and, I have no doubt, if given the opportunity, would continue to do so in the coming years. He has been an asylum seeker living in direct provision since 2019, almost three years. Due to his work on human rights in Afghanistan, there is no question that he will ever be able to return under the current arrangements. Obviously, he was not able to return earlier this year, prior to the Taliban takeover, when his father passed away due to Covid. His uncle, who was a policeman, was subsequently targeted by the Taliban, shot and killed. His cousins, who were in the military, have disappeared. He is now living under considerable additional stress and trauma with the uncertainty of his position here in Ireland and that of nine close family members: his wife, two sons, mother, sister, two brothers and their wives, who remain in Afghanistan, living in quite extraordinary circumstances and fear.
Finally, there is a gentleman who has been living in Ireland, in direct provision, for almost 11 years. That has been 11 years of the unknown, an unknown most of us will never experience. It has been exacerbated by the situation in Afghanistan, where 14 close family members remain stuck and, obviously, seeking support to come to Ireland. He is hoping to be reunited with his mother, wife, son, sister, two brothers, their wives and six nephews. I was so moved when he wrote to me and said he hopes for life when he wakes up every morning and looks forward to good news. In spite of everything - the uncertainty and the stress - he still holds on to that positivity that he will hear news on his application and be reunited with his family.
This is the personal effect of this. When making the applications, and with the configuration of the applications, these are all the burdens and stresses and the trauma, and everything that can be done to make the process more simple for people will be appreciated by them.
As I mentioned earlier, the Afghan admission programme is a sign of what can be done in a short amount of time. I recall the former Minister, Alan Shatter, doing something comparable with Syria back in, I think, 2013 or 2014. We have all made representations directly to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. If the Minister, Deputy Coveney, could further help those cases, I would be obliged. I appreciate I am out of time. I look forward to picking this up with him again during Question Time tomorrow.