Thursday, 18 November 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
I would like an update from the Minister with regard to his recent visit to Lithuania where, I understand, discussions around rule of law and issues pertaining to Hungary, Poland and Belarus took place.
I visited Lithuania on 27-28 October for a number of bilateral engagements. Ireland has a close relationship with Lithuania and I availed of the visit to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Lithuania. A number of issues were discussed during the visit, including the situation on the Lithuanian border with Belarus, the situation in Belarus, the rule of law, EU-UK relations and the Convention on the Future of Europe. I am very grateful for the solidarity of Lithuania and all of our colleague member states.
I had a meeting at the Lithuanian Parliament, The Seimas, with the European Affairs Committee and the Group for Inter-Parliamentary Relations with Ireland, which is very keen to expand its engagement with Irish parliamentarians. I also met my colleague, Vice-Minister of European Affairs, Arnoldas Pranckevičius, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We discussed the issue of migration and the current situation in Belarus, as well as the Eastern Partnership, Brexit and Lithuania’s relationship with China.
I visited the Lithuanian-Belarus border, accompanied by the Vice-Minister for the Interior, Liudvikas Abramavičius, as well as my colleague, Arnoldas Pranckevičius. As part of that visit, we viewed some migrant camps that have been established by the Lithuanian Government and met with the Lithuanian Border Guards and the Lithuanian Red Cross, which this year has received a contribution of €100,000 from Irish Aid. I also met with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the Belarusian opposition. A range of issues were discussed and officials in my Department are following up on a number of issues raised with me by Ms Tsikhanouskaya in regard to how Ireland can be of assistance to the Belarusian people.
Along with Vice-Minister Pranckevičius, I took part in a Future of Europe event, which involved engagement from Lithuanian students on the European agenda.
I thank the Minister of State for that update. He mentioned a visit to the Belarusian border. I note the remarks made earlier by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, Deputies Cowen and Howlin and others in regard to regular migrants who, it is my understanding, are Iraqis. What is the view in Lithuania with regard to Belarus, Russia and other actors within that area? I understand that last Wednesday the Lithuanian Government declared a state of emergency along its borders with Belarus. I understand that 4,200 irregular migrants have crossed into Lithuania at this point. The Minister of State mentioned he visited the migrant camps. Do we know how have many are amassing on the border? As stated by the Minister, Deputy Covey, this is an orchestrated campaign, which is despicable.
The Lithuania Minister has been forthright in his remarks about the Lukashenko regime and the criminal measures being taken to create pressure points along the border with Europe in Lithuania, Poland and Latvia.
I have to be honest, my visit to the border was an unsettling experience. I could say the same for my Lithuanian colleagues as well. They are dealing with a new situation. They certainly are not used to this. I am very pleased that they are engaging with civil society, in particular the Red Cross. Ireland responded to the migrant crisis by providing €100,000 to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which launched an operation through the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund, DREF, to help refugees in Lithuania. Ireland is a regular contributor to the DREF, to which it contributed €1 million in 2021.
As regards my Lithuanian colleagues' attitude to Belarus, they want to see the border open. They want to see Belarus as a democratic country. They would also like to see it as member of the European Union. They are sad to see a fence erected along large parts of the border.
What is happening in Belarus, in terms of the Government bringing in people and leaving them on the streets of Minsk, is tragic. That is disgraceful treatment of human beings. We are hearing that the people of Minsk are fed up with what the Government is doing. That is understandable too.
The Minister of State mentioned the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. I commend its work and swift action on this matter, as well as the Government's contribution to those efforts. It is imperative this House and the Government keep the pressure up, through the European Union and our dialogue with member states and others, to ensure we can resolve this humanitarian crisis that is being orchestrated on the EU's borders. It is a new phenomenon but I fear it will not be the last time we see it. We must be vigilant and respond as best we can in helping the people who are, in effect, pawns in a larger game along the EU border. I thank the Minister of State for his update and his work on the issue to date.
The strong interest shown in this House at all times, including during these questions to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and me, will be of great encouragement to people in Belarus. We are deeply cognisant of the migrant crisis and are working on the humanitarian aspects of it, which are crucial. We have also shown complete solidarity with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in terms of the crisis they are facing. This is new to them and not something they are used to dealing with. From my visit to Lithuania, I know the authorities there want to handle this in accordance with human rights principles. The engagement with human rights organisations and civil society is very important in that regard. However, nobody should make any mistake about the fact that Lukashenko is using people to further a political objective, and we cannot countenance or stand for that. I commend the work the Minister and his colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Council have done on pushing the sanctions. That is already having some effect and I hope it will be a lasting one.