Wednesday, 23 September 2015
Topical Issue Debate
We have touched on this subject many times before. We raised the issue a few times last winter when Operation Mare Nostrum was cancelled and the attitude was that we were only encouraging refugees by pulling them out of the sea. We then discovered that when we do not pull them out of the sea they drown in it. It is to be welcomed that we have decided to take in some people. We did not want to do it at first but seemingly we have been shamed into it. People obviously realise that we struggle to house our own, so housing others is an extra challenge. By the way, I suggest that the Government stop NAMA from selling Project Arrow, 50% of which is residential units and which has a par value of €7.2 billion. They are threatening to sell it to a crowd called Cerberus for about €1 billion, which is nonsense. Aside from putting-----
It is actually very well connected to it.
Another related issue is that the refugees do not come from nowhere. We allow Shannon Airport to be used by the US military, who bomb people's homes and create refugees. The amount of weaponry being used in the world in the last four years has risen by 16% compared to the previous four years, and we facilitate it. Right now, we are allowing arms to go through Shannon Airport on the way to Saudi Arabia, which is bombing the living daylights out of Yemen, and no one seems to give a damn because the US is involved. When are we going to call a spade a spade and say that killing people and destroying their homes is wrong? When are we going to say that and stop allowing Shannon to be used as a US military base?
This is a major issue which is convulsing Europe, and I am shocked that there are only two of us in here who have raised this today. It is the third time we have had this question as a Topical Issue. The dire situation that hundreds of thousands, and indeed millions, of people around the globe are being placed in is reprehensible. We know that when Mare Nostrum was cancelled, the Irish Government representatives sat in EU meetings and stayed schtum. They were ordered, if they had to say anything, to talk about the handful of refugees we had already agreed to take.
Europe undoubtedly now has a migrant crisis, but that is precisely because migrants have a European crisis, a crisis caused by intervention and regime change attempts in their regions orchestrated and led by the US military. Ireland, as Deputy Wallace says, is culpable and has a role in that. We discussed this morning with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the list of permissions given to US aircraft and those destined for Saudi Arabia with munitions on board that could be cluster bombs. Ireland spearheaded a campaign against such activity years ago, but we could be allowing such weaponry to transit through Shannon Airport.
We need to do more. Whether it is 400, 600, 4,000 or 6,000 refugees who are welcomed here, I welcome them. I do not believe it has any connection to our homelessness situation. It will not stop any homeless person from getting a house. The only way homeless people will be housed is if we build more social housing. I would like the Minister, as spokesperson on our behalf, to welcome greater numbers than we have indicated, not least because of our culpability. I have no problem myself with taking people into my home, as thousands of other Irish people have. It is just not good enough. We are culpable and we need to do a lot more.
According to the UNHCR, more than 50 million people are fleeing war and conflicts worldwide and many more are looking for a better future, as we well know. Obviously we cannot accommodate everyone in Europe without endangering our own societal cohesion, but clearly there is an enormous humanitarian issue in Europe right now that needs a comprehensive response. There are many different elements to this response.
Over the years, Ireland has always lived up to its international humanitarian obligations, and we are fully committed to playing our part in addressing the migration crisis facing Europe. We have all been shocked and upset at what we have seen in southern and central Europe and the distressing scenes during rescues in the Mediterranean, and we must do all we can. We have been working proactively over the months. At the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council meetings, the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, and myself have all been involved in developing the European action programme on migration to deal with these issues over many months, often behind the scenes, but also in the Council meetings, working through how the European Union can proactively be involved in this issue and deal with the crisis on its doorstep. There are many elements to this comprehensive response: working with the African countries where development is needed; providing more humanitarian aid, which the Heads of State will be discussing this evening; working with people who are already in the refugee camps and trying to ensure the standards in those camps are good enough for people to remain there until they are processed; and helping people to get through the various processes in an orderly way. We need more legal routes to Europe - of that there is no doubt - but we do need to have some further controls over the current situation. That was part of the discussion yesterday.
The situation changed rapidly over the summer months, and that is why the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, approached the Government proactively to send the LE Eithneand subsequently the LE Niamhand the LE Samuel Beckettto the Mediterranean to carry out vital rescue missions, which they have done very successfully. Not many other countries are doing that. We have also given €41 million in aid to Syria. It is a very complex issue in both Syria and Libya, and we do need the international community, including Ireland, to play its part to resolve the conflict in Syria. More efforts need to be made at every level, including in the UN and internationally, between Russia, the United States, China and so on. Everyone who has a voice should be using that voice. I can only agree with the Deputies on that, because we need to get a resolution as so many of the refugees are coming from war-torn Syria and Eritrea.
Two weeks ago, the Government decided that Ireland will accept up to 4,000 persons overall under EU resettlement and relocation programmes. Some 520 programme refugees are currently being resettled in Ireland directly from refugee camps in Lebanon. We have already had staff out working to identify the people who are in a position to come to Ireland, and they have started arriving. We have also agreed to the extra numbers. We have opted into the EU emergency relocation measure. We had a choice as to whether to do that and we decided to do so. It will, of course, be discussed in the Dáil and the Seanad. There will be a motion here next week to allow a detailed discussion on that. I also informed the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting yesterday that we would not be taking up the option we have to wait three months, as we do when we opt into decisions. We could have delayed the whole process but we did not want to do that, so we agreed to opt in immediately. Denmark was not in a position to opt in because of its own constitutional position and the UK did not do so either, but we said we would come in.
The Government has now set up the Irish refugee protection programme. I chaired a meeting with 25 different groups which have a contribution to make in working towards solutions here, providing accommodation and taking up those voluntary offers of approximately 16,000 places. Not all those places would be feasible to take up in the first instance because people need to have the assessment as to their refugee status done first in the orientation centres, and we have agreed that would be done on a priority basis in the next couple of weeks. Once the people arrive from Italy and Greece, they will be assessed immediately as to their refugee status, but it is expected that between 80% and 90% of them will immediately get refugee status.
This is a new type of programme. We have not had a programme like this previously where those who will come here are identified in Italy and Greece in the first instance in these centres that are being set up there this week. The suitable persons will be identified to come to Ireland and they will then be given the opportunity to have that assessment done here and to be accommodated here. There will be short-term issues but also medium and long-term ones.
The Minister is talking about us providing funding for aid which is all very well and good, but many of the refugees who are coming to Europe at present are trying to get to countries that have played a part in bombing their homes and killing their relatives, be it through the use of airports or through the sale of arms. Where is the logic in that?
Why do we continue to allow Shannon to be used to destroy their countries? Some 1.3 million citizens, not military personnel, have been killed in this region in the past 13 years by the US military machine and we still allow them to use Shannon. There are more weapons in the Middle East than there is bread. Why do we not tell the Americans that we will let bread, not arms, through Shannon? It is outrageous that we can turn a blind eye to how Shannon is being used. It is a disgrace.
The reality is that those ending up on European shores after making a horrendous journey to reach here constitute just the tip of the iceberg. Millions of the refugees are confined to the borders of Lebanon and Turkey with more in the Middle East-Europe region. Half the world's refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Last year we allowed six flights go from the United States to Afghanistan carrying hundreds of tonnes of ammunition and I have no doubt, because of the experience of what happened in Iraq where weapons ended up in the hands of the opposition, that some of that weaponry that transited through our shores ended up in the hands of the Taliban and ISIS, the very ones who are playing a role in driving these refugees out of their homes in the first place.
This is one of the key points we want to register. I would welcome far more than 4,000 refugees here, but we really need a debate in Europe about the reasons these people are being made refugees in the first place. Our culpability in that rests at Shannon Airport and we must seriously look at what is being transited through there in our name, the name of a neutral country.
The flow of refugees is coming from a wide variety of countries. It is coming from, to name but a few of the countries, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Horn of Africa. There are various factors impacting on the numbers of refugees coming to Europe at present. As I said, it needs a multifaceted response. Nobody is turning a blind eye to any of the issues the Deputies outline, but we need engagement with the various world powers to deal with the problems of Syria and we need concentrated action.
The Deputies have not mentioned that many of the migrants coming to Europe are economic migrants as well. Considerable numbers are coming for economic reasons, particularly from Africa. Clearly, helping African countries to develop properly and giving them support is what will make a difference there.
We must distinguish. As I have said, Europe cannot accommodate everyone without endangering our own societal cohesion, but we have international obligations which we want to meet. We must distinguish between refugees and economic migrants and have the kind of policies in place that support people to come legally to Europe. The current situation is not helping anyone and is putting terrible trauma on the people who are arriving at the borders of Europe.
Yesterday's Council was an important step in agreeing a coherent European approach to supporting the refugees in their countries of origin or surrounding countries, with all member states working together, having a more co-ordinated approach to assessment, supporting the refugees when they arrive in Europe, and working out the relocation. It is only one step. I certainly agree many steps are needed. It is not a situation for which one single solution can be found. It will involve many countries around the world, it is multifaceted, and it involves foreign policy as well as the policies we were discussing yesterday.
An increase in humanitarian aid was agreed. Hundreds of millions of euro are being given by the EU for increased humanitarian aid in the camps and to the refugees. Norway, for example, is holding an immediate donor conference to help Syrian refugees in particular because of the difficulties they face. There is much work to be done and all the Council meetings are certainly preoccupied with this issue, as they should be.
The numbers in the Mediterranean have stabilised. They are still high, at 115,000, but of course the western Balkan route is the route that is now being used and that is where the focus will be over the coming weeks and months during the winter period.