Wednesday, 29 September 2021
Afghanistan Crisis: Statements
I thank the Deputies for contributing to the debate. It has been quite an extensive debate over three hours or so and has been very useful. I will try to respond to the questions and comments. Some of the questions apply to programmes that will be outlined and administered by other Ministers, but I will try to respond to the thrust of the questions. Perhaps I will break my response up into different issues that have been raised.
The first is our response to assist Irish citizens in Afghanistan and help get them out, to assist Afghan citizens who are Irish residents and to assist family members through a special programme that was announced this week. Members should not forget that over the last number of weeks there has also been a prioritisation of family reunification decisions, just under 100, since the start of September. We have been doing everything we can, and we have been using all the vehicles we can put together quickly, to facilitate people getting out of Afghanistan. As is the case for many other countries, there have been barriers to the ability to get people from where they are, either in Kabul or elsewhere in Afghanistan, out of the country, be it across the border into countries such as Pakistan, Iran or Turkmenistan or through Kabul airport. Unfortunately, we still have citizens to get out, many of them vulnerable children. We will keep working on that. I pay tribute to my teams in Abu Dhabi, Dublin and elsewhere who are working night and day to try to work with families, to keep in touch with them, to find avenues to help get them out safely and, in some cases, encouraging them to stay where they are until they can assist in getting them out safely. Last Sunday, for example, we had the success of getting 11 Irish citizens and some dependants as part of the group onto a Qatar flight to Doha. We are currently working on a similar option that, hopefully, can materialise in the days ahead.
It might be useful to give the up-to-date statistics on our current position. So far, we have managed to facilitate 58 Irish citizens, plus dependants, to get out of Afghanistan safely. We currently have a total of 50 Irish citizens plus dependent family members in Afghanistan, that is, 33 Irish citizens and 17 dependent family members. Two of those Irish citizens are not seeking to leave. Like many other incredibly courageous and brave people, they wish to stay in Afghanistan to contribute to supporting local populations through the organisations with which they work. The other 48 are certainly seeking to leave and we will do everything we can to continue to help them find options. As regards Irish residents and family reunification visa holders, there are 25 Irish residents, who are Afghan nationals, and family members and there are 40 family reunification visa holders currently in Afghanistan looking to leave. That is 65 people who we are also prioritising in terms of trying to give them support and guidance to get out safely.
On top of that, there is the Irish refugee protection programme. I wish to single out the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. There was talk earlier about picking up the telephone and talking to Ministers late at night. In my view, Deputy O'Gorman has been phenomenal through this process in respect of interventions I have asked him to make in emergency situations to get journalists out quickly, because they are in danger of being shot and killed, and to get other vulnerable families and individuals out. That included assisting with a request that came from Northern Ireland through the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland to get an interpreter who had worked with the British army and was under threat, as well as a series of family members linked to that interpreter, on our refugee protection programme and, therefore, getting a visa waiver to help those family members to get out and travel safely to Ireland over time.
Deputy O'Gorman and his team have found a way to make things work, which is sometimes very difficult in a political system and Civil Service-led system where systems matter with regard to transparency, accountability and all the other things that need to be in place before one can make political decisions. The team of people around Deputy O'Gorman performed under pressure in a compassionate and professional way and got a load of people a visa waiver that subsequently allowed 150 of them to come to Ireland, with many more to follow. To give the statistics in that area, 149 have already arrived in Ireland. The figure might be slightly higher now as that figure is perhaps two days old. There are 74 who are currently in a third country and travelling to Ireland and 150 still in Afghanistan. I suspect that number will continue to grow.
I also pay tribute to numerous organisations ranging from Nasc to the Irish Refugee Council, Amnesty International and others who are working with community sponsors to make it possible to bring people to Ireland as refugees, knowing that they will have somewhere to stay and will have a sponsor and a support mechanism to make that happen. The truth is that when refugees come to Ireland they do not go to direct provision centres. They are refugees who are entitled to be here. They are not going through an asylum process, which is what most of the residents in our centres are going through at present. They rely for housing on the local authorities and rental options and they rely on local community sponsors. Many of the vulnerable people who are coming here are doctors, nurses and journalists. Many of them are fluent English speakers. In my view, they will be not only people who deserve our support because of their vulnerability in Afghanistan but they also will be an extraordinary asset to enrich communities here. They will find gainful employment and so forth very quickly and will add significantly to Irish society.
I also recognise my colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy. On the humanitarian side we have prioritised, as one would expect, extra financial resources for UN organisations because we know they can operate.
The UNHCR and OHCA are both leading UN efforts, talking directly to the Taliban in a pragmatic way about getting in the supplies that are needed for humanitarian assistance and about keeping medical facilities open. The majority of medical facilities across Afghanistan are run by the international community because of the inability of the previous administration to operate a healthcare system across Afghanistan. When I spoke to the head of OHCA, Martin Griffiths, in New York last week, he told me that when he was speaking to members of the Taliban, they made it very clear to him that they know how to fight but they do not know how to run a country or operate the systems that are required to provide basic public services to a very large population spread across an enormous landmass, which is predominantly rural, in Afghanistan.
The importance of acting quickly with the international community working through UN organisations and many other international organisations, which are staying in situin Afghanistan as winter sets in, cannot be overstated. I pay tribute to all the international organisations that continue to operate with their local Afghan partners to provide those kinds of essential services.
Before I run out of time, I wish to answer some of the questions that were raised about the new family reunification scheme or access programme announced by Government this week. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, will respond to all those questions comprehensively. The thinking behind this was to try to quickly put in place a new scheme that could allow a large number of people in Afghanistan to get a visa waiver to come to Ireland and join families who already have accommodation in place here and who can accommodate more family members safely. The attempt to restrict it to four per family was to try to recognise the capacity issues that undoubtedly need to be taken into account when new family members are coming to join a household here. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, will speak on this herself. I am sure it will be a priority to try to ensure that family units are kept together. There may be some flexibility in respect of the four-family-member rule.
People have asked for more than 500 places. Of course, we want to be as generous as we can, but we need to start somewhere. A scheme to facilitate 500 people while trying to prioritise the people who are most vulnerable surely makes sense, as long as we can do our best to keep families together. There are many multiples of 500 people who want to come to Ireland, but we need to try to prioritise the people who are most at risk. We need to ensure that we can provide the necessary services and supports for people when they come here. Otherwise we will make commitments that we struggle to follow through on when people arrive.
I commit to work with all Members of this House on the individual cases that many of them are advocating for. It is sometimes outside our control to be able to get somebody into Kabul airport because of the behaviour of the Taliban and because of other circumstances outside our control in Afghanistan. However, we will continue to work with public representatives, families, human rights organisations and NGOs. Many interested stakeholders are approaching us at the same time, trying to protect vulnerable people and we are trying to accommodate as many people as we possibly can.
We have set up a special unit within the Department to assist the team in Abu Dhabi and to work with other Departments. This is a cross-Government effort, involving the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, the Department of Justice, my Department and other Departments. We will continue to do what we can to get all Irish citizens out and to get as many people as we can accommodate generously, coming to live here within our society and to give the most vulnerable people the protection that they deserve.
I thank Members for the constructive nature of this debate and I would be very happy to come back in a few weeks or a few months to update the House on the progress we have made.
I am Minister for Defence as well as Minister for Foreign Affairs. If ever there was an example of the two Departments working together in a way that really makes sense, it was when we agreed together to send an emergency consular aid team, ECAT, to Kabul airport at relatively short notice, using diplomatic channels to get political support from France, which subsequently turned into an extraordinary facilitation by the French military, to get our team safely into Kabul and out again. The partnership between the Army Ranger Wing members and the two diplomats who were leading that mission is a very good template for us to build on for crisis intervention in the future in order to support and help Irish citizens which I have no doubt will be needed again in the future. We will now build on the lessons learned from that to put a more permanent preparatory structure in place between the two Departments and with the Defence Forces, which will build on the lessons we learned from that 48-hour intervention that managed to get an extra 26 people out of Kabul at a very difficult time.
I thank Members for their contributions and I look forward to continuing to work with all parties and none in this House in continuing efforts to assist people who need it in Afghanistan.